What is the purpose of art?

by mckennabailey

This question from SoulPancake seemed pretty straightforward when I read it the first time. Then I started really thinking about it and the answer became more complicated.

My initial reaction was the purpose of art is to fulfill some of the desires that make us human. I have a very rudimentary knowledge of the animal kingdom, but I am confident in saying that humans are the only animals with such a high-caliber imagination. I would venture to guess that way back when this imagination was used largely through mirror neurons, where we could observe other people and imagine ourselves doing that same act. It’s how we learn to do most of the things we do, including language and behavior. Now days, we don’t rely on the mirror neurons for survival, only as a way to assimilate into our respective cultures. But we still have a biological build up of imagination and creativity that needs to be applied somehow and we’ve all settled on art.

Mostly, I think art was our best option because as social creatures, we want to interact with each other, and art satiate that yearning  in a specifically human way. Its creation and its enjoyment both depend on our imaginations as individuals and as a species. So by this logic, art’s purpose becomes something very essential to us – something we need, biologically. This is especially interesting when you consider that there aren’t many art pieces in existence today that appeal to everyone (or even the large majority of everyone). Even a Justin Timberlake song doesn’t get everyone dancing. But it’s not the art pieces themselves that we are concerned with, it’s simply the persistence of the celebration and creation of art itself. Because without it, our uniquely human traits start to diminish.

But I also think we need it to keep ourselves honest. They say that history is nothing more than a winner’s account. That we can’t really count on history books to tell the entire story. And I completely agree that history books are not the best place to learn what a particular time period was like, but you can count on art to do that. Take for example the current trend in street art. This may a very particular example, but it’s still important to mention that it’s the kind of art that is speaking to the masses right now. We are all valuing the kind of art that is easily displayed, makes a concise, clear statement, and has a sort of counter-culture aesthetic to it. Clearly this isn’t indicative of every individual, but it does show a kind of general unrest  that is very much a reflection of how we feel. Certainly we could write letters (tweets) to each other and express these feelings of uncertainty, but art speaks to a wider audience, in a beautiful way that has a better chance of standing the test of time – which is a huge reason for art – to show the future what we felt and thought about today.

There are countless other purposes for art – general enjoyment, social commentary, telling of stories – but I think the most important purpose is human connection. We all want things to have in common and art gives us that.