the purpose of art


The Purpose of Art


Some Reflections Concerning the Purpose of Art
and the Possibility of Objective Aesthetic Standards

The prevailing view:  Art has no purpose, and all judgments concerning art are subjective.   (So what on Earth are all those artists and art critics doing?)

If there is a ‘consensus’ view in the world today concerning the merit of works of art, it is probably this: there is no disputing tastes. Some people like one thing, others like something else, and so in the end all judgments of this kind are purely subjective. This view is very much of a piece with both moral and epistemological subjectivism which are, respectively, the views that moral judgments are all subjective and that the truth is purely subjective.

Our View:  If art has a purpose, and it does, then judgments about art need not be subjective. (Artists really are up to something, although it's a complicated sort of something.) 

We believe all of these subjectivisms are false, in part because they are all alike grounded in a confused understanding of what is meant by objectivity. In this essay we’ll focus on why we believe that aesthetic subjectivism in particular is false, at least in the most important sense. If we’re right about this, then objective aesthetic standards are in principle possible, and objective judgments of artistic merit are therefore also in principle possible. However, in practice judgments of this nature are often quite difficult to make. We believe that perception of this difficulty has contributed substantially to the mistaken belief that there can be no objective aesthetic standards at all, and for this reason that it’s quite important to understand that difficulty and impossibility are two very different things.

So, our essay has three aims: first, to determine whether art has any purpose; second, to make the case for the possibility of objective aesthetic standards in light of that purpose; and, third, to explain why in practice it turns out to be so difficult to make judgments in light of such standards.

Why does all this matter, anyway?

Before continuing, there may be some value in explaining why establishing objective aesthetic standards matters. There are, then, four primary reasons why objectivity in the making of aesthetic judgments is of such enormous importance:

1) Artistic recognition is extremely important for every artist. For example, for a van Gogh to go without recognition of the merit of his work is cruelly unjust. More generally, for an artist of little talent to be recognized while another artist of great merit goes unappreciated is a miscarriage of artistic justice.
2) One task of the art critic is to evaluate works of art and “separate the wheat from the chaff.” This task serves, in part, an educational goal: to draw our limited attention to the work of greatest merit. If we only have time to devote to a few works, it is important that they be the best. The critic cannot successfully carry out this task, however, if there are no objective aesthetic standards.
3) Every good artist hopes to improve continuously. This task is made impossible in the absence of standards. Improvement is impossible where there is no clear goal or objective.
4) We want to encourage the creation of great art, and discourage the creation of trivial or poor art. The latter sort of art is a waste of the time of both artist and patron. This task cannot be carried out in the absence of standards.

There is also, however, one significant disadvantage of aesthetic standards: there is always the danger that they can become an intellectual or creative straitjacket. (We believe the pseudo-standards of modernism and post-modernism fit this bill nicely.) Bad standards strictly observed may be even worse than no standards at all. For this reason, it is incumbent upon us to periodically revisit any such standard, and to avoid dogmatism. We should expect that our understanding of merit in art will develop, and hopefully deepen, over time.

Okay, so what about subjectivism?  Any truth there?

At the outset of our attempt to ground objective artistic standards, we must first of all acknowledge one sense in which various judgments really are subjective, and quite rightly so. In many of the decisions we make in life, our aim is simply to please ourselves. When I am deciding how to decorate my home, or how to dress, or what to have for dessert, what other people prefer or decide is, to a very large degree, or even entirely, immaterial. If my aim is solely to please myself, other people’s tastes are quite irrelevant, and so are any and all aesthetic standards. I alone am the final arbiter of what most pleases me. In any case, then, where the only issue in play is the question of what most pleases me, the issue can only be resolved by me. The matter is both subjective, because purely personal, and relative, because it is decidable only by reference to my preferences. (Of course, matters that are relative can nevertheless be objectively true. For example, it is objectively true that my subjective preference in ice cream is for vanilla.)

By contrast, however, the arbitration of other matters may have nothing whatsoever to do with me, personally. If the question is “What dessert has the most calories?”, then I am not only not in a privileged position to judge, I may be completely without a clue, and a subjective judgment concerning how I felt about the matter would have no bearing on the question, and little or no value.

Among the matters that are both relative and objective are some considerations of health. For example, if I am judging whether some dessert is healthy for me, one answer may be true if I am diabetic, and another answer may be true if I am not.

