The Purpose And Value of Art

As far back as we can see in any detail, we find humans creating art. But art is an odd thing, in that people generally create it for internal (and thus hard-to-articulate) reasons, making clear, logical explanations difficult. Making it still harder has been an obsession with incoherent and confusing art over the past century

We can begin our examination with a passage from Leo Tolstoy’s What Is Art?:

Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one consciously, by means of certain external symbols, conveys to others the feelings one has experienced, whereby people so infected by these feelings, also experience them.

In the same book, Tolstoy also writes,

By words one transmits thoughts to another, by means of art, one transmits feelings.

Art, then, is a means of communication. And by implication, the communication of something worthwhile. A good painting, for example, can give you the sense of being in a certain place at a certain time, or it can give you the feeling of what it was like, or would be like, to be in that situation.

The Value of Art

This transmission of feelings can be a valuable thing. Imagine, for example, a very special time and place – the kind that occurs for only for a few seconds, and only once in a generationArt, in the hands of a master, can capture that moment, preserve it, and deliver it to people yet unborn.

Music does the same thing, of course. For example, you’ve certainly heard the opening lines of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Imagine sitting in a silent concert hall. Then imagine that silence broken with the first lines of the symphony played, loudly, by a full orchestra.

Beethoven wrote this on his copy of the music, as he wrote it: Fate knocks. Can you hear how his music communicated that ominous feeling? That is what art can do, and presuming that the feelings being communicated have value, this is what makes art worth your time and energy.

Here’s a personal example: There is a set of four paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago; they show groups of people discovering magnificent ancient ruins. When I see these paintings, I feel what it is like to discover such things – to see that other men have done great things… to see that such things are possible, and to think that I, too, am capable of such things.

Seeing these paintings is a different experience for me than reading words. Both are valuable, but they are different. And I get the same type of experience when listening to good music. Art affects me differently than do words, but both are strongly beneficial to me.

One way or another, art should deliver something positive to you. And so, laboring to understand and appreciate art that doesn’t move you is probably a waste of your time. It’s true that an appreciation for some things may be learned, but laboring to like something you really don’t, because people say you should, or because people will think you’re uncultured if you don’t, is foolish. Either the art contributes something to you or it’s not worth your time. As Tolstoy also noted:

The assertion that art may be good art and at the same time incomprehensible to a great number of people is extremely unjust, and its consequences are ruinous to art itself…it is the same as saying some kind of food is good but most people can’t eat it.

My Suggestions

The reasons for art’s degradation over the past century can be explained, but I’m tired of spending time on what was wrong; I’d rather build what is right. And so I encourage you to find art that moves you in some positive way, and to surround yourself with it, however you can.

And for those of you who feel compelled to make art, I urge you to devote yourself to your craft. Whether your interest is painting, sculpting, music, or whatever, developing your skills will take long, hard work. Please don’t try to avoid that development with trendy, flashy shortcuts. Yes, I know it can be hard, but do it anyway. And at the same time, learn how to draw upon your innate creativity. This is necessarily a long process, so don’t try for shortcuts. (See How To Become Inspired.) What you’re doing has immense value; for all our sakes I thank you and urge you to continue.

And before closing, here are some useful quotations on this subject.

[The object of art is] to make eternal the desperately fleeting moment. (Tennessee Williams)

Homer is one of the men of genius who solved that fine problem of art — the finest of all, perhaps — truly to depict humanity by the enlargement of man: that is, to generate the real in the ideal. (Victor Hugo)

Before going any further may we take it that the object of art is to obtain a partial revelation of that which is beyond human senses and human faculties – of that, in fact, which is spiritual? And that the means which we employ to induce this revelation are those very senses and faculties themselves? (Ralph Vaughan Williams)

Inspiration comes of working every day. (Charles Baudelaire)

Inspiration is a guest who does not like to visit lazy people. (Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky)

We forfeit three-fourths of ourselves in order to be like other people. (Arthur Schopenhauer)

And finally, cutting to the heart of the issue, here are several verses from Alexander Pope’s Prelude to Mr. Addison’s Cato:

To wake the soul by tender strokes of art,

To raise the genius, and to mend the heart;

To make mankind, in conscious virtue bold,

Live o’er each scene, and be what they behold:

For this the Tragic Muse first trod the stage.


Paul Rosenberg