Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Purposes of Art

A post by Morrigan on the group blog Anthropology Net has an interesting recent post on the purpose of art in cross-cultural and anthropological perspective, “‘300’ and the Purpose of Art” (the post addresses in part the movie “300” and the issue of contemporary mainstream movies as “art” or “entertainment.”) (http://anthropology.net/user/morrigan/blog/2007/03/26/300_and_the_purpose_of_art) I’d like to call attention to one passage from the blog post which I partly agree with and partly take issue with:

“The notion that "art" exists for "aesthetic" reasons came into existence during the European enlightment, and the notion that "art" exists to challenge the status quo is part of the 19th century European Romantic movement. Prior to that, European art was understood to have an archival and educational purpose. Biblical stories and the lives of the saints were communicated to a mostly illiterate population through sculpture and stained glass, and the historic deeds and images of the nobility were recorded in painting.”

Certainly much European art had an archival and educational purpose before the Enlightenment, though much also continued to do so during the Enlightenment and later. Biblical stories, lives of the Saints, and the Stations of the Cross are still communicated through sculpture and stained glass everywhere in the Christian World, albeit generally to a more literature population. And in the U.S., we have paintings of Washington crossing the Delaware, Longfellow’s poetic account of Paul Revere’s Ride, and the multitude of monuments to important persons and deeds in almost every community around the country.

The idea that art exists primarily for aesthetic reasons dates not just to the Enlightenment, I think, but at least back to the Renaissance. Michelangelo might have produced most of his work for the Church, but works like David are designed to be objects of contemplation on their own terms. Still, the idea that art exists primarily for aesthetic reasons is probably a recent western tradition. Certainly the idea the art should exist for art’s sake alone is a very recent idea, Post-Enlightenment even. Likewise the notion that art exists to challenge or be transgressive is also recent. (At the same time, I’d emphasize the potential for art to be transgressive or challenging has been present in a variety of settings, including pre-19th century Western contexts. I don’t know that I’d call Donatello’s David subversive or transgressive, but it’s certainly provocative in the context of comparison with Michelangelo’s [and it’s hard for me to imagine many people, in the Renaissance or now, not thinking about Michelangelo’s sculpture when viewing Donatello’s], raising questions about the nature of masculinity and heroism, etc.)

I would argue that art can have multiple purposes, including the production of beauty or other aesthetic ideals, intellectual stimulation, maintenance of cultural tradition as ritual object, entertainment, etc., and this is true across historical and cultural contexts. Not every work shares all these purposes, some are engaged in multiple functions simultaneously, and some functions may be more or less emphasized in a particular context than others.

If something is different about recent Western art (and more and more, art in all other parts of the world influenced by it) it is the greater emphasis on art as aesthetic object (though I’d also say there are longstanding similar traditions in other world areas, e.g. Japan and China, and other times, e.g. Ancient Greece).

At the same time, aesthetic considerations have been part of the functioning of art in every historical and cultural context.

It’s not completely clear what ritual or other social purposes the cave paintings at Chauvet or Lascaux might have served, but there is manifested in the qualities of the paintings themselves evidence of an aesthetic concern on the part of the original painters, whatever else they might have been also doing. While much art of the ancient Mediterranean served ritual or political functions, much sculpture also was attempting to present aesthetic ideals – and certainly Plato thought of art largely in aesthetic terms (and to some extent in revolutionary terms – in The Republic, music and other art are largely judged not for their culturally conservative effects but for their potential for transforming and bringing about an ideal republic). Much contemporary art is concerned with presenting identity, a sort of secular version of what Morrigan’s blog post talks about as the conservative function of much art - though I think of it more as the continued production of culture. Among other things, contemporary Haitian artist Tiga is concerned to produce art that embodies a Haitian identity, drawing on the western traditions that are one integral part of Haitian culture, but also the ritual imagery of Haitian voodoo and Taino symbolism, but in the process producing an art which is both clearly an expression of Haitian identity and an aesthetic object. (The following links to a tribute to Tiga, who recently passed away: http://kiskeyacity.blogspot.com/2007/02/goodbye-carnival-2007-goodbye-tiga.html. The following provides an overview sketch of Tiga and a link to a documentary about the artist: http://www.haitiforever.com/fora/film/posts/158.html.)

