This week, as I sat down to dinner, a guy told me that he saw “no intrinsic value” in art. Stunned into silence, I listened to him explain, in his uber-scientific way, how once someone derives a brief moment of pleasure from looking at a painting, it essentially serves no further purpose. His thought process was fascinating in that way that a catastrophe is: simultaneously horrific and mesmerizing. As a scientist, he was accustomed to “value” that was quantifiable. When he finally asked what I thought, I gave him a simple answer–that for me, art was our record of culture and humanity, that it enriched our lives in a way that wasn’t immediately measurable in the way that you solve for x, and that I couldn’t imagine a world without it. “But I’m an artist,” I said. “I’m a little biased.”
Much later I realized what I should have said. I was sitting in a chapel at Mission San Jose, attending a special Mass for travelers that featured a choir and a mariachi band. The chapel had been reconstructed to look as it had back in 1720, when the first Franciscans held services there for Mexicans and Tejanos alike. As the band played, I felt the notes vibrating along my skin. A woman behind me sang in Spanish, in a voice so melancholy, so resolute, that it made my eyes fill with tears. Though I am neither Mexican nor Catholic, I felt welcome there, and I was saddened by my lack of deep cultural roots. I have no traditions that extend back two hundred years. I have no knowledge of my oldest ancestors, no memory of how they lived and what they brought to the lives of others. But as I stood shoulder to shoulder with strangers, holding their hands and swaying to music I couldn’t entirely understand, I realized that I didn’t need to know the words.
And this is what I should have said to the scientist that day at dinner: that art is a record of our greatest human joys and our deepest sorrows. It is the thread that binds us together through time and across oceans. It is how we translate what happens in the heart, and how we reconcile what we observe and experience in the world we create for ourselves. If I wanted to calculate the value of art, I would have to measure the distance between two people, and how fast the gap closes as we see each other more clearly. I’d have to quantify the amount of force that one person’s story has on another. I’d have to find the sum of its parts and find the product of what happens when we communicate to each other what it means to be alive.