What is Art For: The Purpose of Art

The Loner by Kim Dorland

By Dave Hood

All art exists for a purpose. Picasso said, “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” Edward Hopper, a realist painter during the time of modernism, reminds us that “Great art is an outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and his inner life will result in a personal vision of the world.” All art (visual art) has a purpose, and this purpose gives it importance and value.

First, art is a tool for self-expression. The paint, brush, and canvas for the painter are like the notebook and pen to the creative writer. Writer Thomas Merton once remarked, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” Many artists explore a theme, idea, issue, concept, and then make a work of art embodying their vision, such as a drawing, painting, photograph, sculpture, installation. You see this in the artwork called “The Scream” by Edvard Munch, who painted an expressive image of a tormented, panic-stricken human figure. Abstract expressionist artists, such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko are famous for their paintings of abstract expressionism. Mark Rothko created fields of different colours (Colour field painting), while Pollock tossed and dripped paint on a large canvas (Action painting). Both expressed their emotions in their works of art. Cindy Sherman, a contemporary photographer, explores female roles and identity in Western society by dressing up in various costumes, wigs, and makeup, and then using her camera to take self-portraits, much like the Instagram selfie. In their leisure time, possessed by the creative impulse, many ordinary people, who have no desire to become full-time artists, take courses in drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, and then make art, because they desire to express their creative spirit and feel pleasure from making art.

Art also teaches us how to think creatively.  Children who learn to draw and paint in grade school develop confidence and are able to express themselves with visual language. They also learn to think creatively. Creative thinking means finding an idea to solving a creative problem. When faced with a creative problem, the student learns to implement some creative thinking techniques, such as conducting a brainstorming session with yourself, searching for alternatives, challenging assumptions. This creative thinking helps the student discover the right idea and the right medium and right art work to express their idea. Many of the students of today become the inventors, innovators, graphic designers, and artists of tomorrow.

Art also teaches us how to see the world creatively. Instead of looking at people, things, objects indifferently, and then moving on, those who have learned how to see creatively notice the details– the lines, shapes, forms, space, colour and so forth. Ordinary experiences become extraordinary delights. And so the ordinary, such as a red tulip blooming in the garden, becomes extraordinary, which generates aesthetic pleasure in the mind of the viewer. Pleasure from the ordinary adds meaning to life. The impressionist artists taught us to see the world in vibrant colours, the impact of light such as sunlight, and the art of daily experience. Part of the pleasure and astonishment in gazing at Picasso’s cubism is that he has forced us to view the world from multiple viewpoints and simplified forms. Photographer Henri Cartier Bressen said to look for the “decisive moment” and then press the shutter. The ancient philosopher Aristotle pointed out this about seeing: “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inner world of significance.” Artist Frida Kahlo said, “ I don’t paint dreams or nightmares, I paint my own reality.” And so, Art enables us to focus on details and see the details in the world from different perspectives and viewpoints, rather than seeing them from eye level in a fleeting moment.

We gaze at works of art to experience something, such as pleasure, delight, meaning, shock, intellectual stimulation, an epiphany, confusion, even revulsion or disgust. Depending on the medium, works of art can evoke aesthetic pleasure, shocks the psyche, nurture our insatiable curiosity, spark us to ask questions and seek answers to the meaning of art work. I enjoy visiting the Art Gallery of Ontario and others on a regular basis to experience pleasure from art, as well as feed my hunger for creative things. I marvel at the work of Kim Dorland, a contemporary Canadian painter, who paints scenes from his urban and impoverished life growing up, as well as the woodlands, much like the landscapes of Tom Thomson. Though his art work is somewhat abject, the originality of colour and narrative makes it interesting. One painting that comes to mind is Dorland’s “The Loner,” a portrait of a young man in a heavy metal T-shirt standing behind a tree, which partially obscures him. In the background, a barren landscape of trees. I have never seen anything like it before. It is existential. Viewing a work of art, especially modern and contemporary paintings or photographs by Martin Parr or Alex Webb, inspires me to take up art, as well as go out with my camera and capture images that embody similar view points and subject matter.

Artists make art to share a social Commentary/Social Awareness. Lucien Freud once remarked.“What do I ask of a painting? I ask to astonish, disturb, seduce, convince.” This is certainly true for contemporary artist. Barbara Kruger, a conceptual artist and feminist, makes silkscreen prints of appropriated photographs from magazines and then adds text to them. One of her most important artworks is “Your Body is a Battleground.” There is text in red and white and face of a woman in black and white.This type of art communicates directly with the viewer. Tracy Emin, another conceptual artist, created the installation, “My Bed,” a piece of confessional art that reveals intimate details of her daily life. This art work included stained sheets, empty liquor bottles, dirty panties, soiled sheets was exhibited at the Tate Gallery in Britain in 1998. Edward Burtynsky, a lens-based artist, uses his camera to document modern man’s destruction of the environment. Damien Hirst’s “For the Love of God” makes a social commentary on death in his art work, a platinum skull embedded with diamonds. Hirst combines the imagery of classic “memento mori” with inspiration drawn from Aztec skulls. He tells us this about death, “You don’t like it, so you disguise it, or you decorate it to make it look like something bearable – to such an extent that it becomes something else.” He reminds us that human existence is fleeting.

