Why Do We Need Art ?

A while ago I posted about what the definition of art is in an attempt to convince a friend that he was horribly wrong about his conviction that art is simply having an aesthetic experience (which requires more definition anyway). One of his further questions to me is why art needs to be communicative. Perhaps this is an arbitrary way to define art, as is the idea that art needs to have a creator and a receiver.

There are two elements to this follow up, one of which is the historical meaning of words and how our understanding of words does need (at least in part) to draw from the common understanding of that word. Generally this involves the idea that art has a creator and is created to communicate in some fashion. The other element seems to get at something deeper though: what is the purpose of art?

Now it’s possible that art doesn’t need a purpose. Rocks don’t have a purpose, and probably we don’t either. But most people agree that art is at the very least a conscious phenomenon and quite probably a human phenomenon. Most, if not all, things that humans do serve a purpose of some sort. So what is the purpose of art?

There are probably a few main schools of thought here: self expression, communication, or deeper understanding of the world. Representation or decoration are also a possible candidates but most of modern art seems to blow those out of the water (performance art anyone?). The only one of these possibilities that doesn’t require some sort of creator is “deeper understanding”, but that seems to be implying a great deal more about art than either of the other two: it suggests that all art is looking to explore something, and even implies that to be art something must successfully lead to more understanding of the world or of self. This leaves very little room for bad art, or art that simply seeks to inspire or be beautiful.

So the remaining possibilities are self expression or communication. Both of these are incredibly broad purposes and by themselves don’t offer much by way of a definition. Each could encapsulate nearly all of human activity in some fashion or other, and a definition that’s so broad is simply unhelpful and probably not correct because our words do actually have to specify something, or pick something out in contrast to the rest of the world. So of course “purpose” has to come with some description of what the thing actually is, which is where having some sort of physical presence and aesthetic experience differentiate art from other things.

But both of these purposes do have communicative and creative elements. They ask us to be in community with other people in some fashion, to participate with an artist and other viewers. Of course there are some questions about what communicating and creating can mean, but that is at the root of why we have and conceive of art. So what of my friend’s proposed definition that art is something we experience in an aesthetic way?

It is possible that the experience of art is simply a human response to the world, like awe or joy, and that we began creating our own art in order to capture that feeling. There may be no way to know entirely what purpose art serves for us, but one underlying problem with this suggestion is the wide variety of types of experiences people have in response to art, up to and including nothing. If aesthetic experience were a natural part of the human experience like other emotions, we could expect to see it in a more consistent fashion across people and cultures.

The question of why we make art can help us understand a little more about what art itself is, and it seems to me that it indicates the use of including a communicative element in our definition. Additionally, in terms of how we functionally use the term “art” we most often use it to point to objects that another human being has created. When it comes to language, we do have to take into account the actual practical usage of a term, not simply what we ideally would like a term to mean. We can’t simply ignore that the most common usages of the word “art” include the implication of an artist who is communicating something with their art.

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