Should Art have a Purpose?

“Art for art’s sake is an empty phrase. Art for the sake of truth, art for the sake of the good and the beautiful, that is the faith I am searching for (Ratcliffe, 2011, p.29).” This phrase from Victorian writer George Sand was a response to the trend in the romantic era to celebrate art that does not have or need a purpose. It is a rendering in English of l’art pour l’art, a phrase coined by philosopher Victor Cousin (Encyclopædia Britannica, 1999). This idea continued well into the 20th century and became the basis for formalism, although in recent years the belief that art must have a purpose and an artist must justify what they do has become prevalent. So does art really need a purpose, and what exactly do we mean by purpose?

To understand this idea one must go back prior to the 1800s, when artists were not free as such and required patronage by wealthy people to produce artworks that were specifically commissioned. Art in those days was created specifically to serve a function. A lot of artworks were religious in nature as the most available commissions were the decoration of churches (Bohn & Saslow, 2012, p.65).

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Figure 1. Jacques-Louis David, Bonaparte Crossing the Grand Saint-Bernard Pass, 1800, oil on canvas, 232cmx271cm (Google Art Project, 2019).

Portraits of important people were also being produced, as they were another common commission. These were often heavily embellished to make the subject appear more powerful, or attractive that they actually were, leading sometimes to blatant fabrication of details. Jacques-Louis David’s Bonaparte Crossing the Grand Saint-Bernard Pass (Figure 1) is a good example of this.

Napoleon is pictured leading his troops across the Alps astride a bucking horse. Unperturbed, he confidently points the way. In reality, he did not lead his troops across the Alps but followed them up the next day on a donkey. He also never posed for the painting. David used a sketch of his head and modelled the body on that of his son climbing a ladder (Cunningham et al., 2016, p.640).

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Figure 2. Caspar David Friedrich, Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (The Wanderer above the sea fog), 1817, oil on canvas, 94.8cmx74.8cm (Artsy, 2018)

By the 1800s artists started to adopt a new image of being independent and figures of greatness. Photography would eventually make mere reproduction easier and freed art to be more expressive, and the rise of industry led to the arrival of the Romantic Movement, which was characterised by a deepened appreciation of the beauty of nature and an adoration of emotion over reason and intellect (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2019).

Walter Pater, one of the foremost art critics of the era, disseminated the belief that art should provide sensual pleasure rather than convey a meaning or message, an ideology that inspired painters like Whistler and even writers such as Oscar Wilde (Nunokawa & Sickels, 2005, p.5). He wrote in the conclusion of his most successful book The Renaissance, that “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life” (Pater, 1928, p.221), an idea he developed further in the aptly-named Marius the Epicurean. He goes on to push “the love of art for its own sake” (Pater, 1928, p.223).

In contrast to Pater’s view, John Ruskin and later advocates of socialist realism believed that art should serve a moral or didactic purpose. Ruskin declared that “the entire vitality of art depends upon its being either full of truth, or full of use” (Ruskin, 1996, p.140).

Caspar David Friedrich was a painter of the Romantic Movement and, Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (The Wanderer above the sea fog) (Figure 2), is one of his best-known works. It displays a young man with a walking stick shown from behind, standing on a rocky precipice looking out across a rough sea. In the far distance, there is a faint appearance of mountains and the fog and clouds seem to blend. As the man’s face cannot be seen, it is impossible to know whether his experience is “exhilarating, or terrifying, or both” (Gaddis, 2004, p.1).

Friedrich once said “the artist’s feeling is his law” (Wiedmann, 1986, p.46). This quotation is rather apt as he really captures the raw power and beauty of nature and the feeling of the individual in the midst of it in this work.

Towards the end of the Victorian era, a less optimistic, more honest and raw art movement appeared. Expressionism featured harsh colours, jagged edges, more violent brushwork and dark subject matter. Influenced by Friedrich (Gariff et al., 2008, p.140), Edvard Munch was a key figure of this movement.

