art by vicki ling
These days, there is a lot of discussion about what constitutes being an “essential” worker. (Generally, it’s the most important and also the lowest paid jobs.) Along the way, there’s been a lot of soul searching about what it means to be an inessential business, what processes are actually inessential, and what industries are not quite essential but “important” enough to be bailed out.
The arts have to deal with being, well, inessential. But what does it actually mean to be inessential? Surely we can’t mean that all art could actually be dispensed with without any consequences? Does that mean that live theatre should be low on the priority list for saving? Art’s relationship to being essential to society, in some form, has a long history. It seems to be a human need to create beauty and meaning, to self-express, to wrestle with the thorny issues and politics of their time. But can we truly say that any singular work of art is essential? I’m not sure that we can argue, ethically, that any single piece of art actually “needs” to exist; in a pithy manner, art is pointless—that is the point.
However, we live in strange times—even prior to the devastating effects of COVID–19—and many people now can’t resist inscribing a movie, play, or book as “necessary” or “essential”. Art is constantly evaluated for its moral quality first, and aesthetic quality second. This is not necessarily a bad thing—the merging of activism and aesthetics in the creation of art can be powerful—but the constant urge for critics to deem a work of art “necessary” (or worse, a “necessary masterpiece”) can be limiting. In a 2018 piece for the New York Times Magazine, Lauren Oyler explores the question of what we mean when we call a work of art “necessary”:
There are many noncomprehensive adjectives we can apply to good art: moving, clever, joyous, sad, innovative, boring, political. But good art doesn’t have to be any of these things, necessarily; what we want out of it is possibility. To call a work “necessary” keeps the audience from that possibility and saps the artist of autonomy as well. That it’s frequently bestowed on artists from marginalized backgrounds pressures these artists to make work that represents those backgrounds. Worse, it subtly frames their output as an inevitability, something that would have happened regardless of creative agency, and thus suggests that these artists are less in control of their decisions and skills than their unnecessary counterparts.
Art, in atomized form, is not necessary. Implying that it’s our duty to experience some piece of art is an idealized and misguided notion. And art, in economic terms, is not deemed essential either. So, what is art? Merely a frivolity or a luxury? That doesn’t feel true, either. Instead, I like to think that art is an electric jolt to culture, allowing a society to buzz and feel alive. In one sense, that work is, of course, essential—opening us to the richness and multitudes of the human experience.
But it’s always worth considering deeply: what keeps us doing this? How can art coexist in a world with so much injustice? How can we read novels, go to the movies, or see an opera when there are people deeply suffering, every day, all around the world? What makes art “necessary”, what makes it “essential”? I’m not sure there is a correct answer. But the tension that this consideration provides is, in some manner, necessary and essential for making good art in our times.