People Need Art

“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable?”


[Conversation between DEATH and Susan Sto-Helit in Hogfather by Terry Pratchett]

I thoroughly enjoy the Discworld series. There’s a little bit of everything in it. Metaphysics, philosophy, ethical conundrums (you can’t have good fiction without ethical questions). By making satire on the real world through the use of a fantasy setting, Pratchett forces us to look in the mirror. Plus, it’s just a great read.

I’d have to say that my favorite character is Death. I’ve often wondered why I like Death so. Maybe it’s because this anthropomorhphic personification spends his li– existence studying humanity. As he looks through the microscope, he can’t help but become a little more like his subjects (because they tend to look up the scope and wave). On one hand, he has the naiveté of a child. On the other, he is the most cynical being on the Disc. Take his motto, There’s no justice. There’s just me.

His cynicism comes from the fact that he has been around longer than almost anything else in the universe (the Creator and Death of Universes are older). He’s seen it all and lived to tell about it.

In the quote I started this essay with, Death is right on the money—humans need fantasy. It’s an art which is part of what makes us human. People have this driving need to make representations of reality. Sculptures. Paintings. Sketches. Photographs. We make art because it is part of the human condition.

Within humanity there seems to be something that drives us to believe that the universe is more than a hodgepodge mix of molecules coming from an explosion. We look up into the sky and say there has to be something more—a reason for why. Most of us aren’t satisfied with statements like “Things just happen.” We want things to make sense and aren’t satisfied until they do. So to help them make sense, we write a story, a song, or make visual art.

People want order in the world. We want there to be a reason for everything. Cause and effect is an integral part of humanity. God created us special. We are lower than the angels but higher than the animals. At our best, humans are capable of the greatest acts of mercy and charity—acts which I imagine the angels look on agog that we physical creatures managed to come up with that. At our worst, we make the most base of animals look like Ms. Manners. Humans occupy a special niche in the cosmos. We form a crucible where the greatest and worst has the chance to come to the surface. We have our Stalins, Hitlers, Attila the Huns, and Mansons. But we also have our Reagans, Lincolns, Chrysostoms, Grahams, and Pauls.

We use art to make the unknowable parts of the world a little less mysterious. We write stories to explore how the world would be different if, say, Muhammad had become a Christian. Painters like Fra Angelico and Michaelangelo explained deep theological truths through their paintings. Who can help being moved Michaelangelo’s Last Judgment? Especially when looking at those whose names were not found in the book? Especially thought provoking for me is one of the damned. Like the pastor in the link above says:

“For me this is one of the most powerful images every produced. This man has just realized his fate. Could it be that he had fooled himself for years about how he was living? Notice the dread and despair. Notice too the demon that has him. The simple color coding may imply that the demon is really evil (dark, almost an olive color, like dead flesh). The man on the other hand is lighter than the demon and some of the other damned. Could it be that he was not the worst sinner? Just bad enough?”

If that is Michaelangelo’s point, then it is a good one. The subject was a good man, perhaps he gave money to the poor. He was kind. But in the end, his name wasn’t in the Book. Don’t let this be you. Michaelangelo even paints himself into the painting as one of those waiting to hear his eternal verdict. How did one get a “not guilty” verdict from Christ the Judge in Michaelangelo’s painting? Look at those in the top part of the painting. They cling to the Cross and to Christ (a column in medieval religious paintings often symbolizes Christ), and for that, they hear “Enter in to the joy of the Lord.”

But art isn’t all good. Art can be abused very easily. Michaelangelo painted nudes into the Last Judgment to portray a bodily resurrection where we stand with no secrets before Christ (clothes were added to them later). That isn’t why certain magazines have the pictures they do. They do it for the base reaction of the customer. They portray women and men as sacks of meat good only for sexual gratification not as people in their own right. And the abuse of art doesn’t end with pornography. What about those who pass off pictures of violent death as art? I knew a guy in college who collected such pictures. That was more than just creepy.

Best and the worst all rolled into one package. That’s humanity for you. And along the way, we’ll write a book or two, paint a fresco, and sculpt a few statues. Not because we can, but because we have to.


About frankluke

Professionally: pastor, programmer, writer. Personally: husband, father.
This entry was posted in Art, Christianity, Discworld, Fiction, Philosophy, Religion and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to People Need Art

  1. Glen Davis says:

    Excellent essay.

    For the record, I am a huge fan of Death of Rats. SQUEAK!

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