Why do even the poorest people make art?

A year ago, Jim Miner, who’s on the Ministerium planning team, suggested that we tour the Schumacher Gallery at Capitol University in lieu of meeting for lunch this December. He’d recently visited the gallery and was very impressed by their collection of Inuit art. As we talked about it, we began to wonder why the Inuit made art, given that, historically, they were always living on the edge of survival, in one of the harshest environments on earth. Jim set out to find someone who could answer this question, and was fortunate in striking up a conversation with David Gentilini, who is the assistant to the gallery’s director.

When we met in the gallery, David told us that art is the first form of any human tradition. It communicates both practical and religious ideas, and as an example of this he showed us several soap stone sculptures made by Inuit artists in the early twentieth century. These sculptures vividly illustrated some of the religious ideas of the Inuit shamans, whose role was both to pass on practical knowledge, like where to hunt, and to ritualize the lives of their people. The Inuit people believed that human beings were composed of three equally important parts: a body, a name, and a spirit. Some of the sculptures showed all three, combined in amazing, convoluted shapes – a spiritual idea rendered in stone.

In addition, David told us, art can become a way to have control over something, when little else in one’s environment is controllable. Watching as something takes shape in your hands is an incredibly reassuring experience. All of the worries and anxieties of life disappear while one is involved in the act of creation. If this is true for relatively wealthy and secure Americans, how much more true it must be for people who’s existence is always in danger? The artists who made the soap stone statues in the gallery, and the generations of artists who came before them, knew that some part of who they were and what they believed would continue in their work, regardless of what happened to them after they created it.