Dr. Jahn: Why We Need the Arts

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many to reflect and reprioritize. As we move forward, however, it is crucial that the arts maintain a strong presence as they are necessary in linking humans to humanity.

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he arts, whether creative (graphic, music, literary, plastic), recreative (musical performance or dramatic interpretation), or both (musical and dance improvisation), are nothing less than the outward expression of our humanity. In visible, audible, or tactile form, our arts display what is normally imperceptibly hidden inside us as humans. Emanations from our inner core, the arts reach out like the tentacles of some fantastic deep-sea creature, long and delicate but probing and powerful, imposing meaning and purpose on an intrinsically meaningless universe.

I believe that it is the arts that primarily defines us as humans. There are, of course, many other characteristics that may distinguish us from other animals. We may be more intelligent than most—and many would say that our ability to think, to reason, to make sense of how the physical world works are important human traits.

But I would argue that in this we differ only quantitatively from other species. There are, after all, other animals that are intelligent, possess powerful memories, use tools and, for all we know, may even be capable of abstract reasoning—we may just happen to do those things better. Looking back through the foreshortening telescope of history, it is not a stretch to assert that the chimpanzee probing an ant hill with a tree branch and the astronomer exploring space with a laser are points on the same long but connected straight line. 

But arts distinguish us qualitatively from these other species. Every human society, no matter how ancient or primitive, has had its artists, its musicians, and its storytellers. 

And, of course, its dancers. Dance is perhaps the most deeply rooted art form since it springs directly from movement, the basic characteristic that defines life, distinguishing the animate from the inanimate. 

The need to create art, to express ourselves symbolically and metaphorically and then, through display or performance, to evoke similar feelings in others—this is what being human means. And while science and mathematics can certainly shed light on physical nature in wondrous detail, no amount of computation, however complex, can bring us as close to our own essential nature. 

The creation of art as art may be a uniquely human trait. While we may find beauty in the color and delicate symmetry of a flower, the rococo curlicues of a seashell, the intricate dance of the peacock spider, or the mellifluous song of a bird, these are functional traits that have evolved for a purpose such as reproductive advantage or camouflage. In such instances, the aesthetic judgement of “beautiful” is a subjective one that we apply to something that has evolved for a functional purpose. 

In terms of education, I would further argue that teaching an appreciation of arts is important if we are to make sense of who we are. This is not an amassing of facts, but a process of sensory immersion leading to deepening insight and eventual enlightenment that cannot be outsourced: there is no computer program that will do this for us. 

But the arts are not just a pleasurable manifestation of what makes us human. With all respect to Section C of the New York Times, the arts are more than entertainment. They serve a role in our lives that is vital in the literal, life-affirming meaning of the word. Arts form a universal bond that joins us together across nations, races, and generations throughout history. Art is the intercellular glue, triggering an evoked sympathetic resonance which coheres the microorganism of “humans” into the super organism of “humanity.” 

Arts form the conduit through which the universal human experience is shared: the pain, the joy, the hope, the wonder. It is through the arts that we link hands and experience our existence on this earth, together with our fellow human beings. 

Arts also form the web of collective humanity, stretching around the globe and across history, a network through which the electrical activity of one human brain is transmitted to another, then to another thousand, and then to a million. The arts generate a multidimensional and timeless matrix by which, across centuries and continents, we can connect to da Vinci, Shakespeare, and Mozart; melt at the beauty of the Mona Lisa; cry with King Lear; and laugh with “Figaro.” 

The result is a monumental enveloping synchronicity, which paradoxically validates our unique individuality while at the same time subsuming each of us into the greater whole, connecting the entire human race into a single entity. 

And this is why the arts are essential to education and to our life experience if we are to continue as not just thinking but also sentient and fully actualized human beings. 

Anthony Jahn, M.D.

Anthony Jahn M.D. is an otolaryngologist with a subspecialty interest in ear diseases, disorders of hearing and balance, and disorders of the voice. He is a professor of clinical otolaryngology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and is a noted author of The Care of the Professional Voice. For more resources, go to his website www.earandvoicedoctor.com.