The Purpose of Art June 12, 2019
Like language, art is a form of expression. Its message may be symbolic or religious, historical or political. But the purpose of art is not simply to communicate a message, but more importantly, to elicit an emotional response, to ‘move’ us, in some way. Art can be pleasing or astonishing, informative or perplexing, offensive or inspirational.
Art is a uniquely human product, the earliest examples of which are cave paintings, such as those found in Western Europe and Indonesia, dating back more than 40,000 years. Most commonly, the subjects depicted are of large wild animals, such as bison, horses, and deer. Hand tracings, known as ‘finger flutings’, are also commonly found. One theory suggests that cave paintings were made by paleolithic shamans, perhaps attempting to evoke the spirit of the animal in order to increase the abundance of prey.
Even before written language became widespread, art was the means used to communicate cultural myths and religious beliefs. Examples include the pictographs found in Egyptian tombs, or the Greek and Roman mosaic murals of antiquity. In Western civilization, from Medieval times through the Renaissance, art was used as a medium to impart the scripture of the Church. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper, or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings, are a well-known examples.
Throughout history, another purpose of art has been to document important historical events. Historical art differs from landscape and portraiture, in that it depicts a moment in a narrative story, as opposed to a static subject. Originally, the term ‘historical art’ was used to describe historical scenes from Classical mythology. From the 18th century, however, it generally applied more commonly to secular subjects, such paintings intended to document battles of the American Civil War, for example.
After the Age of Enlightenment expanded focus beyond the aegis of the Church, art also began to be used as a means of political commentary. These days, every major newspaper features a ‘political cartoon’. But also, there are many artists whose work has a decidedly ‘political’ function. Examples include Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, as well as Banksy, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and others.
Art as Emotion
The 19th century heralded in new artistic movements, such as Romanticism, Expressionism, and Impressionism. These new styles represented efforts by the artists of the day to create a more ‘complete’, and less ‘static’, sense of reality. Striving to depict the changing patterns of light and movement, art began to reflect a more emotionally charged sense of reality. Figureheads of this style include Degas, Monet, Renoir, and Manet.
The push for a more ‘complete’ representation of reality has progressed, in modern times, to the popularity of abstract art. Here, the subject matter may be completely dismantled, altered, and reassembled, to project a plethora of emotional responses. Now, reality is in the eye of the beholder, The skill required to depict ‘visible’ reality is subjugated. Instead, the skillful use of color, texture, and geometry, used to imply a ‘feeling’, is what is important. Abstract art not only ‘expands’ the message, but also, by distilling its elements, opens up the possibilities for the art to be used decoratively, as a complement to a larger space.
These varied functions of art have led us through progressive cultural changes, to where we are today. I’m especially excited by the fact that today’s art is about technique as much as it is subject. Check out my gallery!
To depict reality and ideals.
Often referred to as realism and idealism. Or portray the artist’s ideal realities. In other words, art is a way for an artist to say “this is how I see the world,” and then sometimes say “this is how I think it should be.”
To provoke thinking and discourse.
Whether it’s a painting that dramatizes the horrors of war or a dark depiction of domestic violence, art can shock one’s senses to force a person to think deeply about a real social issue. It can spark debates and even cause revolutions. For example Tiananmen Square.