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Figure 3. Edvard Munch, Det syke barn (The Sick Child), 1885–86, oil on canvas, 120cmx118.5cm (Nasjonalmuseet, 2015)

Munch’s life was tortuous at best. His mother died from tuberculous during his fifth Christmas, he caught it seven years later and eventually watched his sister die from it (Høifødt, 2012, p.7). In Munch’s own words, “The illness followed me all through my childhood and youth — the germ of consumption placed its blood-red banner victoriously on the white handkerchief” (Prideaux, 2005, p.66).

Det syke barn (The Sick Child) (Figure 3), is a portrait of Munch’s sister Sophie made a decade later. He used a girl called Betzy Nielsen, described as “consumptively beautiful with a blue-white skin turning yellow in the blue shadows” as a model for his dying sister in the painting. Described as “consumptively beautiful with a blue-white skin turning yellow in the blue shadows”. He proceeded to paint her while sitting in the wicker chair in which Sophie had died (Prideaux, 2005, p.86).

In this painting and many of Munch’s subsequent renditions of it, a frail girl is seen propped up in bed. Her head is turned to face an older woman who is holding her hand and hanging her head in profound sadness. One can feel a strong sense of anticipatory grief from the older woman at the thought of losing the child, who conversely appears to have accepted her fate. In the girl’s path of sight is a long dark curtain which could be interpreted as a symbol of her imminent death. This painting was referred to as his first sjælemaleri, or “soul paintings” (Prideaux, 2005, p.84).

Munch once said “I paint not what I see but what I saw” (Høifødt, 2012, p.7). Much like Friedrich, Munch’s feeling was his law and he used painting as a way to resolve troubling past events in his life like his sister’s death.

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Figure 4. Edvard Munch, Skrik (The Scream), 1893, tempura and pastels on cardboard, 91cmx73.5cm (Artsy, 2018)

It was also certainly true of his most famous work, Skrik (The Scream) (Figure 4), which was inspired by a memorable evening when he was walking with friends during a sunset. The sky turned “blood red”, and “Trembling with anxiety” he “sensed an infinite scream passing through nature” (Lowis, 2009, p.119).

This painting features a distraught white figure, its hands raised to hold its face, screaming with large open eyes. There is an unforgettably ghastly expression on the face of the individual, who represents Munch during his experience of the sunset.

Through a post-modernistic lens the approach of the expressionism been criticised for its “very hermeneutic model of the inside and the outside” (Harrison & Wood, 2002, p.1049). Theorist Fredric Jameson, in a text about “the waning of affect in postmodern culture” said of The Scream, it “deconstructs its own aesthetic of expression, all the while remaining imprisoned within it.” (Harrison & Wood, 2002, p.1050).

It would appear that as art for art’s sake waned in the 20th century, audiences became more discerning. He goes on to say, “concepts such as anxiety and alienation (and the experiences to which they correspond, as in The Scream) are no longer appropriate in the world of the postmodern”. The purpose behind this painting is no longer relevant, as it is self-indulgent. It must be more accessible by others, according to theorists like Jameson.

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Figure 5. Emil Nolde, Meer (I), 1947, oil on canvas, 68cmx88cm (Garbrecht, 2008, p.39).

Emil Nolde, another expressionist artist perhaps also influenced by Friedrich (Schmied, 1995, p.40), carried on the expressionistic style of painting into the 20th century. Meer (I) (Figure 5), or Sea in English, is one of his works produced shortly after the Second World War ended.

Nolde was banned from making art by the Nazis, and had more of his works confiscated than any other artist, on the basis that his work was “degenerate” (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, 2019). Yet he was a member of the Nazi party, and remained a supporter until the end of the war.

This work features a blood red sky traversed by thick black clouds. Beneath it is a restless sea painted in blue and green shades. It seems very appropriate for an immediate post-war expressionist painting. Perhaps, the red sky with black clouds signifies an anger or fear concerning the end of the war. The restlessness of the sea may represent the restless feelings of Nolde, who had lost his wife Ada to a heart attack the previous year. He in fact painted many images of the sea due a memorable crossing of the Kattegat strait in a violent storm in 1910 (Selz, 1963, p.72).

Despite his ban from painting, he still managed to quietly paint many watercolours during the war which he referred to as “Unpainted Pictures” (Selz, 1963, p.70). Perhaps the need to express his self was too great for even the Nazis to totally prevent. The purpose of his art is similar to Friedrich’s, in that he painted many seascapes and landscapes because he felt a need to paint them. Those things held significance for him, in much the way Munch’s sister’s death was significant to him.

