The Purpose of Art

When exposed to a piece of art, many people seem to want to impose an interpretation on it, or to figure out what it “means”.

As different interpretations clash (which they almost always do), the debate often turns into a discussion about the actual purpose of art, which I often personally find more rewarding and interesting than debating the possible interpretations of one single piece of art (as if there is ever a final, decisive conclusion).

Many people prefer clarity and reject ambiguity. Personally, I don’t know if I agree that art is really supposed to clearly represent an idea – that to me delves into the realms of illustration, marketing communication, information, or perhaps education. I think art should have higher aspirations; to probe beyond the merely representational.

The way I see it, art must be free to expressed anything, and be open to interpretation – in fact, to open minds to possibilities. I don’t believe judgmentalism has a place in art. If openness to the possibilities of art leads to some people seeing something potentially offensive in a painting or a sculpture, that is part of the point – for all we know, that ambiguity could well be intentional on the part of the artist. If the artist wanted to present us with an unambiguous, clear and obvious visual presentation, they’d probably do better to go into propaganda.

For me, I think art is supposed to provoke thought, and I don’t see why art needs to be restricted to simply be representational (or even aesthetic). Terrible art, to me, is boring art which is obvious and leaves no room for thought or interpretation at all, whether or not it ends up being visually pleasing. Quite frankly, the idea of art merely being reduced to aesthetics seems rather bourgeois, as if we produce art only to decorate our homes. It would seem to lead to a world full of nothing but landscape paintings of pretty sunrises.

There is beauty in the world, in nature. We don’t need art as a lens for it, in order for us to merely observe it – that is reductive and redundant. On the other hand, if we want to make people think about beauty, and consider what it means to us, that is something that art can do for us.

With that said, I fail to see why thoughts spurred on by art couldn’t be negative, ugly or even offensive ones.

What I especially dislike is when art is interpreted impositionally, as if there is only one possible purpose or interpretation of it, or that someone’s individual assessment of it is definitive. That, to me, defies the very purpose of art.

If art doesn’t open your mind, there is no purpose for it. And conversely, if art actually closes your mind, I would not consider it art at all, but manipulative, coercive communication.

Could a sculpture deliberately represent something actually offensive…? Sure it could! Follow that thought, and see where it leads.

If, on the other hand, you object to the possibility of offensive things used in art, then your perspective seems more of the moralist kind to me, and then maybe art is not for you…?


  1. Richard

    Well, I agree with some of what you say. Some.
    I kind of have two jobs. I am an illustrator who draws stuff that people ask me to. Usually this stuff does not exist in the real world, so I am creating fiction that I hope is believable. Its a commission and has to follow the guidelines of the person or persons who commission that work.
    I also am a painter. I consider myself an impressionist. I paint the impressions of a scene I chose or I set up in the studio. Im trying to make the canvas feel like it has atmosphere, so I work from life rather than a photo, which is flat, so I its hard to render form. Occasionally these are commissions too. They usually have some freedom but there is still a customer I have to satisfy. A lot of artists say they dont like commissions saying it stifles their creativity. I find its usually because they are not very good at their job and only do it for selfish reasons.
    I went to college for art and learned very little that was useful to what i do now. Most if not all the teachers could not draw my ass if I sat on paper and let them trace it. They did not understand color or design. It was all about ideas, expression and all the bullshit that is used to explain terrible craft. I finally found someone who knew how to paint, cause he was taught by someone who was taught by someone and so on. Its a skill handed down. I dont like the idea of art schools as you cant teach art. You can teach drawing and painting and hopefully if someone is lucky they may make art in their life time. What I learned in college was the art of bullshitting, which has been handy, but not for making pictures.

    I have to say I dislike most art that has been done since the 1900s. I lose interest at Cezanne and think Picasso was a misogynistic clown- most art done since that period is all ego driven and masturbatory.
    I think my job is to represent my idea to the best of my ability. That is not to say that an object or scene cant represent something else or have a bigger ideal. If I show someone the work, hopefully they like it visually. If they dont get any subtle meanings Im ok with that, but if they get the complete wrong idea, for example, that arm looks like a giant turd, I would be mortified and feel like it was a complete failure. I would not blame the audience, I would rework the piece until it conveyed what I wanted. The whole, “you just dont understand” mentality is elitist.
    If, like you say, maybe the artist wanted it to be a turd, that is gross and offensive and that person should be fined for pooping in the Boston common. Especially if its public work, which I think should aim for something higher. I mean if its all about creating conversation, horrible things create conversation.

