Coral Queen by nada Hamatto

What is the Purpose of Art In Society?

Daniel Arwas April 05 2023


We think about the visual arts as something we love seeing, hearing, touching - perhaps even smelling or tasting. Rarely do we stop and think about what the actual purpose of the arts is in society. Why is it given government funding? Why are so many awards created and presented for different art and cultural achievements? Here are some thoughts about the purpose(s) of art in our society.

What is the purpose of art in society? Initially, this sounds like a question asked by someone who has far too much time on their hands and is simply looking for a needless debate. Art is beautiful (sometimes), art is profound - it shocks, surprises, enthuses and entertains us. It critiques certain acts and often not-so-subtly suggests others in lieu. The visual arts certainly impact us in many ways, but this does not, in itself, denote a purpose. Is there a true point, purpose or raison d’etre to art?

For many art lovers, art can act as a form of self-expression. I am passionate about writing, primarily, but undoubtedly many others are transfixed by filming, dancing or acting on a tv or theatre set. Other purveyors of the visual arts prefer drawing, painting, sculpting, etc. Many others expand beyond the reaches of the visual and speak on podcasts, sing beautiful ballads and play harmonious chords on an array of musical instruments. Individually, art allows us to create our own worlds and escapes from reality, and designates a format to corral our feelings and thoughts into a coherent piece of work. But this does not pose a direct societal benefit, in terms of perceiving others’ work. Whilst many specific people may gain pleasure and catharsis from creating art, this does not necessarily explain how art helps the greater societal community.

In view of this, what is the most base-level way we can describe the function of art? It entertains. It’s enjoyable, funny, shocking and experimental. We love looking at new paintings, drawings and sculptures. We adore watching unique events unfold in theatrical plays, movies and tv shows. And there are very few things better on a rainy day than curling up on the sofa and immersing yourself in a great novel. But the enjoyment derived does not itself seem to be the purpose behind art. Going to a football game, playing board games and going for drinks with friends all bring about a sense of enjoyment for (some) people.

Yet the class of these activities seems to differ from those in which one is observing or perceiving artistic endeavours. Art lovers would not equate their experience of reading a book or going to an opera, to playing an enthralling game of Monopoly, for example. The experience of sensing something new to oneself; hearing a unique story or being struck by an idiosyncratic visualization brings about a different type of pleasure for people - the pleasure of the previously unknown being brought forth into the world.

Art, whether visual, aural or tactile, presents a new idea - or prior idea in a novel fashion - for people to experience, tackle, and comprehend. Think about the number of times that you have watched a particularly profound film, and post-credits, or for a few minutes after, just sat there quietly contemplating the movie and its messages and delivery style. Many of those reading this blog will have undoubtedly gone to exhibitions, or seen one particular piece - whether it be sculpture, painting or even one time for me, a photograph collection from the 1950s and 60s - that truly resonates with oneself. That is really the beauty of art. In one word - art inspires.

Ultimately, this is the true purpose of art in society - to deepen our knowledge of the world and inspire us to make changes and produce even more thrilling work. On a broader level, art can inspire social movements and political changes, even if it is simply on a subconscious level. Some psychologists argue, for instance, that Dennis Haysbert’s portrayal as the President of the United States in the popular and acclaimed television show, “24”, paved the way for Barack Obama’s election into the country’s highest office through the normalization of a black president in popular media. Visual, audio and tactile art - paintings, sculptures, podcasts et al. - inspires us to search for meaning within ourselves and to go out into the world and discover our destiny. Art empowers us to truly feel alive.

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