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What is Art for?

We recently had this exchange in my house.

5 year old: “Mummy.  Your job is not very important is it?”
Me: “Is it not? Why not?”
5 year old: “No.  Because you just take pictures don’t you?”

Since then this topic has cropped up in various guises just before bedtime or walking home from school.  It has clearly taken root.  So we continue with my darling daughter interrogating me on why pictures are important and me scrambling for some sensible and convincing answers that will make sense in simple terms.  Nothing like what comes out of the mouth of babes to keep you grounded.
The main reasons of my defence are…
Pictures are important because:
1.  They help you understand the world.
Throughout history people have made artistic responses to culture, society and events that help us understand what is going on behind the scenes.  From Orwell and Kafka to Gilbert and George art helps us see circumstances from a different perspective from the authorised version.  This is an important role of the artist.   Often artists have a responsibility, a heavy responsibility that could result in imprisonment or worse, to tell the story of an underlying truth.  To wake people up and speak up against a system.
2.  They help you understand yourself.
Sometimes art is less gung ho.  Sometimes it’s just about someones struggle with their personal history (Tracey Emin springs to mind). Sometimes art is made to express something that it is difficult to put into words and sometimes that is OK. To get to a point of deeper understanding or empathy with yourself.  It can be therapeutic and healing to engage in such art.
3.  They connect you to other people.
Why is Tracey Emin so popular? You might well wonder!  But it really is important to be connected to humanity.  When we see a picture or a sculpture that validates something of our own experience, whatever that might be, it gives us a sense of stability.  These shared experiences, even if they include messiness, bring connection and hope.
4.  They connect you to something bigger than yourself.
Often artists have described their creation as something that came to them.  Jeanette Winterson said of her first and brilliant novel Oranges are not the only fruit that it felt like it was downloaded into her from a force.  This pull or force is an amazing feeling and although it doesn’t happen often, and there is of course a place for the hard grind, the feeling of creating something that comes from somewhere Other is motivating to say the least.
5.  Beautiful things help you feel better.
This is described well in the video below.  But who doesn’t love beauty?!
What do you think about the 5 purposes of art outlined in this video?
What do you think art is for?


Posted by author: Sharon
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24 thoughts on “What is Art for?

      • Definitely. If we use art to know ourselves better and don’t like what we find then we can choose to do nothing or begin to find other parts of ourselves – the better parts and grow and foster them.
        For me, photos and images are reflections of states of mind and points in time and so I can track who I was and how I felt through that imagery. Also I find the act of creating images – thinking, taking, processing, finishing, etc can exorcise bad things (pain, depression) but I have never had the process introduce bad things.

  • An important element of art practice is, I think, that it can be rational and absurd. That sounds contradictory, but I don’t think so. It’s an arena in which it’s possible to go out on a limb to find out what happens when or if…
    That speculative mode is important as it can uncover questions (not necessarily answers) that are useful ways of gauging our place in the world.
    In terms of understanding the world I recommend Alain de Botton’s Art of Travel. He uses, to quote the Amazon summary, ‘the travel experiences of great writers and artists, like Van Gogh, Ruskin, Huysmans and Wordsworth (in Provence, Venice, Belgium and the Lake District respectively), [to] show that men will travel to see beautiful buildings, or climb beautiful mountains…’
    That is, people like that can show us new ways of seeing the world. Before Wordsworth and the Romantics wrote about the Lake District as beautiful (though wild) it was perceived as ‘dreadful’ and generally not somewhere you’d go on your holidays. Van Gogh, for de Botton, does the same for Provence. He doesn’t notice how blue and yellow it is until he sees the Van Gogh paintings.
    Good luck with next batch of questions…

  • one of the simplest and most enjoyable videos I’ve watched in a long time. It would make a nice prequel, or sequel, to Gerald Deslandes lectures on “Ten Ideas that made Contemporary Art”.

  • Should have added:- I think art, and in particular reference to Photography and myself as a photographer, should show us viewpoints that we, as a viewer, have not considered or overlooked. These may or not be pretty, and may indeed be uncomfortable as well as comforting viewing, but expand our awareness of what is, or was, around us.

  • Agreed Richard and at the very least, any artistic endeavour should ask questions. Questions about the subject and the artist and should provoke the viewer to at least have an opinion even if it is a negative one. You have made him think.

