The Purpose of Art?


Art functions within human experience in many ways: to express the imagination (Shelley); to purge the emotions through pity and terror (Aristotle) ; to promote the class struggle (Marx); to advance universal brotherhood (Tolstoy); to enhance morality (“the essential function of art is moral,” bluntly says D. H. Lawrence); to criticize life (Matthew Arnold); to help live the good life (Pater, Dewey); to contemplate (Schopenhauer); to bring you “face-to-face with reality” (Bergson); to help you relax (Matisse); and, of course, to serve no function at all, but simply to exist for its own sake. Here two are examined in detail:


Art as an Imitation of Nature

The most ancient and honorable function of art is the “imitation of nature.” Nowadays the term “imitation” is pejorative; the “mere imitator” is scorned. However, the thesis here means that it is the world outside of the artist which is the source of his inspiration, or the reservoir for his ideas. Hamlet urges, hold the mirror up to nature! Monet describes a painting as une fene’tre ouverte sur la Nature.” Leonardo da Vinci advises the painter to look at women’s faces by twilight, when their secrets can best be perceived. Successive revolutions in the history of painting have all proclaimed themselves “truer to nature;” in their turn, impressionism, pointillism, cubism, futurism, and so on claimed to capture “what we really see.” In the fourteenth century, however, Boccaccio wrote, “There is nothing which Giotto could not have portrayed in such a manner as to deceive the sense of sight.”


Nature is the source of inspiration even for artists who deliberately distort what they think is “out there”: consider the mannerism of El Greco, the fantastic art of Bosch, and the surrealism of Magritte and Dali. The same contention applies to literature: Kafka and Joyce are no less indebted to the world about them than Balzac and Zola. Nature is an aesthetic norm for the artist even when he disagrees with Matthew Arnold that he should “see the object in itself as it really is.”


However, this position has it’s critics and has been ridiculed by Virginia Woolf: “Art is not a copy of the real world; one of the damn things is enough.” And by Picasso, who, when he was told that his portrait of Gertrude Stein didn’t look like her, said, “Never mind, it will.” And by Matisse, who, when a visitor to his studio suggested, “Surely the arm of that woman is too long?” replied, “Madame, you are mistaken. That is not a woman; that is a picture.” Plato regards art as inferior to nature, since the particular apple which the artist copies is itself only a copy of the universal Apple, which is truly real, so art is for Plato thus twice removed from reality; partly for this reason he eliminated art from his perfect state.


Art as a Language

We often ask about a work of art (but never about a flower), what does it mean? We expect it to communicate something to us: but exactly how? If art is to be considered a language, it is so only loosely and metaphorically. Lusty, rowdy gaiety is clearly suggested to us by Bosch’s rural scenes and the evils of fascism by Picasso’s Guernica. Sometimes art can communicate symbolically – rain means sadness – but this is not always convincing and is frequently pushed too far: the attenuated sculptures of Giacometti that have been interpreted as representing (as has been claimed) the “one-dimensionality of man” or Ernst Fischer’s assertion that the Moses of Michelangelo was not merely the embodiment of the self-aware Renaissance personality, but was “also a commandment in stone to Michelangelo’s contemporaries and patrons: ‘This is what you ought to be like. The age in which we live demands it. The world at whose birth we are all present needs it.’


If we are to think of the literary arts as a language, then we must regard the words as functioning both cognitively and expressively. But what information is being communicated by Shelley’s:


            Life, like a dome of many-colored glass,

            Stains the white radiance of Eternity


or by the delightful imagery of Stephen Spender’s


            Eye, gazelle, delicate wanderer,

            Drinker of horizon’s fluid line.