Now, with respect to the question of the objectivity of specifically aesthetic judgments, the sort of case most in the foreground is this: in deciding which works of art please me, my judgment is rightly subjective; and in deciding what works of art most please you, your judgement is also rightly subjective. That being the case, what pleases me and what pleases you is incommensurate, even if we both happen to be pleased by the very same work of art. This is because both judgments are made solely with regard to ourselves, and we are two separate selves. In short, if the judgment to be made is “What work of art most pleases me?”, then the answer is rightly subjective, and rightly indisputable.

However, we maintain that questions of aesthetic merit are not properly questions of personal preference at all, but rather something entirely different.

Judgments about art are not (properly) judgments about what pleases me         

To make clearer why we believe this is so, we will first introduce an analogy with scientific truth. The advantage of this analogy lies with its clarity; however, because the analogy can only be taken so far before it becomes disanalogous, we will continue with a concrete example which is far more relevant, but which is also less clear-cut, and perhaps harder to understand. We will then continue with an analysis in which we isolate the rather slippery, underlying concept at play in the more concrete example.

So, then, here is the possibly instructive analogy with scientific objectivity that we have in mind. Let us suppose that John, a student of sciences, finds that he enjoys his biology class quite a lot, but he has difficulty finding much to enjoy in his chemistry class. As far as his enjoyment of these classes goes, he is the final authority. If he likes biology more than chemistry, then there’s nothing more to be said, where his likes are concerned. However, his preferences in this regard have nothing to do with the truth of what he’s learning in these classes. Moreover, his preferences cannot serve as a guide in determining, for example, which of the scientific principles he is learning about are more fundamental (and therefore, in at least one sense, more important). In judging scientific truth or importance, an altogether different set of standards must be brought into consideration; and judgments of this nature have nothing to do with John’s preferences or likes.

Perhaps, then, a like situation pertains in the arts: that is, what John likes or prefers might be one thing, and questions of aesthetic merit might be something else altogether.

However, the arts and sciences are clearly quite different. To discover whether this analogy sheds any real light, we must have a look at cases more pertinent to the arts.
Let’s take for consideration a nursery rhyme:

Hey diddle diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed to see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.

As a work of literature this rhyme undoubtedly has something to recommend it. The rhyming scheme is pleasing, and there is also a certain charm in imagining a dog amused by the antics of a leaping cow, in the whimsical and wholly impossible leaping itself, and in the preposterously animated dinner utensils. However, does all of this suffice to make the rhyme great literature?

Well, one question someone might want to ask is this: great literature for whom? If the answer is “Great literature for very young children,” then this might well seem true. Certainly, this rhyme has withstood the test of time (perhaps just because it is taught to children at a young and impressionable age, and isn’t easily forgotten). However, if the answer is “Great literature for adults,” then perhaps we might justifiably be in some doubt. If we had to choose for all time between the permanent extinction of “Hey Diddle Diddle” and, say, “The Lord of the Rings,” then the choice would presumably be clear.

What this example seems to illustrate is that if a work of art cannot be understood by an individual, then that work of art also cannot be appreciated by that individual. However, “The Lord of the Rings” doesn’t suddenly become a poor work of literature when placed in the hands of a very young child, and then by some strange alchemy transform itself into a great work of literature when placed in the hands of an adult. In the former case we would surely say that the novel was a great work of literature in the hands of a child who hasn’t yet acquired the requisite understanding to appreciate it. So the appreciation of the greatness of a work of art may be relative to the intellectual attainments of the individual, without that greatness itself being in any way subjective.

Now, if our judgment regarding the greater relative literary merit of “The Lord of the Rings” has any real substance, we must now try to make out wherein this greater merit lies. If we can do that, then we will clearly already have gone a long way toward developing a persuasive and credible aesthetic.

However, let's first backtrack for just a moment.  So far, at least, it seems that our analogy with science actually has served some good purpose here. The greater merit of “The Lord of the Rings” seems not to be merely, or at least not entirely, a matter of purely personal preference. We’ve seen that, intuitively anyway, there really is a difference in merit between “Hey Diddle Diddle” and “The Lord of the Rings.” If so, then just as there is a difference between the importance of the content of what John learned in biology class, and what pleased him most personally, there also seems to be a difference between the value of the content of “The Lord of the Rings” and me, personally, being pleased by it. Our next task must be to understand more clearly what this difference amounts to.

 What are judgments about art (properly) about?

As a first approximation, we might be clear as to what this difference doesn’t amount to.