    I think its a cop out to blame the audience. Sometimes shit is shit. I dont care how much one might want to explain it away with art talk.
    I mean, I paint picture of toy robots. They are silly pictures of vintage toys, but to be honest its also a bit of commentary on technology, the idea of AI. I do scenes of robots anthropomorphized. I could go on about that but I dont care to usually unless asked.
    I did a self portrait shooting myself in the face with a dart gun. Alone its just a silly and amusing picture. Not sure everyone gets that it was about the idea of being a painter. The thought that creation often feels like shooting yourself in the face. Its a bit about depression, frustration. Does anyone get that? I mean, I dont know. Its there, but I dont think it gets confused for something else completely.
    Art can fail. It can be bad. It can be judged- by anyone, like a musical note can be wrong or an architectural measurement result in a building that fails to do its job- no matter how brilliant that arrogant prick Frank Gehry thinks it is.
    Finally, I dont think art has to be all happy and pretty, but it should always be uplifting. Ill site some extreme examples of this. The Pieta by Michelangelo is one of the best. Do you have to know thats a mother and son? Do you have to know the story at all to get the emotion their. Its about loss, love, life and death. Im not religious and that is one of the few pieces Ive seen in person that made me cry. Very few if any artists do this now, other than film makers. Saving Private Ryan is a horrific thing to watch. Horrible circumstances, but that is a beautiful with uplifting ideas.
    Anyway, fun discussion. I still think everyone involved in that MLK sculpture should be ashamed.

    • Jay Sojdelius

      I don’t believe in shame or judgment when it comes to art, except when it comes to pure exploitation, crass speculation or manipulation.

      More than anything, I reject restrictions on or restrictive interpretations of art. I think art has one obligation and one obligation alone, and that is to be truthful, for the purpose of making people think, and open their minds to new perspectives and possibilities.

      I’m a big believer in art, the power of art and the purpose of art. I studied art, painting, sculpture and art history, BUT my respect for art is such that I eventually realized that art was not what I wanted to do, or what I was best suited for. I have no ambitions to open people’s minds; my main objective is to communicate and to be understood. To make salient and intelligible commentary, and to create usable things, and I ultimately don’t believe that is what art is supposed to do. Hence, I chose to go to design school instead. I fully realize I’m not an artist, I have no ambition to be one, but I do still believe art is extremely important. Certainly important beyond my personal ambitions or talents.

      I think art and the purpose of art has to be separated from execution. There is a craftsmanship element of art that I think can be judged on its own merits, but I don’t think good craftsmanship necessarily equals art. Art is craftsmanship in the service of a higher purpose. Many people conflate the two, and think that skillfully executed artwork equals art. I disagree.

      In my opinion, only that which opens peoples’ minds is worthy of being called art, and that goes to intent as much as anything else. Some of the most skilled artists in the world have no ambition but to please other people. I find that attitude fundamentally incompatible with the concept of art.

      But I also believe that nobody has the right to dispute another person’s perception of a piece of art. That is exactly what true elitism is to me: to suggest that there is a single interpretation that is right, and that everything else is wrong. What opens one person’s mind can be a total dud for someone else. Good art is going to provoke thought, bad art is going to limit thought. No thought is wrong. All thoughts are good.

      Songwriter Andy Partridge wrote about it. He was addressing the subject of literature, but the sentiment is very much appropriate for art as well, at least the way I see it:

      “I believe the printed word is more than sacred
      Beyond the gauge of good or bad
      The human right to let your soul fly free and naked
      Above the violence of the fearful and sad.”

      – XTC, “Books Are Burning”

      Once the art leaves the artist’s studio, I believe they relinquish all control of it, and it exists in the minds of the public, to do whatever good or whatever damage it is capable of. And sometimes, damage is a necessary consequence of art. Some perceptions get fossilized and need to be blown up. Smashed to pieces.

      Some of the best art I’ve seen has served to break down my rigid, calcified perpceptions. That, to me, is really meaningful art.

      I don’t need to be uplifted. I need to be challenged.

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