Did Picasso Have a Higher Purpose?

Art Can Inspire, Challenge, and Entertain. But Does It Make Us Better People?

Do the arts make us better people? If you’ve devoted your life and career to art in one way or another, you may believe the answer is yes. But a panel of arts luminaries at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, at a Zócalo/Getty event, weren’t entirely in accord about why and how art changes people’s lives—and on whether all art is created equal in that respect.

New York Times contributing arts writer Jori Finkel opened the conversation—in front of a standing-room-only crowd—by asking the panelists whether they believed art had made them better people.

Segerstrom president Terrence W. Dwyer said that experiencing great art and working with inspiring artists have changed his life—by offering him moments of reflection and windows into new cultures.

Although she joked that she’s “still waiting to find out,” New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean said that from a young age, reading fiction gave her the capacity to feel a connection to and empathy for people who were entirely unlike her. “I think I would be a very selfish, narcissistic person if I didn’t somehow learn what it felt like to be in another person’s life,” she said.

Getty Trust president and CEO James Cuno said that his family deserved most of the credit for making him the person he is. But the arts gave him purpose and anchored him in the world.

Finkel asked the panelists if particular kinds of artwork instill more empathy than others.

While Orlean said that reading William Faulkner might be a higher calling than watching Real Housewives, she considers any work that challenges people to imagine lives beyond their familiar experiences to be of value.

Cuno, however, cautioned against putting too much of a burden on the arts. Could it be, he asked, not that art makes people more empathetic but that the people who work in and appreciate the arts are more empathetic to begin with?

Dwyer agreed with Cuno that art’s effect on people is mediated by their prior experiences. “The arts take people through terrible experiences,” said Dwyer. “They also help people get through the terrible experiences in their lives.”

Cuno said that his own father never visited an art museum until his son began working in them—but still led a meaningful, well-lived life. “Some people find meaning elsewhere,” he said. “Wherever you find that purpose and meaning is important.”

“You’re not going to tell us where?” asked Finkel.

Cuno said that 1200 Getty Center Drive would be a good place to start.

Orlean recalled profiling the hugely popular but critically derided painter Thomas Kinkade. Kinkade told her that his art made people joyful—and didn’t that alone make his work art and thus valuable? It’s easy to say that a Shakespeare play makes you a better person, Orlean said. But it gets more complicated when you go beyond “the very comfortable world of fine art and fine literature.”

Cuno disagreed. “The question to me is not what falls under the umbrella of art but what offers more acute, lasting, compelling, complicating, enriching, deepening experiences of art,” he said. “I don’t want to assume that any one of them makes people better than the other.” But some art, he said, is of deeper quality than other art. Kinkade is not Michelangelo. “I want to encourage people to think that art is more than providing them simple access to immediate gratification,” he said.

Finkel asked the panelists if a digital image has the same power as an original work of art on a museum wall, and if a YouTube clip does the same work as a live performance: “How important is it in your view that we experience an original work of art, whatever that means, versus these versions that we’re so used to today?”

In the future, said Dwyer, we are going to have large audiences who never attend a show in our halls but experience our art online in some way. And that’s necessary: Arts institutions and artists have to evolve as communities evolve.

Orlean said that she was surprised, recently, to accompany her son and his third grade classmates on a trip to the Getty Center to see a Van Gogh. Although children of that age are deeply comfortable with the digital, the kids went wild over the paint on the canvas and the experience of seeing the real thing.

When it comes to the visual arts, said Cuno, the real thing can’t be modified or enlarged: “You’ve got to come to terms with it as it is in front of you,” he said. “I don’t think that will ever go away.”

In the question-and-answer session, an audience member asked the panel about whether art that features a lack of empathy—like the Bret Easton Ellis novel American Psycho—can in fact make people more empathetic.

Orlean said that one of the most profound reading experiences she’s ever had was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood—about the killers of a Kansas farmer and his family. The impact of the book was not about its content, she said, so much as it was about the experience of surrendering yourself to a piece of remarkable, transforming literature.

If art is so important, asked another audience member, why does our society undervalue it?

Cuno said that people falsely assume that anyone can do art—or that it’s a skill a person is born with—and as a result, there’s no reason to invest in training. But we put a value on art based on the time we’re living in. When times are tough, people make the decisions they think will provide themselves and their children with a better future. The value of art comes and goes in part based on people’s confidence in larger economic and political forces.

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