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by Jaclyn Friedman

A few weeks ago, I was interviewed by the incredible Amanda Hess (who writes The Sexist column for the Washington City Paper. You must read her regularly. Seriously.) about the pitfalls and opportunities of trying to date while feminist. 

I have to admit, I agreed to the interview for pretty selfish reasons: dating is confusing, and I’ll take nearly any opportunity to get some help sorting it out. But what I got when the interview went live (aside from a sense of exactly how popular Fight Club is, sheesh) was way better than any how-to tips: As feminists from around the blogosphere responded and related, I suddenly understood I’m not alone, and the things I’m having trouble with – trying to parse personal ads to figure out who has feminist potential, figuring out how to talk about what I do on a first date, men who want to treat me like a wild animal that they can tame – aren’t my troubles, after all. They’re our troubles.

Then, just this week, I visited Williams College. The first chance I got, I made a beeline for the Clark Art Institute. Now, the Clark is a really great museum – surprisingly good for a museum at a small school located in rural Western Massachusetts. But it wasn’t just the quality of the art that drew me in. Thing is, back when I was in college, a guy I knew sexually assaulted me. And it threw my world into chaos. And one of the things I did to cope with the aftermath is to escape to Williams – where a good friend of mine was at school – for a week.

I don’t remember much about that week at Williams. I remember feeling safe for the first time since the assault. I remember being so grateful to have a friend like Bernie, and for the refuge he gave me while I started to sort out the pieces. And I remember spending hours at the Clark, staring at the Homers and Monets and Degas, finding in their gauzy and untroubled worlds a way to imagine that things might once again feel good.

Eighteen years later, all it took was the first glance at one of those paintings and I was thunderstruck with my own emotions: a queasy fear clashed with the swell of hope, and, as I took a deep breath, a wash of comfort and gratitude settled in even as my knees wobbled unsteadily. And then it hit me: this is why art matters. Because a painting can hold unspeakable feelings for decades until you’re ready to remember them. Because storytelling can reveal that what feels like a personal failing is actually a social problem. Because no artist can know what their work will mean to someone else.

Those of us who write about pop culture get accused, on occasion, of being frivolous. After all, there are more serious problems in the world than the lyrics of Lady Gaga, or the meaning of Eryka Badu’s new video. But the truth is, art is one of the main ways we understand our own emotions, and connect with each other across whatever differences we think we have. And so, I for one think it matters what kind of art we have access to. Does it affirm our lives, or erase them? Does it celebrate our bodies, or judge them? Does it increase pleasure and safety, or pain and fear? If art matters, then these questions do, too.