Why the Arts are Necessary (Part 1)


     Like many aspiring artists I have a day job.  I work at a Whole Foods.  If you are familiar with Whole Foods you might be aware of Nickels for Nonprofits. It’s a program where people who bring in reusable bags get five cents off their purchase for every bag used. They can either keep it or donate to a charitable cause. Overall, its a great program but there is one thing that makes me cringe. Whenever there is an arts based non-profit paired up with a non-arts non-profit I know from day one the non-profit not based in the arts will (and usually does) get more donations.

      There is a pervasive attitude within our culture that the arts are fluff that many of us are probably familiar with. Maybe some of you that are reading even agree with it. In some ways it is understandable. The lagging economy of the past few years has given many people pause when choosing a major or career. Liberal Arts education has come under fire from critics who claim that the arts and humanities are not as financially solvent as majors in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (Groux). Many of us have heard the joke about liberal arts students with the punch line “Do you want fries with that?” Writer David Wong of Cracked.com got in trouble with some of his readers in the comments section in one of his landmark articles “The Six Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person” for (among other statements) daring to suggest that people “need” entertainment.

     In spite of the fact that I may be a walking stereotype (the music business student that works in retail while trying to sing, write and get herself off the ground) I still believe deeply in the power of the arts. Moreover I fully believe that our ability to create and appreciate art is one of the main things that makes us human.

     Let us go back to the idea that got David Wong in trouble with his readers, that people need entertainment. It’s true that entertainment isn’t featured on the original version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In fact cognitive needs (knowledge, meaning, etc.), aesthetic needs (appreciation and search for beauty, balance and form), and transcendence (helping others achieve self-actualization) were not added until the 1970s (McLeod). Under that logic (as well as the logic of those who criticize liberal arts programs) our ancient ancestors in the Paleolithic era would have had no time or need for arts what with the daily business of trying to survive. However, archeological findings tell a very different story.  The earliest example of prehistoric art is the Bhimbetka Petroglyphs found in the auditorium cave of central India that date to 290,000 BCE (www.visual-arts-cork.com). This is at least 260,000 years older than the famous cave paintings of Chauvet and Lascaux in France.  Moreover, while art historians and paleoarcheologists believed that Homo Erectus and Neanderthals did not create art, this view is changing due in part to microanalysis of the second oldest example of prehistoric art the Venus of Behekrat Ram and conclusive dating of the Cupules (a form of rock art) at Bhimbetkta (Ibid). However the artistic endeavors of early humans do not end with rocks and paintings. The oldest possible remains of a musical instrument—a recorder like object created from the thigh bone of bear—may have been made around 50,000 BCE by Neanderthals living in what is now modern day Slovenia (Bonds, 3-4). The earliest indisputable instrument—a flute made from the bones of a vulture–dates to 34,000 BCE (Bonds, 3).  The human voice of course is as old as our species (Ibid). 

     One can imagine that with music and song came dance. Sadly we have very little ways of knowing the dances of prehistoric humans though we can possibly draw ideas from Native American and African tribal dances that have been passed down from generation to generation. However we do have evidence from the paintings and sculptures of the ancient Egyptians that dance played a large role in the lives of the people (Ancient Egyptian Dance). The Greeks also enjoyed dance and considered it, along with music, to be a civilizing activity (Ancient Greek Dance). In fact the Greeks distinguished between different types of dance and skilled dancers were highly prized (Ibid). We also have the Greeks to thank for theatrical tradition. Ancient Greek Theatre grew out of religious rituals dating back to 1200 BCE (Tripod). The first recorded work we know of dates from about 625 BCE when Arion of Corinth produced the Dithyrambic Choruses (reed.edu). From 600 BCE onward theatre continued to develop and reached its height during the golden age of Athens from 500-400 BCE with the plays of Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes (Bonds, 5). Theatre of course is an outgrowth of the ancient art of storytelling. While it is impossible to say when the first story was told, the first written story “The Epic of Gilgamesh” dates back to at least 2000 BCE and predates The Iliad and The Bible (Sparknotes) (Mitchell, 1).  

     All of this evidence alone seems to show that the arts were an important part of the lives of ancient humans. Perhaps contrary to what the naysayers of liberal arts programs believe, the arts and the desire to create are a key part of our survival of a species. Whether we are consuming or creating art, the ubiquity of the arts throughout our history from the earliest times seems to suggest that we do need art in our lives to express our emotions, socialize with our fellow man, and understand the world around us.

Bibliography and Works Cited

“Ancient Art (2,500,000 BCE – 400 CE).” Ancient Art: History, Characteristics. Visual-Arts-Cork, n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

“Ancient Egyptian Dance.” Ancient-Egypt-Online. Attic Designs, 2008. Web. 4 Mar. 2014.

“Ancient Greek Dance.” Ancient Greek Dance. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.


Bonds, Mark E. A History of Music In Western Culture. 3rd ed. Vol. Combined. Upper Saddle River, London, Singapore, Toronto, Tokyo, Sydney, Hong Kong, Mexico City: Prentice Hall, 2010. 3-5. Print.

“The Epic of Gilgamesh: Context.” SparkNotes. SparkNotes, n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

“Greek Theater.” Greek Theater. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

Groux, Catherine. “The Debate on a Liberal Arts Education Continues.” U.S. News University Directory. U.S. News University, 7 Nov. 2011. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

“History of Ancient Theatre.” History of Ancient Theatre. Tupelo Community Theatre, n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

 “History Of Storytelling – How Did Storytelling Begin?” History Of Storytelling – How Did Storytelling Begin? Storytelling Day, n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

“The History Of Storytelling.” Essortment. Demand Media, 2011. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

 Mitchell, Stephen. “Gilgamesh: A New English Version.” New York, NY. Free Press, 2004.

 McLeod, Saul. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” Simply Psychology. N.p., 2007. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

 Tabarrok, Alex. “The Chronicle Review.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. N.p., 4 Mar. 2012. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.

 Wong, David. “6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person.” Cracked.com. N.p., 17 Dec. 2012. Web. 04 Mar. 2014.




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