Friday, 19 November 2010

What is the purpose of art?

A beautiful piece of art is a beautiful piece of art, and it usually follows rules known for centuries and which often mimic the natural world. But beauty has nothing to do with what is touted by the cogniscenti as being worthy of attention by collectors. The contemporary art of recent decades has been promoted as challenging and thought provoking; designed to stir emotions very different from those elicited by the sublime. This provokes the question: what is the purpose of art?

Art is no longer used as a record of life, because we have cameras to do that for us. In fact they're everywhere, recording every little mundane detail of ours and others lives. Cameras in phones, on computers, in the sky, and on walls above our head. The images they create aren't art, are they?

Those CCTV images can be thought provoking, but we don't tout them as art. Perhaps because we recognize that art can only be art if we set out to create it. In that case, art is essentially a profound form of communication. The artist sets out to say something visually to the viewer by speaking directly to their emotions.

Yet we've all been to museums where contemporary pieces are accompanied by long explanations of exactly what the artist is trying to say. But surely that makes these pieces a failure as art, because they cannot communicate on their own in this great age of communication, where people are probably more open to ideas than they have ever been in the history of man. And they need curators and experts to explain their message.

There have always been artists who have challenged the received wisdom and moved art forward. Movements that have been shunned later as reactionary, such as the pre-raphaelites, were avant garde in their day. Art needs to evolve and allow room for new ideas to develop. But it also needs to find a place where people will be inspired to care for it, because the work involves them and speaks to them.

So, what is the purpose of art? Is it always to challenge and provoke in obscure ways? Why do we need this in a world of 24/7 news channels and information overload? Cannot art be acceptable when it provides a haven of peace for us? Perhaps the purpose of art is also to feed our souls and bring us out of the mundane, not to remind us of the depths to which we can sink as human beings. Surely there must be space for all kinds of artistic expression, including those who simply want to tell the world that there is beauty out there.

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