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What Is Art For?

Art is an expression of the human spirit.  Pictographs and cave paintings, created back in the mists of time, would suggest that art is something essentially human. Not only is the creation of art a defining human characteristic, art - the practice of, and perhaps the markings themselves - play some fundamental role in our lives. Much has been said on this subject, and the true purpose of art may forever remain a mystery. Nevertheless, a few things might be said with some certainly:

Art, is about seeing (in every sense of that word); it is about experiencing, exploring, understanding, feeling, and  communicating. . . Art is self-expression. This was always my favourite definition, something that stuck in my mind from high school art class. What is it though, in ourselves, that is seeking expression? Is it the self (small 's') representing the ego (if we're to look at this in psychoanalytical terms) or the Self (capital'S') representing the soul? This may be an important distinction, which we'll explore later.


So, What is Art for?


Many people, of course, have commented on the subject. Alluded to here, in the title of this page, is a commentary by British philosopher, Alain de Botton. I first became aware of Botton's writing when a friend gave me a copy of his book, The Art of Travel, back in the early 2000s. Somewhat more recently, my niece sent me a collection of videos from Botton's 'School of Life' series, including the one mentioned. If you have a few minutes to watch this, some interesting points are made, all of which are more appropriate than ever today. These are as follows:

    Art keeps us hopeful
    Art makes us less lonely
    Art rebalances us
    Art helps us appreciate stuff
    Art is propaganda for things that really matter

I'll not transcribe the individual commentaries here (as the video is only 6 minutes in length) but I will focus on the one that speaks to me most: Art rebalances us (2:26). We immediately assume that this is balancing of the individual (and that's part of it of course), interestingly though, Botton refers to society as a whole (also) (3:10):

'society falls in love with a certain style in art because it's trying to rebalance itself; like France in the late 18th century, that wanted David [Jacques-Louis] as a corrective to its decadence, or Britain in the 19th century that looked to the Pre-Raphaelites to counter the effects of brutal industrialization.'

We've been exploring this notion here for some time now, but the idea (from the late-Modern on) is that art has been shaping us (not the other way round). The fact that a 'certain style' will be accepted, reflects a 'readiness' on the part of the culture in which it emerges (or is introduced) and to this extent, ideas in art reflect the psychological disposition of the day. We must explore this idea in greater detail later, as the reason for these shifts – from balance to disequilibrium (on one extreme), to balance again, and then to disequilibrium at the other extreme  – might well be explained in this way. We see these historical cycles over and over, as the pendulum swings back and forth; and happily (as unbalanced as the world seems at present), that pendulum may be set to swing back again.

Art, literally, shapes the way we think; the practice of art, and also, exposure to art (in all its forms). Art can be propaganda, but art be a transcendent, mystical experience. . . Something sublime. Some would go so far as to say that art is a religion, however we're to define this. 

Art is powerful, though many would disagree; but this is precisely why art is so powerful. Art is misunderstood (by some), underestimated (by many), and entirely overlooked (by a great many more). But art acts on us,  nevertheless, even if we are unaware of how it influences us. Art is powerful because it shapes the way we think; 'The medium,' as McLuhan said, 'is the message.' Different expressions of art not only reflect a different manner of thinking, they foster a different way of thinking. 

The name given to each of these 'isms' reflects the mode of thinking it expresses, and engenders: Abstract (removed from reality) expressionistic (imposed on reality), impressionist (an impression of reality), realist (an attempt to reflect reality). We begin here, as Regionalist artists, by resisting the postmodern, post-structural notion, that there is no Objective reality, only subjective experience. 

From the film Cloud Atlas

Sonmi-451: "Truth is singular. Its 'versions' are mistruths." 

From photo journalist Sebastião Salgado's book Migrations: Humanity in Transition (documentary) - on the importance of realism, in general:

"Nothing can justify what is happening, but as long as it happens, it is necessary that it should be taken in; because it is important that the inner life of man - that the life which he creates within his mind - resemble as finely (that is to say, as truthfully as possible) the actual world. And the whole history of art and philosophy is the history of a long and extraordinary struggle to make this possible."

We will continue this discussion in the very near future, but another interesting commentary can be found in the much-discussed book by the British psychiatrist, Iain McGilchrist - The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. The book focuses, to a large extent, on art as an reflection of our psychology, and we will revisit this. For now though, a documentary which aired on CBC (earlier this year), will likely be of interest (if you've read this far). 
Please see the following:

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