Can we be reasonably sure of what Hamlet tells us? or Moby Dick? or The Waste Land? Are there really ghosts in The Turn of the Screw? Sometimes the language of poetry is artfully ambiguous. An extreme position on this issue is taken by Carnap: for him the language of the poet expresses his feelings just as a gesture would, or a cry, or a grunt; it is emotive and noncognitive; it conveys no knowledge. In this view, a sonnet is closer to a stamp of the foot than to a proposition. But this seems too basic a position: art conveys more complex information, just without striving for or attaining the rigor of science. Art enhances human experience by its hints at the ineffable, by the interplay of multiple meanings, by suggestive overtones, allusions, and atmosphere. The meanings “leak through,” so to speak. It is not a defect that when Hamlet cries, ‘0, that this too too solid flesh would melt’ he may be saying not “solid,” but “sullied.” Nor would Hamlet be a better play if we were sure whether or not Gertrude connived at her husband’s murder.


William Empson cites the Chinese poem: ‘Swiftly the years, beyond recall. Solemn the stillness of this spring morning.’ What makes these phrases a poem? The sentiment is elevated, and the lines are terse, spare, compact, and closely connected; but why are “the years” and “this morning” juxtaposed? Why are the years “swift” and the morning “solemn” and “still”? It is this provoking ambiguity which permits and requires the reader to supply his own answers; and the greater the latitude left the reader, often the richer the poem. We must perforce choose between two inconsistent statements in science or in philosophy, but never between two poems. “Critics quarrel with other critics,” says Santayana, but “with an artist no sane man quarrels.” That is also why poetry is so difficult to translate - often the “creative misunderstanding” (Valery) is lost. You cannot replace the rain in Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms by any other symbol; nor can you substitute anything for the falling camellia blossoms in Japanese drama (which suggest that a beheading is to come)


However, if Art is used to communicate then this raises the question of what is communicated and whether what the audience receives has to match up with what the artist intended but intention is a tricky concept, how do you determine it? Do you ask the artist? Do you read his letters, notes, or autobiography? Do you look at the title of the work? or at the epigraph? Do you consult the artist’s psychoanalyst? What about the intention of insane poets such as Christopher Smart? What of unconscious intentions? An old anecdote is worth telling. Robert Browning was once asked what he had meant by a poem he wrote many years before. When I wrote that poem, he is supposed to have replied, God and Robert Browning knew what I meant. Now only God knows.


Uncertainties about the intention of the artist prompted a movement called the “New Criticism”.’ Its advocates maintain that the work of art is public and self-sufficient; it is “detached from the author at birth.” To evaluate a poem or a painting on the basis of what its creator may have intended is to appraise a phantom - the work of art as it might have been or should have been: we must consider it only as it actually is, What the artist may have “had in mind” is not part of the perceived work; to refer to it is the intentional fallacy: for example, in interpreting Dylan Thomas’ line:

            And from the windy West came two-gunned Gabriel


the critic Elder Olsen explains that the poet had in mind the constellation Perseus, for the man Perseus (who decapitated Medusa) had two weapons (his sword and Medusa’s head); the two guns recall the Wild West, and therefore the game of poker, and therefore other card games, and therefore trumps, and therefore the last trump, and therefore Gabriel. If this explanation helps us better to enjoy that line, fine! But all we ever have is the line, and not the professed contents of Dylan Thomas’ brain. Joseph Conrad’s short story “The Secret Sharer” is about a young sea captain on his first voyage in command. The captain protects a stowaway who is a murderer and a fugitive. The simple adventure has profound and ambiguous overtones—of delusion, homosexuality, the force of authority, the conflict between morality and justice, the story of Cain and Abel, the doppelgdnger, Conrad’s own life. There is little point in inquiring what the author’s “real” intention was, or what the “true” interpretation is: any hypothesis which can be supported by evidence in the text ought to be thoughtfully examined and joyfully experienced. To insist on the “real meaning” is to mistake literature and art for idealized science. A work of art is not a sense datum; it is not merely something perceived, but rather something interpreted. And in the richness, multiplicity, and range of its legitimate interpretations lie its fertility and vigor as a work of art.


Thus it seems that there are reasons to think that Art is both an imitation of nature and language used for communication, perhaps the very thing that makes something art is our inability to assign it a specific function or role: perhaps art is the refutation of the practical.


Adapted from Reuben Abel’s ‘Man is the Measure’ (Chapter 21)