Why we need to value, take pride in art

Kenyan women pose for a photograph in front of a painted artwork depicting US President Barack Obama, on July 23, 2015 at the Pre-Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi, on the eve of Obama's visit to Kenya. [File, Standard]

Perhaps the most important thing that has happened to Kenya’s art scene in recent years is that Kenyans themselves have taken ownership of local artistes and their work.

Many of today’s renowned artistes used to rely almost exclusively on foreigners and expat patrons who collected their pieces. Now, there are many new Kenyan collectors actively patronising Kenyan artiste’s work. The high prices of the works they collect often beg the question among laymen; what is art for?

The first step to answering that question is to understand the history of art. In a pre-literate world, knowledge was passed from one generation to the next through the vehicle of artistic expression.

In our Kenyan context, our tribal histories, values, and traditions were engrained in pre-colonial societies through performances, such as storytelling, dancing, and ritual. Indeed, art is the main source material we use to decipher the story of mankind, which is history.

Before the advent of writing 5500 years ago, people drew, painted, and sculpted images to communicate with each other, and many of these artworks can still be viewed today.

The reason that historical pieces of art are beyond price is that they are the only data that give us authentic visual representations of the past. For example, we can tell what ancient individuals from certain civilisations looked like due to the enduring nature of the sculptures and paintings that depicted them in their lifetimes. A work of art made today if properly maintained can last forever.

Art is more than mere documentation of people or events, however. As the Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe states, “Art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him”.

Humanity’s conceptualisation

Art is fundamentally a work of imagination; an artwork does not exist physically without the imagination of the artiste. An artiste can create entire worlds on a canvas, computer, or etched in stone. And yet, should that painting, sculpture, or illustration be destroyed, those worlds are lost forever. It is for this reason art is the primary method people use to explore anything they cannot see, touch, taste or smell.

No one could fully understand complex scientific phenomena without illustrating how they occur. All of us at some point in our schooling saw an illustration of atoms in Chemistry class, or of tectonic plates in Geography. Without these illustrations, would we understand these phenomena as well as we do?

Art is also integral to humanity’s conceptualisation of the transcendent or the divine. Beauty itself is a transcendent virtue. When a bee collects pollen from a flower, does it stop to admire its beauty? And yet a human can spend hours on end trying to capture the essence of that same flower on a paper, canvas or in stone.

Art is the vehicle we use to explore things that transcend our physical reality, such as beauty, faith, and religion. Could any religious individual be truly immersed in their faith without the help of music, paintings or sculpture? Art is what we use to understand what it means to be human. We use it to teach values, to tell stories and explore our feelings and emotions. Think how integral music and pictures are to a baby’s early development, or how you keep coming back to your favourite movie or song.

Ancient Soi in his house.

Beauty and the appreciation of beauty are integral to our lives. Furthermore, each manifestation of beauty is unique. A rose is beautiful in a way that a daffodil is not, and yet they are both considered beautiful.

When you buy an artwork, you are not simply buying an image, in the same way when you purchase a diamond, you are not simply purchasing a cut and polished mineral. We have superimposed meaning and value onto the diamond: its rarity, durability and brilliance are completely in the eye of its beholder, and a work of art is no different.

The reason musicians make millions by selling their products is because millions of people find their music aesthetically valuable, and simply cannot live without it. In the same token, more than 6 million people from across the globe pay handsomely to simply look at the Mona Lisa each year.

Most people if handed a paintbrush, paints and a canvas could manifest an image on that canvas. Only one individual in history could have painted the Mona Lisa. This perhaps makes the painting far rarer than a diamond. When you buy an artwork, you are purchasing the totally unique signature of the artistes’ mind and imagination. It cannot be copied, replicated, or reproduced.

The reason for the sudden rise in the crypto-market value of Non-fungible (NFT) tokens is that for the first time, artworks are being used to represent authenticity as well as a value within the cyber realm of cryptocurrency.

Sheer uniqueness

Even in today’s digital world, a work of art still offers immense value for its sheer uniqueness. Whereas all cryptocurrency tokens are equal in their respective blockchains, each NFT may represent a different underlying asset and thus may have a different value. The true value of a work of art is that is not fungible.

In the same way, one beautiful flower is not equal to another, so too are artworks totally unique in their expression of beauty. The individual who purchases the Mona Lisa would become the only individual on Earth who could claim a right to that painting, and that makes the painting an immeasurable asset. Many wealthy individuals own mineral reserves, land and water reserves real estate and other assets, but only a handful of individuals in the history of the planet can claim to have owned an original piece by Leonardo Da Vinci.

It is insufficient therefore to think of an artwork’s value in terms of productivity or function; its value stretches beyond our mundane physical needs. Art helps us to interact with and appreciate beauty, apprehend the transcendent and explore our cerebral and spiritual wants and desires.