Purpose of art rests in power to disturb

Erica Gelman, columnist

Art. A rather obtuse word that describes some sort of property that we have somehow grabbed onto, despite the fact that there is nothing about aesthetics that would help us survive as a species. Yet here we are.

When one first thinks about art, as a concept, one sees a museum, paintings; the beautiful, the nice looking things that capture the attention and make us smile for a faint moment, color our day for a little bit.

In reality, this is an untrue perspective. Art, despite it all, shouldn’t particularly make you smile. For art to be effective, it has to impact you. Otherwise, it is useless, and is just the visual equivalent of elevator music.

Think about what keeps you up at night; it’s rarely the things that make you happy. It’s the things that you regret, the things that you don’t have, the things that challenge you, the things that scare you.

In recollection, perhaps it is only the things that have truly scared me that captured me, kept me curious and wondering for so long.

I was in the first grade, sitting complacently in the art classroom along warm colors and soft paintbrushes, back pressed against an open window, when this kid sat next to me, turned his head slightly, and, unaware of the power in his actions, called my attention to a poster: “I thought that painting was stolen”.
Hanging against the wall was “The Scream” in all its cartoon horror, an open jaw that somehow, though frozen, seemed to ever be unfurling; spread out in sickly yellows, blood reds.

From that moment on, I had nightmares almost every night. My mom took me to the doctor—he said, this stuff is normal. When he was young, it scared him too.

Sometimes,  to confront fear, it helps to rationalize, so he gave me some theories for its creation:  the scream was written as Munch’s response to his sickness, to his mother’s death, et cetera.

But that wasn’t why it was scary; on a visceral level, I knew that this painting captured emotion in it’s purest form, and its rawness, along with its level of accuracy, was terrifying and almost too close for comfort. The same happened the first time I saw “The Persistence of Memory” or “Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16, 1581”.

Despite the nightmares that followed, every single fear soon became an intimate curiosity, and little by little, horrors faded, and my entire perspective on the world flipped; the world became a little bit warmer.

When you have spent so long confronting such a thing as “The Scream” every night, everything else pales in comparison­­—and eventually, it too fades into the backdrop.

These paintings have since become my favorites.

According to Psychology Today, there are only five fears that are basic, inherent and unwavering for all of mankind: Extinction, Mutilation, Loss of Autonomy, Separation, and Ego Death. Fear comes from the inherent need to survive; it is what motivates us, as living beings, to push forward and continue on.

But we are only human, and survival is both stunted and easy for us; and therefore, similarly, growth is limited.  Hardly ever does one really confront the possibility of being preyed upon by some other creature, or from affliction by some terrible (unvaccinated) disease; for the most part, we live in comfort.

Therefore, the purpose of art is for us to acknowledge our fears and grow as people.

The purpose of art—and forgive me for the gross cliche written across every Tumblr dashboard at least once—is to “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” It is not to make you feel better; it is to incite change, and there is no better motivator than fear.

The most powerful things in life are the ones that scare you; only through art can we conquer them, and only through conquering them, can we grow.