Art and Purpose

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Art and Purpose

From Brian K. Yoder

Published before 2005


Jeffery LeMieux wrote:
I think that art and science are two halves of a fundamental feedback loop between a conscious individual and the environment. Science is the half of experience that progresses from the environment into the individual in the form of a conceptual construct assembled by the individual that models the environment to a greater or lesser degree of accuracy. Scientific method is the means by which this construct is built.

Art is the half of experience that progresses from the conceptual construct into the environment. In this very broad sense, everything (that moves from idea into the environment) is art, and that's the sense I think works most effectively.

By that definition pretty much all man-made things are "art". Engineering, gardening, sex, a smile, a hammer, a brick, baseball games, boring lectures on Procrustes, you name it. What purpose is served by using such a narrow term (art) are applying it to everything people do? We already have a term for such things (man-made things) but if "art" is of service the purpose of standing in for another perfectly good term, what word would you have us use to refer to drawing, painting, sculpture, music, drama, and literature? Should these have to share their name with everything else even though those other things only share their status as being man-made with them?

I also think this scheme of things directly implies a very important question. While everything is art in my broad scheme,

Everything? Or just man-made things?

not everything is good art. I think the main question in art today and forevermore is, 'what is good?' I think the main function of artists and critics is to engage in a dialogue about the nature of good, and to make that dialogue as accessible to the viewing public as is possible and still be engaged with the question at the highest level. I'm a populist at heart. I don't think we need jargon and elitism and post-colonial studies journals to explain the latest art theory. I think all we need do is look and most good art will be plain to see.

Fair enough, but to know what is good, you must know the purpose of a thing. If you see a guy climbing a mountain really effectively, you can only know that he's doing a good job if you know that he's a mountain-climber and that his goal is to climb the mountain. If instead he's trying to do something else ... like hunting for a wife on the (unpopulated) mountain, you would say that he's not doing very well at all and you might recommend that he go to the city instead. To put it briefly, goodness implies purpose.

Now, you can make a very general claim that the purpose of man-made things is to make man happy (though you might have a hard time making that argument stick when it comes to that barely existent, always impure curiosity, the nihilist) but to say much more than that is impossible since each class of things seeks to make man happy in vastly different ways. Hammers make man happy in one way. Birthday cakes in another. Money, food, shovels, napkins, skyscrapers, paintings, movies, trowels, cups, and a million other things can be judged only with a more precise understanding of what those items are being used for. You need to know that cups are for holding liquids, that shovels are for digging holes, that money is for buying things, and that paintings are for... for what? Is there just no reason other than the most general one? Or by their nature are they for some other purpose that can be identified with a little more specificity?

Warhol's "art," his "expression" if you will, is pretty perceptive visual philosophy, competent and current with the questions of his day, especially the commodification of beauty and the commodification of the individual by a mass culture. I accept his work on those terms, and in my broad definition, as art. But I think his work is soul-deadening, and I'd not hang it in my home.

It's certainly "man-made" (well... at least person-made). But is it the same kind of thing as what painters, composers, poets, and sculptors do? I actually think that sometimes it was (though only barely) and I agree that it was pretty bad in general too.

I reject his strategy as inherently self- and other-abusive. I think he was out there slapping people in the face and insulting them, and they kept asking for more. I usually understand what's going on after one or two slaps and put a stop to the foolishness. If I ever did have the funds to invest in art, I'd carefully select only life-affirming works such as the ones offered on GoodArt, and consistently reject Warhol's work. Is it bad art? No, I think it's just bad.

If you saw a bad teacup (say, it had a big hole through the bottom) then you would say "That's bad!" without any further possibility of explanation based on what we know the purposes of teacups to be? I would think that you would have to know the nature of teacups, understand their purpose, and then identify what factors in the particular teacup at hand contribute to or detract from that purpose in order to form your judgment. If so then how is art (the narrower class of paintings, sculptures, novels, music, etc.) somehow different at this level? You need to understand the nature of the thing in question, understand its purpose and how that nature can be harmoniously aligned with that purpose, and then you can evaluate it as good or bad based on a clear understanding of its purpose. Without such an understanding you can't begin to tell which is good and which isn't.

--Brian