With more than 35,000 pieces in its collection, the Louvre is an art buff’s dream and more. Wandering through it this summer, I had a sort of epiphany, if you will. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but back in day, people invested in art. A lot.
It’s nothing new, but stick with me for a second. In the Louvre, it hit me that there was a time, not too long ago — OK, a few hundred years ago — when artistic expression was valued in a way that can’t even be considered today. People were paid (quite handsomely, too) for being able to paint, write or sculpt. We didn’t scoff at the “creative” types, but instead admired their talent and work.
Take the Renaissance, for example: It’s overwhelming to see the amount of sheer beauty and artistry that came out of a single time period. It gave us the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli and Shakespeare. It spawned a period of immense growth and exploration that rivaled the expanse of the Roman empire and created the 67,000 square meters of pure splendor that is the Versailles palace. But most importantly, we can thank the artists from the golden years of the Renaissance for the ways they have inspired so many artists after them.
Perhaps what’s most striking about this period to me is that so much of the art and architecture was commissioned by the state. From France and Italy to Spain and England, states have invested in cultivating intellectual and cultural progress. The best artists and minds of the region were sought after and commissioned to create masterpieces. Breathtakingly beautiful cathedrals and basilicas were built and royalty regularly sought out the most talented artists to design the interiors of palaces and state buildings. Having the most creative geniuses at hand was not just a matter of encouraging cultural growth, but was seen as a symbol of status. Today, the United States can’t even agree to keep funding the National Endowment for the Arts.
Of course, the trade-off is that instead of spending on splendor for the rich, we are now able to provide a higher standard of living for a larger percentage of people overall. We have made technological advancements and constructed standards for safety and hygiene. We have a longer life expectancy and more medical technology at our disposal to prolong life even further. Moreover, we have more choices for what we will consume, and access to more people and information than ever before in history. The industrial revolution allowed us to provide more products for a greater number of people and at a higher efficiency. But the downside has been losing the unique beauty that comes with fostering creativity and artistry.
Our world has also become dominated by one-size-fits-all standards and a need for functionality above all else. It took 120 years to build St. Peter’s Basilica. It took Michelangelo three years to build his most famous sculpture, the sculpture of David. And da Vinci spent about four years on the Mona Lisa. Today, we can take a photograph in a split second. We live in a world that moves faster, but it is also a world in which people don’t make time to stop and appreciate the smaller details.
Wandering through countless museums and basilicas in Paris, one realizes that out of everything these historical kingdoms and civilizations built up, it’s the art that we remember. It’s the sheer creative genius and admirable human talent that thousands of people flock to these museums to see every day. The Renaissance began more than 600 years ago. And yet, people still seek out these sculptures and paintings. By promoting an interest in the arts, these Renaissance societies created collections with timeless value that continues to add to people’s lives. To paraphrase a quotation by C.S. Lewis, art isn’t necessarily something that has intrinsic value for survival, but is rather something that adds value to life.
It only makes me wonder: When history looks back on our generation, what creative value will people say we added?
Harsha Nahata can be reached at email@example.com.