In the case of the biology class, we said that the truth of what John learned there wasn’t dependent upon his being pleased by it. (And the truth of what he learned there was certainly foundational to the importance of anything he learned there.) But in the case of literature, merit clearly doesn’t lie with its historical factuality. Nothing that took place in “The Lord of the Rings” need ever have actually occurred historically for it to be a great work of literature. Still less do we expect works of fiction to be recitations of scientific truths in the matter of, say, a chemistry text. We might, however, be concerned with what could be called the “human truthfulness” of a work of literature. For example, insightful and in-depth characterization is one element often appreciated in literary works of art that have been called “great,” while shallow, cardboard characters are sometimes criticized. And, interestingly, what it is that comprises in-depth characterization arguably isn’t purely, or entirely, a matter of what pleases me, personally. It might lie, for example, with the selection of the revealing detail. Or, more generally, it may lie with depth of psychological insight (which isn’t, of course, to say that we want a psychological treatise in works of literature).

If this really is the case, we may now be getting some traction with the question of what makes for great literature; but so far we are only nibbling at the sort of insights that the consideration of concrete examples can provide. In a short essay we haven’t the time to continue indefinitely in this fashion. If we are to move faster and attain greater clarity, then what we need is something more in the nature of general aesthetic principles to take for our consideration.  What we need, in fact, is a statement of the purpose (or purposes) of art. Then, if art can be said to have a purpose, works of art that more adequately carry out that purpose will be the greater works of art, and those that fail to carry out that purpose, in part or entirely, will be lesser works of art, or perhaps won’t properly count as works of art at all. Moreover, and this is critical, if art can be said to have a purpose, then it ought to be possible to determine, objectively, whether or not that purpose has been carried out in any given case.

On the other hand, if art serves no purpose, the problem of arriving at objective standards of merit disappears altogether: on such an account, art is nothing more than an arbitrary lark, and by the very nature of an arbitrary lark, judgments of merit aren’t merely subjective, they are wholly without a basis of any kind, and therefore completely meaningless. After all, to what could such judgments pertain?

Before we continue, this point is worth emphasizing. If art has no aim of any kind, it becomes meaningless to speak of good art or bad art, because the concept of art itself becomes meaningless. And if all aesthetic merit is purely subjective, then my judgments of merit can have no validity of any kind for you. It is excruciatingly common to hear someone insist upon the subjectivity of all judgments of aesthetic merit in one breath, and shortly thereafter try to persuade someone else of the merit and importance of some work of art. This betrays confusion about both subjectivity and objectivity. Truly subjective judgments are completely relative to me, personally, and are therefore not in any way relative to you, personally; and that means they cannot serve as a guide to artistic merit for you. Moreover, if a subjective aesthetic judgment means anything at all, it means that I was pleased by a given work of art, which is quite a different matter from claiming greatness or significance for a work of art, because these things imply the existence of standards quite different from a standard of subjective pleasingness for me alone.

So, then: either art has some purpose, in which case merit can determined objectively, or else art is merely a lark, and it is as meaningless to speak of artistic merit as it is to speak of the merit of random patterns in the sand. If a work of art really does have merit, then that either means that it pleases me, and me alone, and I have no reason to suppose that it will please anyone else, or else it means that the art has merit in light of successfully fulfilling the purpose of art, and it does that irrespectively of whether anyone is pleased with it or not. Of course, great works of art can be pleasing; but we ought to pleased because they are great, rather than claiming greatness for them for no other reason than because we, and we alone, are pleased.

Let us now turn to the question concerning the purpose or purposes of art, if any.

 The purpose of art

To begin with, all art is a human artifact. Unlike the phenomena of nature, the characteristics of which are there for us to discover quite independently of anything the human race may have done, the character of art is humanly determined. This might lead us to suppose that art may have any purpose whatsoever that an artist says that it has.  However, we don't believe that’s really the case.

What makes a person an artist to begin with is that he undertakes to create art.  Similarly, consider engineering:  what makes an engineer an engineer is the fact that he does engineering.  His employer would no doubt take a dim view if the engineer were to declare that anything could be engineering, say, chatting with the secretary down at the snack bar.  Again, you're a chef if you cook, and a surgeon if you perform surgery.  To put this more abstractly, for a role to mean anything, the individual doesn't define the role so much as the role defines the individual.  One may certainly cook something never cooked before, or undertake a surgical procedure never undertaken before, but in both cases the individual is nevertheless working within the bounds defined by the role.  If a chef undertakes to extract someone's tooth, which he certainly may (if he can find anyone to volunteer), then he has moved outside the bounds of the chef role, and has entered into the role of the dentist.