  • I spent some time looking at Sarah Charlesworth’s ‘Stills’ images in the context of both Sharon’s 5 points and those in the video. The latter are more feel good points and so were less applicable but certainly the images fall in various degrees into the first three of Sharon’s points. I felt that this was largely due to the emotional involvement one has in seeing this body fall through space.
    I did also feel that there are certainly differences between making and viewing art. The above article focuses mainly on making whilst the video on viewing. I too have subverted Sharon’s points to viewing rather than making and found them applicable. This has proved useful to me in understanding how I interpret these images.

  • When I made my first comment, I hadn’t seen the film. I realise now that I’d inadvertently mentioned the writer/narrator Alain de Botton. I do have a problem with that film in that he implies that the art is made for something outside the artist. I’m not sure that’s the case. A lot of art os made to help the artist work something out (it cold be existential, but it could be the mortgage) and ascribing a general benefit is dodgy. Also, a very boring Duchamp-scholar point: He did not choose the Fountain to glamorise the urinal. That’s a bogus claim that seems shoved in to appease a certain sensibility.

    • In order for art to have a place in the world, it needs to be shown outside the sketchbook or studio of the artist, otherwise it really is just responsive navel gazing! The act of creating something for the purpose of expression, exploration or personal growth is only a part of the artistic process. Being able and willing to let something go, or pass it on; to accept and perhaps respond to the opinions of others and to see that something ‘wot i made’ belongs in the wider context of society is not only healthy, but useful. For all concerned.
      I think it’s a bit nit-picky to criticise the use of the urinal to reference the ordinary, after all, back then it was. Richard Wentworth’s work directly references just that and is not about glamour at all! This simple piece, and the film, are very accessible to non-artists. That is the audience I think, though it appears here among the arterarty-farty… It’s nice, clear, instructive and fun. More of that is needed in relation to art I reckons!

    • I think there may well be differences between what drives an artist to make work and what leads to ‘people flock[ing] to museums like never before’.
      Unfortunately for me the key thing that is missing from Alan de Botton’s video is the role of art in stratifying society. Certainly one of the reasons I would argue for people ‘flocking’ is the acquisition of cultural capital.

  • I think Art can mean anything according to the meaning we give to it. I as interested in that aspect of stratifying society. There was something on TV the other night (regarding the turner Prize I think) and a comment was made about the need to learn the language of Art. In this sense it becomes an intellectual entity – just another way to delineate ‘Them and Us’ and separate the worthy from the unworthy.
    Whilst we were talking about this the we were also expressing confusion really – how is it that something of ‘beauty’ can be created by the same civilisations or religions etc that wreak such destruction on their fellow human beings? In that sense, for me, could it be that we need Art as a counterbalance to destruction and that is another meaning for, ‘people flock{ing] to museums like never before’.

  • What about the idea that art `comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable’? Apparently it first applied to journalism but I can’t recall who applied it to art.

  • good old Alain. He often talks about art as providing succour, but I can’t pronounce it clearly and it sounds like ‘sucker’ when I say it which amuses me when perhaps it shouldn’t.

  • It is often said that the earliest art was cave painting and here a frequent motif is the killing of animals. Perhaps there were those who killed and those who reflected on that killing or maybe the same people did both. Art does seem to be introspective and that is something society ignores (“navel gazing” is a current term) … !

  • Found this magazine that has a few interesting articles on what drives the artist-
    Maternal form in artistic creation PDF
    Kenneth Wright 7-21
    Day-Dreaming PDF
    Sharon Kivland 22-46
    Psychoanalysis and Artistic Process PDF
    Grayson Perry 47-72
    Psychoanalysis and Artistic Process PDF
    Valerie Sinason 73-78
    Psychoanalysis and Artistic Process PDF
    Martin Creed 79-87
    Some Thoughts About the Artist and His Art PDF
    Lesley Caldwell 88-98
    A Life of its Own: the relationship between artist, idea and artwork PDF
    Patricia Townsend
    I liked this quote (provided by Isserow on his review of the conference) by Psychoanalyst Patrick Casement who states the therapist must tolerate the strain of not knowing which “includes a capacity to tolerate feeling ignorant or incompetent, and a willingness to wait (and to carry on waiting) until something genuinely relevant and meaningful begins to emerge” Isserow says this not knowing equally applies to the artist.

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