Works of Art inspire us to make art. Aspiring artists study the work of other artists to steal their ideas and learn their techniques. Aspiring photographers are encouraged to study the masters. So, if you intend to take documentary photographs as an art form, you would look at the photographs of the likes of Henri Cartier Bressen, Robert Capra, Bruce Davidson, Elliott Erwitt at Magnum photography. Art lovers often take courses in some type of art making, because they have a desire express their creative impulse. This desire to create is sparked by the art lover’s appreciation for art, such as drawing or painting. Appropriation artists, such as Richard Prince, take photographs from other artists, and then morphs these image into some other type of art. Several years ago, Prince re-photographed Marlboro cigarette advertisements of the Marlboro Man to represent masculinity of the idealized iconic image of the cowboy in America. In recent months, he has taken Instagram photos captured by other photographers with their iPhones, blown them up into large-scale photographs, printed them on a large canvas, that then put on an exhibition called New Portraits.

Art is a way of remembering or recalling the past. This is especially true for anyone who has taken a course in art history or viewed photographs from a bygone era. We learn about people, historical events, architecture, fashion, lifestyle, technology, consumer products, pop culture, values, beliefs, way of life. You can see this in the photographs called “The Americans” by Robert Frank who traveled the States by automobile with his camera for a couple of years during the 1950s.  He took photos of ordinary people and popular culture and American way of life. During the medieval and Renaissance and Enlightenment, when the camera had yet to be discovered, artists painted historical events, religious scenes, portraits of the bourgeoisie, and renderings of the Gods of Greek mythology. For instance, we learn of man’s religious views in Europe by the studying the painting of the masters, such as Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” a religious scene of Jesus and his Apostles. Many masters painted, “The Crucifixion,” the biblical scene of Jesus being put to death by being hung on the cross. One of the most famous paintings is Pieter Paul Rubens masterpiece.

Like the painter, photographers have captured portraits of famous and ordinary people, in part, so they would be remembered. In her famous book, “On Photography,” Author Susan Sontag wrote “to take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” We see this in the work of Richard Avedon who is appreciated for his black and white, minimalist photographs of famous people, including Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy Onassis and John F. Kennedy, Bob Dylan, and Humphrey Bogart. We remember those who have died because artists made portrait paintings and portrait photographs.

Art is therapy for the masses. Some mental health professionals use Art therapy as part of their treatment in dealing with people suffering from mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, abuse. For the depressed person, art is a method of expressing one’s thoughts and feelings in a drawing or painting. The process of making art is cathartic, like writing or playing the piano. This catharsis contributes to the person’s recovery from illness. And given the fact that one in five people will suffer from mental illness, art is beneficial to our health.

Making art is also what Positive Psychologist Martin Seligman called a “flow” experience. The person becomes so immersed in the activity, he or she loses all track of time. The mental state of flow is enjoyable. For the person who is suffering from the boredom of life’s routines, making art—such as sketching, drawing, painting, taking photographs— is path to escape from the banality of human existence, the existential angst so many feel.

For artists, making art becomes a way of discovering one’s true self—how they feel about themselves other people, issues, events, themes, and life. The artist is doing something worthwhile with his or her life. Many feel they are living authentically, according to their own values, their own vision, fulfilling their dreams. And so, this flow experience enhances well-being and life satisfaction. Like many artists, Kim Dorland, a Canadian painter, says that that art gives him a sense of purpose in his life: “Before I found art, I had no sense of the future. I could have ended up in a dead-end job or even jail, not because I was violent but because I was thoughtless. Then I find this. It is all I wanted.”

Art is a business.  In other words, the artist, collector, curator, critic, and art educator desire to make money. The world of art provides enumerable creative types with employment. For instance, the art critic would have avenues to apply his/her skills and knowledge without art. As well, though the artist’s main purpose in making art is self-expression, most artists also desire to be successful, which means that they hope the public will attend their exhibitions, appreciate their work, and purchase it. Unfortunately, many artists toil in obscurity and eke out a meagre living. That is why so many are called “starving artists.” The average income for an artist in Canada is approximately $20,000 per year.

Galleries and museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art or Tate Modern, put on interesting exhibitions to attract visitors who are willing to pay admission. The more provocative the exhibition or the more recognized the artists, the more visitors who will shell out money to view the exhibition.

The art media, including the popular magazines Artnews and Art Forum, publish news about the art world. The more interesting their articles, profiles, reviews, essays, the more magazines sold, the more revenue they generate. Book publishers, such as Thames and Hudson, sell art books to make money. At any given time, the art lover can purchase a myriad of art books on topics like art history, art monographs by the likes of paintings of Kandinsky, photographs of Cindy Sherman, as well as books on art theory, art criticism, art appreciation, and more.

The art auction exists to buy and sell art. Art collectors purchase master works of art to add to their collection and as investment. They envision these art works appreciating in value as time passes. Recently, Christie’s put on a sale of dozens of masterpieces from the 20th century at their auction called “Looking Forward to the Past.” A Picasso’s painting, “ Women of Algiers,” sold this Christie’s auction for $179.4 million US. Alberto Giacometti ‘s life-size sculpture, “Pointing Man,” set a record for most expensive sculpture, selling for  $141.3 million US.

The visual arts have many purposes in postmodern society. For the artist—who is possessed by inspiration– making of art allows for expression of the creative impulse. Art lovers visit galleries and museums to nourish their appetite for things creative. Art provides the art critic with opportunity of employment in the world of art. The typical critic observes and then critiques an art work, then writes about it. Art is a status symbol and investment like a stock for the typical collector. For the gallery or museum, the best art attracts visitors who will pay admission. Yet, the most important purpose of art, in my opinion, was expressed by Amy Lowell, a poet and critic. She said, “Art is the desire of a man to express himself, to record the reactions of his personality to the world he lives in.” We draw, paint, sculpt, take photographs, to express ourselves by showing others how we view the world—the ordinary, the beautiful, the sublime, the abject.


About Dave Hood

Lover of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction. Professional photographer and writer. Without the arts, life would be rather mundane, like a walk down the same old path on a dull day.
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