The very nature of human conventions requires bounds of some sort.  For example, if we define an automobile to be a self-powered device for the conveyance of passengers, then an automobile cannot at the same time be, or at least not primarily, a device for, say, broadcasting music. If someone were to insist on that usage of the term, they would no longer be referring to an automobile, but rather using the word “automobile” to signify “radio station.” This could certainly be done by common consent, but there wouldn’t be much point.  Automobiles would still exist to convey passengers, and would then need a new name that signified devices serving that purpose. In short, the naming may be arbitrary, but the thing named may not be if we are not to make chaos out of significance. In much the same way, if art can be anything whatever, then the term becomes meaningless, for all practical purposes.

So then, if we accept that the purpose of art is humanly determined, and yet nevertheless not completely arbitrary, what purpose does art seem to best serve? A number of answers have been proposed to this question over the course of time. We do not propose to rehearse all of these here, but rather to go directly to what we believe is the most persuasive answer offered to date, that of American essayist Ralf J. Long.

On Mr. Long’s account, the purpose of a work of art is to convey what he refers to as a “Meaning-world.” A Meaning-world is:

1) A nexus of ideas recreated in the mind of the perceiver.
2) An absence of the extraneous. When we apprehend meaning in the course of our everyday lives, we have to extract that meaning from the clutter of everything else impinging upon us at the time.  In art, that work has already been done for us.
3) In a Meaning-world the network of contextual relationships that a work of art weaves helps our minds to reach out to, or perceive meaning. More psychologically, works of art engender a “multi-associative” process that gives us insight into a non-discursive type of “truth.”
4) The “ideational” components of a Meaning-world (work of art) are things that can’t easily be defined as emotions or moods or ideas strictly-defined. They are subtle beyond the vocabulary of our natural languages.
5) A Meaning-world is a “world” in that it has its own “laws.” It is internally consistent. All of its components derive significance from one another. That is, their meaning is contextual. A new work of art doesn’t have to follow the “laws” of its predecessors, but it must evince its own laws and be true to them to succeed in even the most basic way. A work of art that, at first, may seem chaotic to us, can begin to make sense to us as we apprehend those internal laws, and begin to discover the “method to its madness.”  Conversely, if there is no method to its madness, then it is not a work of art at all.

6) Works of art may enlighten, but their function is not to inform. Rather, they create an experience.

More concisely, a Meaning-world is an artificially circumscribed zone of humanly created experience, as evoked primarily by words, images, sounds, or some combination of these. The phrase “artificially circumscribed” here alludes to the fact that, unlike the world at large, a meaning world is delimited by its own artistic aims. A canvas, for example, is only so large, namely, as large as it needs to be to convey its meaning; and the elements included should be chosen for inclusion specifically to convey whatever it is that the artist would have us experience. Mr. Long argues that a special set of criteria come into play in a successful work of art, namely, that elements that do not serve to communicate the thematic core are (or should be) excluded, while those that best communicate that thematic core are (or should be) included.

This then, briefly, is a “Meaning-world,” the creation of which is the purpose of art in Mr. Long’s view.

As an account of the purpose of art, this theory has the virtue of including almost everything that most people would plausibly want to include in the domain of art. It also excludes most of what should plausibly be excluded. Moreover, he is clearly onto something in noting the organic unity of a good work of art (an observation, incidentally, first made by Aristotle). And he is surely also right to situate the conveyance of meaning near the center of the aims of art. So far, then, so good.

The deficiency of the theory is perhaps most strongly felt in the poverty of the criteria that it offers for the judgment of artistic significance. This is emphatically not due to any lack of awareness on the part of Mr. Long concerning the fact that some works of art are of greater significance than others, nor to a lack of awareness that this is a difference of great importance. Rather, it is apparently due to the seductive interest he feels in the complex dynamics of communication that are in play in art. We suspect, too, that he has been led somewhat astray in noting, rightly, that the aim of works of art is not to (factually) inform. The result is that his theory is misled into placing the conveyance of meaning at the very center of his theory, when what a sound theory of art really ought to do is to give us a robust sense of what significant meaning might look like. Clearly, a work of art could convey meaning, and could do so with organic integrity, yet still disappoint through triviality. This is precisely where, for example, nearly all of the art produced under the influence of modernism has gone wrong. So while Mr. Long’s theory is quite helpful in helping us to sort out art from non-art, it fails at the precisely the point where most guidance is needed: in the determination of the significance or importance of art.

