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.