I take Morrigan’s main point to be that the overwhelming emphasis on art objects as solely aesthetic objects is a recent Western phenomenon. The blog entry doesn’t – quite – say that an aesthetic concern at all is a quality of recent Western art while non-western and earlier western art is mainly concerned with cultural maintenance and conservation, but it does come close to saying that. Such a view would be dangerous, I think, another way of locking Non-Western culture in a prison house of tradition while reinforcing the sense of Western culture as the culture of innovation.


Anne said...

Great post.

You say: If something is different about recent Western art (and more and more, art in all other parts of the world influenced by it) it is the greater emphasis on art as aesthetic object.
Don't you think the growth of art as aesthetic object is intimately bound up with its commodification? I'm thinking of how it's increasingly impossible to separate issues of aesthetic value from monetary value because we cannot be innocent of knowledge of the latter, even if we aren't paying for it ourselves. Damien Hirst's 'For the Love of God' plays with this notion, as - at the other extreme - does Michael Landy. (Specifically in 'Breakdown 2001')

I'd suggest that the fact that more individuals can 'own' art has led to an emphasis on aesthetic value (and arguments over how it is determined), with a positive feedback loop. And of course the leaders of taste are the Medicis, Gettys, Guggenheims, Saatchis et al of this world. I'm surprised Morrigan doesn't make more of capitalism in his post on Hirst.

Robert Philen said...

I think you're absolutely right that this greater emphasis on art as aesthetic object over the past couple centuries (even while art continues also to simultaneously do other things) is related to art's commodification.

This has affected all of the arts, but in different ways. Painting and Sculpture have been most commodified as "Art" - largely because they take a concrete physical form whose ownership can be restricted in a way that literature or film do not, making them a quintessential elite commodity.

The "art for art's sake" notion can be applied to any of the other arts as well, but there's much more ready acceptance of movies or books as not "Art" but "just entertainment." It's not that there aren't ways in which such arts are commodified as "Art," but music, writing, film are mainly commodified as "Entertainment" in the form of popular music CDs and downloads, popular fiction, movie tickets, television programs, DVDs, etc.

Anne said...

Agreed; I was thinking mainly of painting and sculpture. But perhaps music, writing, film are more usually conceived as entertainment, not merely 'commodified' as such? Capital here is at the pre-production end, when the project is sold to financiers in the expectation of mass purchase. The plastic arts are (typically)produced*, and then sold to one buyer. The matter of finance usually plays a big part in both: what will sell, what the producer thinks his/her buyer/s will buy. Hirst's latest work is meaningless without the proposition of a market - specifically, a rich buyer.

Joe Public is generally regarded as more secure in his tastes than the rich man: Joe doesn't care who is impressed, but he knows what he likes. The temporal arts are more democratic, and their spin-off products rarely attain the fetishistic status of plastic art. (Album covers, first editions apart.) Query the art/entertainment dichotomy, btw - isn't it more of a continuum, and what value-judgements does it imply?

Art for art's sake does imply a degree of financial independence, doesn't it? And if the artist depends on public funding, even then some committee is deciding priorities...

Gosh, this sounds as if I'm anti-aesthetic, and I'm not. I just want to question where our aesthetic values are coming from. The fact of rich patrons on the one hand, or many poor ones on the other, affects what sort of art is produced, and introduces further complication into our thinking about it, all the more so when we're aware of it. Public art gallery art isn't always as public as we'd like to think. Nor is cinema - it can be moulded by a bunch of rich guys second-guessing our taste.

And I just love it when film - or any art - achieves these 'other things' in spite of the constraint of its paymasters.

Apologies for rambling on. The Market isn't the only angle on art!

*often fairly cheaply - but not 'For the Love of God'

Robert Philen said...

Thanks for your comments. I just wanted here to put in a couple links to discussions of the works you mention in your first comment.

A discussion of Damien Hirst's "For the Love of God" can be found in the June 1 post on Anthropology Net, "Damien Hirst's diamond encrusted skull and jewelled skulls in achaeology":


There's a pretty decent article about Michael Landy and "Breakdown" on Wikipedia:


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