What is the purpose of art?

I think many of us, myself included, feel like a very small fish in a way-too-big pond when it comes to art. As with many things that draw our interest, we feel may inadequate as we approach. What is the purpose of art? Why approach it at all?

The purpose of art is to bring us individually and collectively to our higher purpose.

There. I said it. Is that a bold statement? I can see some of you scratching your heads right now, wondering what the heeeeeck I’m talking about. Allow me to explain.

I’ve come to an understanding that we are holistic beings. The whole of who we are – and what we need in order to be healthy – seeks integration, yet we’ve learned to deny ourselves in multitudes of ways.  I know I’m not the only one who seeks integration and balance.  We get so caught up in who we think we are and what we think we are supposed to be doing that we risk losing ourselves. I’m not my job. I’m not a mom. I’m not a soul or a body. I’m not a friend, a sister, a dork, a wife. I’m not an artist. And I’m certainly not a royal pain in the ass. I’m all these things and more.

If I lose focus on the totality of who I am, I lose myself. I know this is true for so many of us, and this is what drives us to constantly look for that magical “balance,” whether we define it to ourselves as such or not.  Part of my journey right now is finding the space and time for the things that nourish me, discovering what they are and giving them priority with a sense of joy. Cuz I’ve pretty well had it up to *here* with the idea of obligation, and I certainly have no desire to approach my creative drive in any kind of self-flagellating manner.  It requires a different definition of “balance” and “wholeness.”  I am working out what it means for me.  I am starting to see it differently, and the image emerging is not always what I imagined it to be.

Remember these? They were everywhere in the 90’s. With a certain focus, there’s an image behind the image.

Or how about this famous image? What do you see – the crone or the maiden?

How many of you (with or without formal art education) find it difficult to understand why a particular artist is so famous?  For me, I’ve been occasionally puzzled about the uproar over Picasso for most of my life.  I do truly appreciate some of his works, but many of them just leave me scratching my head.  However, as some of the pieces click into place for me, the art starts to look different to me.  I’m not going to say I “get it” – I think that oversimplifies the complex interaction between artist, viewer, and art.  I *will* say I’m gaining more appreciation as I go along… and maybe that’s what all good art has to power to do.

What do you see when you look at the Picasso piece below?

Here’s what I see.  I see that Picasso was presenting the subject from a variety of perspectives all at once.  I won’t tie Picasso down to my theme, but at least a small part of the genius of this image (and many other Picasso images) is that it begs us to re-evaluate reality, question how we see things, begin to recognize our assumptions about our abilities to perceive accurately, broaden our view in a way that is frankly difficult for us to do.  That’s why it looks so bizarre.   Yet we’re viscerally drawn to it, even if (as has been the case with me) we don’t “like” it.

If I can support my own “genius” (which we all have), bubbling softly and gently under the surface, I might express something similar, mightn’t I?  I might bring you to understanding of your own, whether I’ve found that nugget of wisdom myself or not.    The purpose of art is as a vehicle to the messages that reside in all of us, the perspectives that lead us to the discovery of who we really are if we are unafraid to look.  Art is a way to become a channel for the things that matter most to us as individuals and as a species.  And each of us has a unique vision, our own perspective on reality as valid as any other.

It is the first vision that counts.  Artists have only to remain true to their dream and it will possess their work in such a manner that it will resemble the work of no other artist – for no two visions are alike, and those who reach the heights have all toiled up the steep mountains by a different route.  To each has been revealed a different panorama.

Albert Pinkham Ryder

Bold claims!  Who am I to say all this?  Who cares about my stupid theories anyway?!

Full stop.

Ladies and gentlemen, pay attention – because I know that a great many of you are prevented from thinking about yourselves, about your art, and about art in general in ways that are authentic because they seem too bold for you.  What qualifications do we have to make such claims, to put our own opinions out there?  What degree backs us up?  Shouldn’t we at least research what the “experts” think before putting it out there?  After all, there’s nothing worse than looking stupid or uneducated, right?

Wrong.  No, no, and no.  Claim it.  It’s yours.  Your vision is yours alone and yet makes a difference to everyone else, even (now you’re really gonna think I’m crazy) those who may reject it.  This is your voice.  Find it and let it lead you to your higher truth.  If it’s ugly, let it be so. If it’s messy, let it be so.  If it’s made up of prim paper flowers, let it be so.  The only way to find your voice is to use it, to judge it only for it’s clarity, integrity and authenticity.  Trust it, nourish it, plant it… see what comes up.  We all have art inside – you have only to give it expression.

Artists need an audacity, an almost arrogant self-confidence that what they are doing could be worthwhile…there is a lot of good for anybody in making almost any kind of art.  Just as each of us benefits from physical exercise and meditation, even though we may not become professional athletes or enlightened yogis, making art is intensely cathartic and healing, and should be enjoyed by everyone, even those who don’t think they will become the next T.S. Elliot or Picasso.  The act of drawing or painting, writing poetry, dancing, or making music brings us into personal contact with the creative spirit, and that has inestimable value for enjoyment and self-discovery.  The health of the soul depends on whether we can express our creative energy freely or feel we must keep it hidden and suppressed.

Alex Gray, The Mission of Art


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4 Responses

  1. Certainly food for thought Amy. I think every artist (or wannabe artist) feels a little lost at times. While I appreciate art, I don’t appreciate ALL art. I’ve been to museums and seen art installations that don’t move me the way critics say they should. Sometimes I wonder if it’s me, am I not smart enough to appreciate beauty? Meanwhile, I’m still creating, regardless of what people say of my work.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Amy Wing, Gauche Alchemy. Gauche Alchemy said: RT @amywing: What is the purpose of art? http://bit.ly/cpRibX […]

  3. What a great post, how did I miss this?! lol Thanks for writing this Amy, Yvonne’s right definitely food for thought!

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