Here we believe we can be of some assistance. It seems that the difficulty with respect to characterizing significance in the arts amounts to the difficulty we would experience if we were pressed by someone to say what it is that is significant in life itself. This can in part be attributed to the complexity of life, and in part to the fact that not all of life’s experiences are of equal significance or importance, though it is no easy matter to say exactly why. Before going on to speculate a bit with regard to this issue, it is important at this point to articulate what does seem to be a generally valid, and indeed key, principle: in general, then, we suggest that significance in art closely parallels significance in life, whatever the grounds for that significance may be. So, for example, if doing the laundry is not an event of large importance in life, then it is not, in itself, likely to provide the primary theme of an important work of art. This is not, of course, to say that a significant work of art couldn’t include, in passing, someone doing laundry, and it is also not to say that doing the laundry couldn’t be made to symbolize something of far greater significance than cleaning garments. It is only to say that if doing laundry is of no great significance in life, then a work of art concerned exclusively with the literal doing of laundry, and nothing more, is not likely to be of great significance either.

To return to our earlier question, what is it that lends significance to the events of life? The issue is large, and cannot be given full consideration here, but one plausible answer would be that much significance in life derives from human needs, including relatively more abstract needs. These include such things as the need for freedom, the need for justice, the need for peace, the need for a reasonable standard of material comfort. If these things really are important, then art that successfully addresses itself to such themes ought also to be important, and in general this does seem to be the case.

What we propose, then, is a modification of Mr. Long’s theory of art, or perhaps a similar theory with a significantly different emphasis. Instead of a “Meaning-world” theory of art, we suggest that what is actually needed is a “Meaningful-world” theory of art. In such a theory, the purpose of art is the creation of Meaning-worlds that center on providing us with meaningful experiences, and perhaps, when possible, with providing us with a deeper understanding of why these experiences are meaningful. On this view, the great task of art, taken as a whole, would be to tell us what it is to be fully human; not discursively, indeed, but rather experientially, and with the specific aim of enlightenment. It would follow, then, that the great task of aesthetics would be to tell us how to judge, objectively, when a work of art has successfully carried out this purpose.

If so, then in principle, we would have in hand the most important standard by which artistic merit can be judged (setting aside issues of technique, which would vary from art form to art form). In practice, however, making such judgments is quite difficult. Why is this? There are, I think, three main sources of trouble, all of them formidable.

The first has to do with the difficulty of determining what really is significant in life. While many things clearly are important, in other cases the importance may be less obvious. The second source of difficulty arises from the “covariance” of the elements of works of art. To choose a trivial example: a given shade of red may look one way on a canvas in isolation from any other color. It’s effect, however, may be quite different in the presence of another color. Far from being the exception, many other cases of covariance of significance can be found. Indeed, it is the rule, or very nearly so, in the arts. What this means is that there can never be, for example, a kind of “cookbook for great literature ” comprised of, say, two pinches of evil characters and one pinch of a very good character. Rather, the “rules of art,” to the extent that there are any, are all rather “rules of thumb.” To put this another way, they are “meta-rules,” subject to local conditions, rather than “atomic rules,” true in every case without exception. This being the case, the art critic can never apply a mechanical set of aesthetic rules in attempting to arrive at an objective judgment. What he or she must rely on, instead, is a “judgment of the gestalt.” The question is always this: taking everything together, what do we have? And this can be an enormously difficult judgment to make, as every work of art is, to a greater or lesser extent, sui generis. Moreover, the judgment must be made in light of the particular medium the artist has chosen, each of which has its characteristic strengths and limitations. In addition to the confusion centering on the nature of subjectivity and objectivity, and the lack of clarity about the need to judge a work of art in light of its success in fulfilling the aims of art, the complexity, conditionality, and vagueness of “meta-rules” has provided yet a third source of confusion concerning the possibility of objective judgments of artistic merit.

Taken together, these three sources of confusion have hitherto proved insurmountable obstacles to aesthetic justice. However, we are hopeful that with the basic conceptual issues now cleared up, and with criteria for more just judgments firmly in hand, aesthetic theories of greater depth and breadth can be further elaborated, with the ultimate objective of bringing about greater artistic justice, and clearer advice to the aspiring artist. The result should be the creation of a far higher percentage of great art; and that would be a very great good indeed, as the need to enlighten is always urgent and of central importance in every true civilization.

Further resources concerning art at Progressive Living:

Theories of Art.  Provides a concise summary of the alternative theories concerning the purpose of art.

The PL Field Guide to Humanistic Art provides links to representative humanistic artists, as well as a critique of Modernism in the arts.

The visual arts essay discusses the role of art as a means of enlightenment, and gives consideration to some of the best artistic means to that end.

See also our multimedia companion site vMeme21, a magazine of the arts (and sciences) created specificially in light the aesthetic standards developed here.