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Figure 6. Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Print from New York International, 1966, screen print, 30.5x30.5cm (MoMA, 2019).

Moving on to the 60s, art was becoming yet more abstract. Pop art was at its height but there were also many avant-garde artists such as Ad Reinhardt producing works that question how far the boundaries of art could be pushed. This pushing of boundaries was nothing new. In the 1910s artists like Marcel Duchamp were doing precisely that. His infamous Fountain, an inverted urinal inscribed with “R. Mutt” in indelible marker, was refused entry and considered not a work of art due its association with bodily waste by the Society of Independent Artists (Howarth, 2015).

Reinhardt’s Abstract Print (Figure 6) is an almost entirely black screen print with a faint white mixed in. The image might be seen by theorists like Pater as lacking in aesthetic quality but may have also been viewed as lacking in social purpose by Ruskin. This new form of art that started with the Dadaists goes beyond painting enigmatic landscapes and edgy screaming figures. It is an attempt to push boundaries of art as a medium.

One of the issues with “art for art’s sake” is the tendency for the art market to prosper heavily from these ever changing styles or fashions in art, which are merely stylistic and challenge nothing. Artist and writer Ian Burn believed that this helped to prop up capitalism, especially in 1970’s New York (Harrison & Wood, 2002, p.936). Artists like Salvador Dalí, whose dream-like imagery and style have become very well-known, is an artist that the art market clearly loves, as his Portrait de Paul Éluard sold for nearly £13.5 million in 2011 (Sotheby’s, 2011). Yet the work is adored its style not for its meaning.

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Figure 7. Christian Jankowski, Still from Kunstmarkt TV, 2008, internet digital video stream, 767x562px (Jankowski, 2008)

Burn’s argument is based partly on the ideas of theorists like Ruskin, that art should be used for the social good, which has become a prevalent in the modern era. A lot of artists focus on social or political issues, and those that produce works that do not challenge anything, especially in a troubled country are sometimes seen as upholding the status quo. Artist Christian Jankowski produced a live stream called Kunstmarkt TV (Figure 7), or Art Market TV in English, which features two presenters that sell artworks in the style of a teleshopping TV station (Frost, 2013). This was his way of critiquing the art market and how it undermines the social value of such art.

Lawrence Abu Hamda’s After SFX (Figure 8) is a work that is certainly compatible with Ruskin’s view of Art. It is based in a large dark room with a set of speakers that surround the viewer playing eerie noises, while a large screen displays text explaining that the sounds are those heard by prisoners in a Syrian regime prison.

Hamda is an audio investigator for Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture and this work represents crimes that are heard but not seen (Tate, 2019). It seeks to inform the audience of the critical work done by audio investigators Like Hamda while immersing the audience into the frightening experience of the prisoners, which emphasises the urgency of his work. This would be seen by writer Marshall McLuhan as the artist fulfilling their duty by provoking discussions and forcing people to engage with real world issues (Harrison & Wood, 2002, p.756).

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Figure 8. Lawrence Abu Hamda, After SFX, 2018, text and audio, dimensions variable (a-n, 2019).

Proponents of aestheticism in the 19th century like James McNeil Whistler however, would view the work as confounded by “claptrap” (Sutherland, 2014, p.155), and politically and emotionally loaded. To produce that deals with socio-political themes and is quite directly linking to real world events is to an extent a modern concept, and one that is influenced much by proponents of art with a social purpose, like Ruskin.

From the analyses of the artworks, one can deduce that the older works by Friedrich, Munch, and Nolde, are about expression of emotions, resolving of traumatic events and painting for pleasure. Their work serves the needs of the artists and may be seen by some as self-indulgent. Artist Mel Ramsden once complained of “indulgent individual freedom” in artistic practices in 1970s New York. These “insular and boring” fads that he complained of, were examples of artistic freedom that, as Ian Burn feared, were subservient to the art market (Harrison & Wood, 2002, p.933).

In the case of Duchamp and Reinhardt, their work is very abstract and is intended to challenge what can be considered art. Both proponents of aestheticism and socio-political art would perhaps dislike this art even though it has a clear purpose.

