Why do we make art?
Why do we like art?
What’s the point?
Most activities in life have a purpose that’s pretty easy to define. We grow food for nourishment. We commute to work and do our jobs to help civilization function. We sleep to recharge our bodies. Working as an electrical engineer for 11 years, I didn’t pursue any design goal that didn’t have a clear purpose, and I had to prove to management that it was worth my time to implement.
We are conditioned to think this way; everything we do must have a clear purpose to be “worth it”.
Art throws a wrench into all of this.
For a long time, art had concrete utilitarian functions. Cave paintings served as records of hunting trips. Ancient Egyptian statues were a conduit for the spirit, not even meant to be seen. Before cameras were a practical tool for documenting the natural world, John James Audubon traveled the country painting the Birds of America. Technology, though, has steadily eroded the traditional applications of art, making its purpose increasingly harder to define. A camera can now instantly deliver a technically flawless portrait (or selfie!) for negligible cost. While a prehistoric hunter may have painted a beautiful illustration of his epic mammoth hunt on a cave wall to preserve the story for future generations, now we have GoPro’s for that.
As realist art became displaced by technology, artists gradually ventured into the abstract. Impressionism, Fauvism, Abstract Expressionism, Cubism, and many other movements sought a new function for art. Some artists wanted to evoke the “feeling” of a sunset, while others endeavored to portray the world in four dimensions. At the same time, art and philosophy were becoming commingled, such as with the Russian Constructivist movement. Artists, designers, and architects advanced new design aesthetics, such as those of the Bauhaus. Art as propaganda and as a political tool became commonplace. As the functions of art multiplied and mutated, it broke free from the canvas. Conceptual installations flourished, as in Damien Hirst’s brilliant commentary on the cycle of life and death, A Thousand Years. This “fanning out” of art’s functionality has all happened pretty recently in the history of humanity. Art now changes so quickly that there is no consensus for its purpose.
The only constant is that we still crave it. We still make the effort to create and to observe. Why?
To me, the reason that art continues to captivate humanity is precisely because it’s so hard to pin down. I think we can all agree instinctively that many of the cave paintings and portraits of old weren’t just created as historical records. Art moves the artist and the viewer. Even purely “decorative” art seems to fulfill some unknown purpose. Have you ever observed the intricate geometric patterns of the Alhambra and experienced a strange-yet-undeniable satisfaction?
As humans we seek to experiment and explore. For many of us, this is first done with a piece of paper and a few crayons. The physical act of making a mark seems simple, but the body’s complicated mechanical and neural systems must work together to accomplish it. With thousands of variables at play, the same “simple” mark can be made in an infinite number of different ways. And that’s just one mark. Each drawing, painting, sculpture, or song is a complex, unique creation that can be experienced and appreciated by other people. The artist creates, the viewer views, and the listener listens all for the same reason:
To go on a trip.
We crave experiences. We appreciate art for the same reason we enjoy a trip to Thailand, a hike in Patagonia, a meal at a favorite restaurant, or a walk in the park. The experiences don’t have to be entirely pleasurable, either. Viewing some paintings might be akin to walking on hot coals or getting a tattoo; a prickly burning sensation that we nevertheless choose to endure. I remember feeling this way the first time I saw the childlike chaos of Cy Twombly’s work; I now consider him an influence. Sure, art has the power to comfort us, but it also has the power to challenge us. I’ll bet you can think of a food you hated once upon a time that you now love (raw oysters anyone?). Something you initially disliked ultimately ended up making your life richer, fuller. Art is no different. Even when we see a piece we detest, the work of the artist has been done. That image is now in your brain, working on your subconscious taste.
What do I mean by this? There may be some detail about the painting you’ve just snickered at that sticks with you: a particular color combination, a texture, or a mark in the upper right-hand corner. Even though you don’t realize it, that part of the painting is stored in your brain in the “interesting things” compartment. This is where things get really interesting. At some point in the future, maybe a month or a decade down the line, you’ll see something else that triggers that part of your brain, resonating with it. Maybe that weird color combination has resurfaced, and this time you definitely like it. Maybe that texture “works” after all. Maybe the “scribbly lines” you’ve always hated aren’t so bad…
You’ve been changed, even if you don’t yet realize it.
Just like any other experience, art has both an immediate and longer-lasting effect on us. A powerful artwork will continue to reshape our way of seeing the world for a long time after the initial viewing. These “gradual breakthroughs” are often imperceptible, but what’s really happening is a chain reaction inside us, sometimes an avalanche! The more art we take in, the faster it happens. Art reshapes us, adding both substance and detail. This is how we develop our own personal tastes and sensibilities. One breakthrough leads to another and so on, until we’ve gone from listening to Mother Goose to Metallica to John Cage… and sometimes back to Mother Goose. The point is that we’ve taken the trip and now we are different.
We seek art for the same reason we seek all experiences - because there is some undeniable, universal pull to do so. As a result we grow, change, and improve. So the next time you see a painting that just makes your skin crawl, remember:
The avalanche has begun.
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