When we have to ask what value art gives, we should all die a little

One of the most photographed artworks in Pinto Art Museum is the one with “We are the kids that your parents warned you about” by Cos Zicarelli. No one in Pinto has deliberately gone on a scientific method to find out why this is so, despite or maybe because we feel the answer sitting inside each of those who has seen it. That statement in that artwork takes on different meanings when you come across it as a child, as a teenager, as a young working adult, as a parent across the growing-up years of children in your family, or as a well-seasoned elder. Before or after the selfie, it will make you stop and those words will summon from within you a movement of thought, like a flock of birds moving across the regions of your inner sky. After that moment, you are never the same.  

It is the same with a musical performance, a dance, literature and poetry, theater, puppetry, mime, and other art forms. They are meaningful encounters of your own life with life at large – when one’s own life meets its analogue in a gesture, a chord, a word or phrase or story, a swoosh or swish of color or the birth of a shape. These encounters are so inherent in being alive that the entire record our 10,000 generations in human history would be stripped of meaning, majesty and purpose if it did not have art. It is at the core of our identity as human beings so that its value, in time, became tragically hidden from our own selves especially in the modern sense when “value” has to be translated into only one form – a bankable currency or asset.

We know this. It is not just here in our country that the arts are always accosted and interrogated about its worth. It is a planet-wide story. When people plan to create or support art, there is no louder sound than the one that asks: What value will art give to my branding event and eventually to my company’s bottomline? And then we all fumble to come up with the currency equivalents that try to satisfy the question and most of the time, art is weighed and found to be short of that “value” that the company is looking for to get their money’s worth.  

But what is it that you really find “short” when weighing the value of art? Art, which with science, forms the two greatest human traditions.  This can only happen if you weigh art against something and if art were to be on a scale, what would really be its fitting counterpart on the other?  

Try it. Create an imaginary scale in your head. Have you heard a young woman medical doctor named Dani Pua’s Spoken Word? If I try to put one of her spoken masterpieces as it scales the layered stories of my own 53-year-old body and life and of so many others, what amount in pesos would not shrivel in shame to match that?  

Or how about putting an a capella performance on one, with the multi-track approach to spacetime, of sounds ever so arranged to match the call of the many reluctant voices of your once silent soul. What would you put on the other side of the scale? 

Or put together a 100-member chorale to echo the history of Filipino-made music across the decades that held us together and pulled us in and out of the seasons of our own individual and collective lives. What would you put on the other side of the imaginary scale? 

What about a film that never knew you but holds in its narrative another lens into your own story that connects you with with the many realities behind your own self-crafted mask? 

How small or big is the vessel for the paper bills that will be perfectly match the uncountable soul-shaping experiences of art? Perhaps, the question really is – is there really one or will there ever be? 

An artistic experience sheds a past you as it refreshes the pages of your soul. Whether you are creating the art or beholding it, art changes you – by rejoicing, awakening, rethinking, or healing.  It is that moment when everything else is muted save for the chorus of your many selves shifting your being somewhere – anywhere else but never in the same interior spot. It is an encounter with yourself changing. NOTHING else can do that. 

Science has been so behind the arts in knowing this powerful truth about the arts. A recent article by neuroscientist Susan Magsamen gives us glimpses of what neuroscience has just come to discover about how the arts are so hardwired in our brains. In sum, the rundown of scientific studies on art reveals how art experiences are windows to how we make meaning – so that we are not prisoners of our own impulses, own biases or short-sighted reactions. They are nests for our sense of well-being, moving us to have expanded, empathetic, compassionate selves. Art makes us smarter because it draws and connects us to complexities which is what reality is, in ways and experiences that science could not probably do. It shatters reality as one-dimensional captured only by the dimension of your own singular plane of biases. Art also shows up in medical science to affect our experiences of joy, pain, and loss, including the receding of self from the shore of our own self in diseases like Alzheimer’s.  

What the sciences has come to discover about what the arts can do to change ourselves and therefore, the world, is so entwined with the ebbs and flow of our biology and our lives and therefore, immeasurable and uncountable. We forfeit the power it has to make us better humans across lifetimes and generations if we keep on looking for art’s definite translations in the currencies that are strictly defined within narrow project timelines and management goals. Among my most favorite strangers are still the ones who supported the mural I found in San Francisco that says: “The joy of not being sold anything.” 

The poet Sara Kay captured a flock of millions of starlings to dance in “inherited choreography” in my head as I listened to her recite poetry in a TED Talk while I sit in infamous metro traffic one night this past week on my way home. It led me to find this video of an actual flock of starlings with a layered musical score. It changed the quality of my morning, which moved me to share it with friends as we all, in our own nooks in our respective homes, drank cups of warm coffee, preparing to navigate a new day. Henry Thoreau wrote: “To change the quality of one’s day is the highest of the arts.” If I had to put a price on the art that seasoned our morning, I would have to ask the most extensively trained cost accountants in companies around the world: “What price do I assign please to a staggeringly beautiful morning?” Behold or beware the financial sheet that could hold the value of a morning that breaks that way. – Rappler.com 

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books,"Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at sciencesolitaire@gmail.com.