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Art: a basic necessity of life

The unique individual expression of the qualities we all have in common is true art.

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Reflection: A visitor studies a René Magritte painting at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

AL BEHRMAN/AP

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I can't remember a time when I wasn't an artist, and so I can't remember ever thinking that art and beauty weren't completely necessary to life, as important as daily bread. But I never thought too much about the place of art in others' lives or how important or trivial it might be to them. Over the years, though, I began to perceive that art was considered by many, even most, people, to be a luxury – caviar – and not daily bread at all.

My rudest awakening on this subject came when I was visiting Britain years ago. I loved driving through the countryside, staying on farms and in small bed-and-breakfast places, and visiting country stores. One day, I stopped at a little store that made its own cheese every day.

There was only one salesperson there, a young woman with snappy, black curls, who had the look of someone with a cheese doctorate. I decided to ask a few questions, but the more I asked, the more amazed she became that anyone could be so ignorant of dairy products. I think my fatal question was the one about whether or not they sold the cheese they had made that very morning. A look of total exasperation came over her face. She stopped weighing my wedge of cheese, arched her back slightly, and said with a snap that matched her curls, "Don't you know nothin' about cheese?"

The whole thing was so incongruous, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Suddenly, and without thinking, I blurted out, "No. Do you know anything about art?" I thought perhaps I'd had the last word. But she looked at me for a moment and then said, "No. But that's not something you have to do with every day, and cheese is!"

That made me finally realize that art, to most people, wasn't a basic necessity at all. For most, it wasn't inseparable from day-to-day experience. It wasn't the equivalent of "daily bread."

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