An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have. – Andy Warhol
Most people break the need/want dichotomy down easily:
A need is something you have to have. Like food and air.
A want is something you’d like to have. Such as world peace, comfortable shoes, and beer.
So it’s difficult to argue against Warhol’s statement. I don’t draw food that you can eat or air that you can breathe. But nonetheless I will try to argue that art, or at least aesthetically pleasing items, are needed.
In the early 1940’s Abraham Maslow, a psychologist, published a theory called Hierarchy of Needs which included a bunch of items that most people want and labeled those items needs. The Hierarchy is basically a pyramid and the bottom, or base level, consists of items that fill physiological needs (food, sleep, elimination of bodily waste, etc.) One level up the pyramid is safety-type needs which include things like a job and a house. The middle layer expands on the previous one and includes more intangible needs such as friendship and sexual intimacy. The next level becomes even more abstract and lists confidence, self-esteem, and respect as needs. There are levels for intellectual stimulation as well as harmony and beauty (theoretically art would rank somewhere in here as well.) And at the very top of the pyramid (and the pinnacle of human existence itself) is self-actualization which is neither a need nor a want but, according to Maslow’s theory, only possible if all the “needs” of the other levels have been satisfied. Nowadays, Maslow and his hierarchy have kinda fallen by the wayside. Anecdotally, his theory makes sense but it can’t be empirically proven and the needs themselves, along with their relative positions of importance, are considered culturally biased (although an argument could be made that virtually everything was culturally biased in the 1940’s and 50’s but I digress …) His ideas, including but not limited to the hierarchy, did give rise to Humanistic or Positive Psychology which focuses more on the wonders of us as opposed to the pathologies of us. So, all in all, he was an okay guy with ideas that people like to believe are true.
My argument is incredibly simple: we need art because we choose art. If there is a forced choice situation between food or a print of Andrew Wyeth’s Dr. Syn most people will pick food. Hungry or food insecure people would not be comforted by the skeletal Captain. However, if there is a discretionary choice between a print of Dr. Syn or a pair of jeans then the choice becomes more difficult and could depend on other factors such as number of pants already owned, laundry facilities, and personal choice. Provided I have at least 2 pairs of pants and laundry facilities I’m picking Dr. Syn and I can say that with confidence because I made that choice and others like it at age 20. Also think about art in a broader sense and not just the stuff you hang on a wall. Do you pick the ugly tea kettle or the attractive one? If you have no food and are actually in desperate need of a meal almost any food is good food but if you aren’t food insecure and you have a choice between two cherry pies do you pick the pretty one with lattice work on the top or the one that looks like it was dropped two stories? Are you picking the chartreuse easy chair that looks like it might have graced your great-grandmother’s living room or that sleek charcoal Italian leather one? If factors such as price and functionality are the same most people will pick the one that is the most aesthetically pleasing to them. People choose beauty, and by extension art, and seem do so much earlier than Maslow’s Hierarchy suggested. Art, or at least aesthetically pleasing items, in that second level (a home, a job, some art) of need.