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The Purpose of Art
What is the purpose of art? Why do we like it? What does it do for us? It does not keep us alive or safe. It does not find us a mate or help us succeed. So why do we seem so enamoured by it? (Art in the question here may include a range of artistic productions including paintings, sculptures, plays, novels, photographs, etc.).
A simple response is that the purpose of art is to give pleasure, and this is partly right. Indeed we can stand in front of a grand master's painting or listen to Mozart and be delighted. Yet we may also weep at paintings of death or sorrowful dirges which are also, surely, art.
A better definition, perhaps, is that art should move us, stimulating emotions. Of course not everything that makes us happy or sad is art, but art and emotion are causally connected. Good art is reliable in this, while weaker art is not. If nobody likes a sculpture, is it art? What if most people consider it bland and boring?
In creating art, the artist is an important part of the equation and their intent seems important if they are to move us. Some artists just produce what they feel without further thought, and many manage to communicate well enough. Others use arcane symbolism that are codes for the initiated. Yet many also use standard techniques and devices that are known to have reliable effect.
We might also question some contemporary exhibits that seem to have been thrown together in a few minutes, so is effort by the artist important? Maybe, yet a wonderful photograph takes the click of a shutter. Sometimes luck is involved, though mostly it is the skill of the photographer in seeing the composition and capturing the right moment, just as the contemporary artist is also skilled in their own field.
If it does not cheer us, contemporary art may succeed in challenging us, making us wonder what it represents. Other forms of art may also stimulate thinking and even change minds, rather than just provoke transient emotion. Perhaps a broader definition again is needed. We have a basic need for arousal (which may be emotional, intellectual or even physical) that art seeks to satisfy. So is conversation art? It can certainly be intentional and skilful. True, there is no physical trace as with painting, but the same can be said in performing arts such as acting and dance.
Art suggests some degree of creativity. Copying another painting may require the skill of the artist, but surely is lesser art. Stimulation is far greater when there is novelty. A joke is not as funny the second time around and even the pleasure of good paintings fades. A characteristic of novelty is that it breaks rules, yet also follows enough other rules to be recognizable (which is perhaps why 'art for artists' is not appreciated by others).
Does art exist without the viewer? If arousal is required the answer must be no, not in the sense of the artwork's success. And if the viewer's opinion is a part of the process, then the art should create some kind of appreciation, mostly positive in tone but possibly also a grudging acknowledgement that the art made the person stop and think.
The purpose of art, then, is to stimulate arousal that is appreciated. Good art does this reliably, often in a novel way, and usually requiring deep skill.