For centuries, no one has been able to completely identify the world’s first spoken language, or when it first appeared. But long before humans had adjectives, or much language at all, they made art, and in their cave paintings and other graphic representations, they were able to communicate. This is how you hunt bison. This is what a goddess looks like.
Art is our oldest means of communication. It is also remains the most effective; most of the arts need no translation. They convey emotions, mood, ideas, experience, and visions that are universally identifiable. Art speaks across cultures in a way that no language ever could.
No one is insensitive to the power of an artist’s tools. We know, even academically, that colors, sounds, words, and performances can alter our behaviors and perceptions. Color, for example, has been appropriated by big business to drive consumer behavior. Fast food places are often orange, because it’s a color that makes people want to leave more quickly. Sound changes behavior; train stations in Europe play classical music because they have observed that it reduces incidences of crime. A Japanese study showed that words on containers of frozen water alter the ice crystals; “love” makes the crystals lovely, but “hate” makes them misshapen. In countless ways, the artist’s materials—sound, color, movement, words— move us every day, to act, react, consume, and feel; when skillfully used in the service of art, they move us profoundly. That’s power.
Governments have oppressed artists because their work conveyed, without political debate, attitudes dangerous to their power. The Nazis took away Emil Nolde’s paint brushes, but he made art with cotton swabs. The Chinese government keeps Ai Wei-Wei under arrest or blocks his travel, but his exhibitions outside China continue to voice his criticism.
There is no argument that visual art is powerful and writing can profoundly affect public opinion and feeling. Certainly music affects human behavior, as songs become rallying cries for attitudes and performers initiate a sense of style that moves industry and people. Artistic creation drives change in countless ways.
The arts are powerful in other ways that are less obvious but equally profound. They can give a sense of serenity or spiritual profundity. While this kind of work doesn’t necessarily topple governments or launch fashion trends, it offers solace to a world that needs it badly. While major effects of artistic work depend on how popular they become, and how they are spread through media, local emerging unknowns move smaller audiences in a more personal way.
A good artist has an effect, on a macrocosmic or microcosmic level, through what they produce and what they can teach. And yet, until an artist becomes famous, the population, in general, views the artist as unthreatening to the status quo. A musician, writer, or painter isn’t perceived as a force to be reckoned with when they’re heard, read, or seen by only a few. When fame comes to their door, however, the unthreatening artist becomes a force, speaking to the many. Exposure enables power and making money ensures it.
The unknown artist is a source of power that remains relatively untapped. They are a resource that goes to waste in a culture where the primarily mental stimulant is media awash with violence. We can see, without much trouble, that our culture is broken, when gratuitous killings occur with shocking frequency and every psychological disorder is on the rise. And instead of using the artists’ tools to uplift and mitigate crime, violence, and suffering, we treat our artists as afterthoughts in America, seeing them only as important as their net worth. It’s symptomatic of the wastefulness of our culture, which places power in the wrong hands.