For later artists like Jankowski and Hamda, the work serves to raise awareness of issues in the world and bring attention to the necessity for socio-political change. Theorists like Ruskin and McLuhan would have approved of Hamda’s work, as it theoretically improves society by promoting awareness of social issues.

My own work varies from mere abstract or symbolic expressions of my feelings, like the expressionists, to humorous demonstrations of socio-political issues via exaggeration, like Jankowski. The German concept of Weltschmerz, a lamenting of the human condition, prominently features in my work, heavily influenced by philosophers Schopenhauer, Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard, and the artists Munch and Nolde.

This view that art should be beautiful or produced entirely without a specific purpose is seen as wasteful in the modern era but in reality it could be just as valid as the philosophy of Ruskin that art should serve a social purpose. Friedrich believed that “nothing is incidental in a picture” (Friedenthal, 1963, p.33), and Nolde said similarly that the “soul of the painter lives within” paintings (Miesel, 2003, p.37). Both of these phrases are a way of saying the same thing, that any artist will leave parts of their identity in their work, even if completely unintentionally. By this logic, all art automatically expresses the artist’s identity and feelings, and therefore has a purpose from the start, even if it is not the artist’s intention. This renders the main question being investigated somewhat invalid, as perhaps the question should be which purpose is best for Art.

Even if art is used by some artists as a form of self-therapy, it is still a valid purpose, and no doubt there are many other people that have shared or similar life experiences to artists like Munch or Nolde, and therefore the work may strike a chord with them. Sometimes art has to be self-indulgent in order to project the very complex and specific feelings that an individual might have, and those of a similar disposition may find that work much stronger than work portraying a more political or social issue. This quickly becomes an argument about minorities versus majorities, and whether or not the individual is most important or large social groups.

Much of this debate rests on the definition of purpose. If we consider purpose to be the ultimate effect on the viewer, regardless of the artist’s intentions, then art could be considered to have absolutely no purpose by some and exceedingly purposeful by others. If we consider purpose to be the artist’s reason for creating the work, whatever that motivation might be, by that definition any artwork will automatically have purpose. Even if it is only to bring pleasure, it is still fulfilling a fundamental human need.

Whatever the purpose or function of art, it is also necessary to define Art. The latter definition of purpose would appear to mark everything one can create as a work of art, even if it is the carbon dioxide we breathe out. This is somewhat reminiscent of Fluxus artist Joseph Beuys’ view that everyone is an artist (Harrison & Wood, 2002, p.905).

Revisiting the Victorian era, Ruskin believed that art and culture could become a replacement for religion after increasing secularisation was inevitable (Cheeke, 2016, p.24). Indeed art theorist André Malraux believed that this has already happened. In Les voix du silence (The Voices of Silence), he said that “modern masters paint their pictures as the artists of ancient civilisations carved or painted gods” (Malraux, 1974, p.616). The agenda for Art delineated in Art as Therapy by philosopher Alain de Botton and art history John Armstrong, is that art should “assist mankind in its search for self-understanding, empathy, consolation, hope, self-acceptance and fulfilment” (de Botton & Armstrong, 2019, p.230).

Ultimately art has become a new faith, and while there is certainly room for aesthetic beauty and intriguing imagery, there is also a firmly established culture of art providing socio-political commentary. It is perhaps not surprising that in a war-torn country, for example, an artist might be seen as a sell-out for producing art that is beautiful, yet in a successful country, it may be a bit more acceptable. Art reflects greatly the time and location in which it was produced, and adapts to the needs of different societies, so the best purpose for art is subjective therefore it seems myopic to restrict what art should be.

As discussed earlier, any art will have a purpose by the latter definition, and following the first, only certain pieces would have a purpose. Is this just arguing over semantics and groups arguing past each other? Wittgenstein said that “if a lion could speak, we could not understand him” (Hofstadter, 1980). That is because the lion’s culture is so vastly different to ours that, even if we understood the words, they will not mean the same thing as in our language. Perhaps the real purpose of art should be to listen to the proverbial lion, forgetting about the words and grammar, and accept its vocalisations as one of many valid commentaries on life.


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