I've heard a lot of people, in my life, say that art is not terribly important. That, for example, if we need to cut the budget, the thing to do is to cut down on arts -- that all the essentials need to be absolutely satisfied before we even consider spending any money on art. I wish I had some sort of magic power, by which I could show them a world entirely without art. There would be no written histories apart from farming records and ledgers, where there was no music, all forms of media (if they ever came to exist) present nothing but dry, boring news. Houses would have no aesthetic flourishes, being made out of a sturdy shape with no unnecessary paint on the walls (the outsides might all be barnhouse red, because it prevents rot) and the cabinets would be boxes with flat, planklike doors.
After a long day at their painfully boring job, unlightened by jokes, music or interior design, they'll come home to their show-less TVs, no books, no games or interesting bits of wall to stare at.
Even that's not far enough, though. There are always decisions to be made about making things that come down to more than just what's most functional. Those decisions are aesthetic. Still, I think no one from this world who were moved to that one could handle it.
It's hard to say what art is for, exactly. It's easy to see, if you're not trying to deny it, that art is necessary for positive life experience. But it's very difficult to explain exactly why -- and, for critics, it's very easy to refute any proposal, because all you have to do is find one niche piece of art that, for most people, contradicts the claim, and you seem to have a case.
You don't, actually, because one of the important things about art is that it varies hugely in appeal. Soccer, dance and civil war reenactment aren't my cup of tea, but they're all activities that require a lot of work and culminate in the putting on of a show. I don't think a sane definition of art could exclude them.
Meanwhile, hyper-ironic, self-referencing social commentary humor (like A Softer World) is right up my alley. When I show it to people, they'll often insist that there's absolutely nothing remotely funny about it, and that no one could possibly find it entertaining. At the time, they're generally blissfully unaware of how uninteresting I find football to be.
The thing about the majority view, though, is that there are plenty of people who are totally cool with the idea that art is useless, because they see "art" as that weird stuff with the squares and a bunch of old paintings that people pretend to like to seem important. But grounding a definition of art in personal preference can't possibly build a usable definition. The definition of art can't be "Frank from Baltimore likes it."
So, here's my proposal. I say that art is: any act, or result of an act, which adds value.
A book is the product of an act of arranging words which has made those words, on that paper in that ink, more valuable than their component parts. A sport is an interaction between groups of people who make their skills valuable. A well-constructed bottle and label can actually make wine taste better. Wine, by the way, is value-enhanced fruit juice.
Good art adds lots of value. Bad art might only add value in your own eyes. Controversial art might even decrease value in some people's eyes.
I'm tempted to add "or attempts to add" to the proposed definition, but I'm not sure it works quite that way. I think there is such a thing as failed art.
By that definition, which I sincerely believe, art is definitely important. I mean, it's basically the only important thing.
Which is why it annoys me when people complain about artists and art.