Art and Society

This essay appears in print as the INTRODUCTION of ISSUE 01: Miserable Art. Copies of this magazine are available in our online store.

In the pages that follow, you will meet a painter named Helen Kenney, known creatively as Miserable Art. You will encounter an interview with that artist, a series of recommendations which provide insight into how that artist experiences the work of other artists, as well as a feature length story written by me, your author, containing a narrative think piece. Those are the basics.

This first issue of Durham Beat Magazine will tackle the topic of how art is valued in society, how the labor of artists is perceived, and how society reconciles its need for art with the nature of its consumption. At its core, this issue is about the experience of art and what it means.

Emotional, romantic, a little chaotic, sometimes irrational, the artform we know as “painting” is a familiar one, layered, drenched in history. Painters use their hands to reframe the world. They use the mechanisms of color, light, perspective, imagination, curiosity, and insight to create their works. Some of the most prolific artists across human history have been painters. To this day, many of their works live in museums and occupy wall space in households and businesses worldwide. Why throughout our history has art been so ever-present? What place does it hold among us? How do we, as members of society, understand and experience these works and the labor of the artists who made them?

As our civilization evolves and becomes more scientifically advanced, it’s challenging for the pragmatic drive of commerce and technological progress to maintain an appreciation for the cultural development of human expression that runs in tandem with all other forms of progress. Put another way, people in our society today struggle with how to value art, how to quantify the labor of artists, and how to understand the intangible and yet necessary presence of art in human society. 

People can’t help but create. It’s what we do. Whether we’re engineering a bridge, assembling a car, constructing a house, fixing a meal, or writing a poem, we are always creating. Where engineering and medicine and construction are practical and essential drivers for maintaining a functioning society, art is the emotional expression of that very same human ingenuity. 

Artists are very much like engineers. They build bridges between the heart and the mind, between people and their inner worlds, between emotions that contradict and yet co-exist. Throughout history, art—in all its forms—has been one of the most essential mechanisms humans have used to grapple with their emotional experiences of the world. 

Art provides a safe haven, a homestead for working out whatever it is that’s going on inside of us, whether personally or in response to our external, worldly experience. While some people may see a painting and say, “this has nothing to do with me,” they may yet listen to a song that makes them feel seen. It’s all relevant. 

Ultimately, art is not merely a way of making the world a little brighter, nor is it solely representative of what society finds or deems to be beautiful, it is fundamentally emotional and forces the human soul to confront its own vulnerability. For this reason, art is an essential part of human life and the human experience, of the way we co-exist and interact with each other and the world around us.