painting of painter with canvas and text 'Who Needs Art Vancouver Sun feature article'



Who Needs Art?



Driving through Vancouver one morning, I noticed a large billboard by a local property developer advertising a new waterfront condominium tower with expansive windows and few walls. The billboard’s tagline was – Who Needs Art? The question asked is essentially whether looking at art and a looking at a view are the same type, or have the same worth, as an experience. So the Vancouver Sun commissioned me to write a good-natured but honestly argued response. Who needs art indeed.

painting of man writing with text Pull Quote

 “As Baudelaire saw it, the whole of the universe is only –  ‘a storehouse of images and signs to which the imagination assigns a place and a relative value; it is a kind of nourishment that imagination must digest and transform’.  The art historian Simon Schama is even bolder, arguing that the power of the greatest art is the power “to shake us into revelation”.  It is not only what we see but what we see differently that matters.  Art transforms the experience of life by making it more than the sum of its parts.”

Barry Dumka 



Who Needs Art?

But the question remains – is art akin to a view?  And is it similarly constrained by what you can see?

In the E. M. Forster novel “A Room With A View”, the young Lucy Honeychurch, cosseted by Edwardian innocence, arrives in Florence only to be disappointed that her room lacks a view.  Her guardian is outraged.  Still, it’s not a glimpse of the Arno that will matter in the end.  Lucy soon visits the Santa Croce where she comes across the famous frescoes by Giotto, the first Western artist to put personality and not just piety into his paintings.  While the characters in these pieces are the usual pre-Renaissance parade of biblical figures, here they begin to emerge for their individuality.  No longer just props; now players.  With Giotto, the light of modernity begins to flicker.  Lucy sees this light and is transformed.

What we see in a painting is not always what is in front of us.  That is one of the ways that original art differs from a view.  Art relies upon artifice, a leap of faith into an imagined realm.  A view is more passively experienced.  We take what there is to see and celebrate or complain accordingly.  A back alley dumpster is never mistaken for a soaring mountainscape. You see what you see.  Art has a more ambitious plan for our perceived world.

— (end of excerpt)


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