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Artistic Minds Do So Much More Than Paint

By Gabrielle C. McClellan
By Gabrielle C. McClellan, Crimson Opinion Writer
Gabrielle C. McClellan ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Currier House.

Belgian artist René Magritte, famous for his surrealist artwork, once said: “Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist.”

If Magritte were alive to talk to me, he would tell me he is neither a painter nor a surrealist but rather a thinker. His artwork is known for the mind-bending puzzles it creates and the illusions it presents to the eye. Put simply, one is forced to think a little harder when viewing his art.

But this particular brand of thinking is dying. Visual art, like many of the humanities, is a shrinking field. Without art, we will be left with a fundamentally less creative society, one that is empty of a quintessential human experience.

During my first semester at Harvard, I was overwhelmed by other students’ scrambling to gain acceptance into different consulting clubs, the most challenging finance internships, or the highest-level math and computer science courses. I felt like I was doing something wrong. Instead of spending my spare time working on a presentation for the Harvard College Consulting Group or preparing for an interview, I was drawing in my sketchbook or assembling a collage out of magazines bought from CVS. I was stressed about coursework as much as my friends, but by the end of the semester, I felt embarrassed I’d spent so much time pursuing something I wasn’t sure was worthy of my time.

But visual art is worthy of our time. It is necessary for the fostering of creative minds. Science, law, finance — these fields all rely on creativity for their existence and advancement. A creative mind cannot be bottled, programmed, or copied, though it can certainly be suppressed and ignored. Over the past several decades, the study of art has been on the decline, replaced by the ever-growing fervor among young people for business, medicine, and engineering; computer science, too, is gaining popularity.

As our society leaves behind a great century of art, from café culture in Paris in the 1920s to dreamlike surrealism to colorful pop art, we approach a bleaker, more obsolete future without it — one in which the mystery that fuels the world, as Magritte told us, would not exist.

In a 1948 interview with Harper’s Magazine, Magritte asked his interviewer, “Don’t you think it is the painters, poets, and writers who freed themselves from formulas, who created new ways of thinking?” To this question, his interviewer responded, “of course,” and the conversation moved on. I think this question, however, points to a disturbing truth about a growing trend in society: Art, as a field of study, is fading, and with it, our ability to think anew is disappearing, too.

Any field relying on innovation relies on creativity, and visualization is a fundamental aspect of creating. This reliance becomes clearer through the historical relationship between science and art: Take Leonardo da Vinci, an incredible polymath and artist, or Maria Sibylla Merian, a botanical illustrator who analyzed insect metamorphosis and breeding in her depictions. Today, however, there are fewer and fewer Renaissance minds, even though art challenges our brains to develop new forms of communication and enables imagination, ultimately leading to a greater ability for future planning. Girija Kaimal, professor in creative arts therapies at Drexel University, proposed the evolutionary benefits — and ultimately, the purpose — of art as being foundational in the brain’s predictive abilities.

Visual art is an evolving part of human existence, from cave art to Magritte’s surrealist puzzles. We cannot continue passing it off as a field simply isolated from other areas of study or an unnecessary elective.

Harvard art historian Susan Dackerman noted sixteenth-century artist Albrecht Dürer’s influence on astronomy as “profound” in her lecture on how Renaissance artists critically shaped the scientific inquiries of their time. Of course, scientific advancement now is different from how it was in the sixteenth century, just as how we value creativity and art has also drastically changed. We are increasingly dividing “creative” fields from technical fields, when in reality these skills must be further blended rather than made distinct.

I am not suggesting everyone become visual arts majors. I am simply suggesting art should be further integrated into other fields.

The interdisciplinary era of Renaissance minds is out of fashion, and visual art is one of the first fields to fade as society embraces specialization over breadth. We have to recognize visual art for the benefits it offers our minds, particularly if our brains are accustomed to finishing problem sets all day or lab work all night. Art requires science, and science requires art.

Drawing in my sketchbook is not less valuable than preparing for an interview — both are important, but, unfortunately, only one is considered necessary.

Great artistic minds like Magritte’s do much more than just paint.

Gabrielle C. McClellan ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Currier House.

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