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The Functions of Art

by Grant Bartley

What is art for? The question of art’s function is prominent in this issue. Can it be used to challenge tyranny, or to make us better citizens? Plato certainly thought that contemplation of beauty could lead you closer to seeing ultimate truth. Could art similarily lead you to see moral truth, between individuals or for society? Schiller thought so, as Francis Akpata explains. And Justin Kaushall tells us how Adorno thought radical art could seismically shift awareness, and so fight fascism (and, for Adorno, capitalism too).

Among other things, Immanuel Kant’s 1790 book the Critique of Judgement is concerned with beauty in art. Kant is considering how we make judgements, and one of the big questions in art used to be why and how we judge a work of art to be beautiful. But nowadays beauty is no longer art’s chief focus. This is at least in part because the function of art has changed.

You can track art’s function, very basically, by looking at who pays for it. In the medieval West, the artistic depiction of religious ideas was paid for by the Catholic Church – so the function of art was to exalt the divine and educate the mostly illiterate faithful. Later the aristocracy started paying artists to display their wealth, status and learning in their portraits. Then the rich bourgeois merchant classes brought art for a decorative display, again of taste and status.

Nowadays, what’s at the leading edge of art is decided by galleries, and the functions of this art include investment, prestige, and virtue signalling. The primary concern about the art with which the high-end dealers currently deal, is its marketing. In our info-overloaded world, the publicising and selling of creative work is often a bigger problem than its creation. High art has been evolving for decades to accommodate this need. This is one reason why so much new art we see in galleries is concerned with provocation or shock: whether it’s dead sheep, or dirty unmade beds, or stacks of oranges you can eat (all real artworks). Shock is what’s perceived to be necessary to gain attention in the modern market, and indeed that may be the case. Also, art now increasingly attracts artists who like doing that sort of thing. Away from such artful dodgers, talented artists of all kinds pour their souls into less shocking work but you won’t have seen most of it. In this postmodern age, beauty is just one ideal among many pursued by artists, and is also seen as being a bit Eighteenth Century. Since the art sellers and curators are competing among themselves to display their fashionability, the need for high art to be ‘in the lead’ has eclipsed other artistic values. In this way, the primary point of an artwork is now not its aesthetics (aisthetikos is Greek for ‘sensation’) or how pleasing it is to the senses – what used to be called ‘taste’ – nor is it necessarily how profound the ideas being communicated are: it is its novelty. So perhaps we can’t really blame the art world for rewarding shock not talent. It’s required to make a living.

Many leading galleries seem to agree that as technical brilliance has been amply demonstrated throughout art’s long history, it’s unnecessary to see it demonstrated again just for its own sake. What is still interesting about art, however, is the concepts it can explore. So let’s just concentrate on the concept, says the most fashionable thinking about art. This has led us to conceptual art – art where the concept behind it, rather than the artist’s technique or a pleasurable effect, is prominent. A work needn’t be beautiful, nor conspicuously well made; it just needs to be clever. Trevor Pateman’s article pertly critiques this conceptual approach to art.

Well, the most precise medium for conveying concepts is probably language. This would make novels the ultimate form of conceptual art.

Fiction is often said to be telling lies to convey a deeper truth or to explore deeper questions. We consider some of these deeper questions in this issue, including one of the most foundational: What is happiness and how can we achieve it? Vincent Kavaloski looks at the way this question is asked in the novels of Leo Tolstoy. Indeed, novelists often explore ethical ideas through the crises and dilemmas their characters endure, and Tolstoy’s exploration of happiness evidently falls into this category. But fiction can make philosophical connections in other ways too. Here we look at intuition versus reason in Sherlock Holmes, and at various philosophical themes in The Name of the Rose, including William of Ockham’s famous metaphysical shaving kit.

Profundity and self-reflection are two of the defining qualities of great art, so really it can hardly help exploring philosophical themes. Many of the articles in this issue show how some past thinking about art can be reapplied to contemporary problems: not only finding happiness, but fighting regrettable social trends and building a better world. In this issue I think you’ll find much that philosophy has to say about literature and other arts is useful for life in our overstuffed yet underfiltered information age.

Let me also mention the two articles taking different perspectives on Hegel’s theory of history. I find Hegel an interesting philosopher not because I think he was right about how history works, but just because he has a systematic theory of human history. To me this is just the sort of ambitious and fundamental topic philosophers should be interested in.

There is also a ‘perception versus reality’ theme scattered throughout this issue – about which fundamental topic the great Kant again had a lot to say. Indeed, you might want to play a game of ‘Where’s Kant?’ as you read this issue. Award yourself a point every time you spot him.

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