What is the purpose of art? It is not a new question. To the contrary, it resides among the oldest of questions. Some may despair of a meaningful answer, given the ancient age of a question yet still be asked—and, at times, asked as though nothing said in the millennia before us has given satisfaction. Yet, that art has a purpose cannot be denied: for even the most-mysterious seeming of acts arises for the sake of some end, even if the act itself misses the mark by a wide margin.
To many, art seems to be primarily about communicating a message. In the past decade, the media through which art is transmitted and promoted has been painfully, dare I say cringe-inducingly, self-righteous and moralistic. In the words of Anastasia Berg, “For all its good intentions, art that tries to minister to its audience by showcasing moral aspirants and paragons or the abject victims of political oppression produces smug, tiresome works that are failures both as art and as agitprop.” Such works—questionable as to which category is primary, that is, the art or the propaganda—may yet be lauded by the ideologues in support of their messages. But they are upheld as good works of art only by the most deluded.
To others, art may be purely about the “aesthetic experience”: by which is commonly meant works that somehow convey or evoke an emotional response at a perceptual level, a response that induces the audience to continue the experience. Thus, the work of art may be beautiful or hideous, joyful or tragic, but its purpose—so say such claimants—consists in the experience of the attraction. Notably, however, this attitude may result in works which require neither talent nor thought, but which have their whole being in provocation and stoking outrage. Such works, just as little as pieces of pure propaganda, seem to deserve the name “art”.
Final Cause of Art
As Berg, again, writes, “Art must be for something—even if only for its own sake. For all their differences, everybody seems to agree that beautiful images have ‘value’—the question is merely what kind.” And, as she concludes:
If good art and its criticism can free us from anything, it can free us… from the comforting delusion that we can ever transcend our human limits, defeat death, unhappiness and evil once and for all, or live in anyone’s vision of heaven on earth. This does not mean, however, that we can ever be liberated from the infinite pull of beauty itself, or be able to attend to images only when we feel like it. It is rather like this: we can decide what to do, but we can never decide what to dream.19 July 2023: [“On the Aesthetic Turn ” | The Point Magazine]
The “infinite pull of beauty”—as inescapable as dreaming: not always present to us, but something which comes whether we will it or not. Just as we are fascinated by dreams, so, too, we are by the beautiful—not only to perceive it but to create it. Yet is the purpose of art merely to free us from “comforting delusions”? Such liberation, I believe, is an indirect and necessarily concomitant resultance of what art truly does; but hardly its primary purpose, for such presupposes the prevalence of these delusions, a prevalence which itself contradicts human nature in a way that our love for and pursuit of art does not.
Questions of Purpose
What then, can we say about art’s true purpose? Do we not need, first, to understand at least provisionally what art is? Can we identify its nature? Can we explain how someone creates it? Or how it is received? Do we know the work itself—the form that may make something even physically unexceptional into a vessel of beauty? What is the center—what is the final and orienting cause for art’s existence? Come join us this Wednesday (2 August 2023) for our Philosophical Happy Hour and discuss these important questions!
Philosophical Happy Hour
Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.
 19 July 2023: “On the Aesthetic Turn”, The Point Magazine [https://thepointmag.com/criticism/on-the-aesthetic-turn/]