What Is Art For?

I wrote recently about moments when the cosmos is revolving — an expression used by a good friend to describe those times of synchronicity in our lives, those times when our attention seems directed toward a specific thought, when the universe itself seems to be conspiring to lead us in a particular direction.

At the time, I was reading A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes story. I then picked up the latest issue of Artist magazine and found an article about the color, red. It was titled “A Study in Scarlet.” Interesting — and fun — little coincidence. I took it to mean I should play around with a bit of red pigment, and I enjoyed creating my own little “study”.

And then a new issue of Mystery Weekly magazine arrived on my Kindle. Lo, and behold! The entire issue was dedicated to the memory of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous sleuth — and along the way, let us not forget that I drew on the fictional character of Holmes to create Stretchthe Inktober detective who solved the murder of the missing mother. Clearly Sherlock Holmes is an iconic symbol of logic and reason, an intelligent look at the principles of deduction.

I suppose I should not have been surprised in the least when I then received a new issue of Philosophy Now, a magazine I have come to love with something akin to true passion, and saw the familiar face of Sherlock Holmes staring back at me from the cover. Oh, yes, dear Sherlock. You seem to have become a permanent fixture in my life, to the point where you’re even guiding me in my art studies.

But wait! There’s more. Indeed, there’s much more to this story than another mere coincidental appearance of the inimitable Holmes. For there, beneath the illustration of the pipe-smoking detective in his deerstalker cap was a question in big, bold letters:

What Is Art For?

I did a double-take, of course. Once again, Sherlock Holmes was encroaching upon my art, pointing me toward a path of inquiry that I might otherwise have missed.

Sherlock HolmesWhat is art for? We all know that art can certainly be a bit of a mystery.

I took a deep breath and stepped onto that pathway, unsure where I was headed but knowing I must follow. And like a good detective, I should be observant, non-judgmental, and open to whatever clues I might find. That soon proved to be impossible.

To guide us in our thinking, the magazine’s editorial begins by speaking of the specific functions of art — functions which have changed over time.

Plato believed that art could influence character, and not necessarily in a good way. He criticized art and literature based upon representation, explaining that the emotions provoked could lead to an unbalanced soul and bad temperament.

Aristotle agreed that we could be influenced by art, but saw that fact in a more positive light. The knowledge we gain through viewing art can be cathartic, leading us to a greater rationality. Do I hear subtle hints of Sherlock Holmes here?

Philosopher Friedrich Schiller found links between morality and the ability to appreciate beauty and idealism in art. Emmanuel Kant also saw beauty as the purpose of art.

Now, though, that seems to be changing. Beauty is no longer a requisite part of art, and those of us who view and contemplate art — and its meaning — appear to be at the mercy of galleries and art critics who are quick to decide what we should consider to be art.

I quote from the editorial here:

Nowadays, what’s at the leading edge of art is decided by galleries, and the functions of this art include investment, prestige, and virtue signaling. The primary concern about the art with which the high-end dealers currently deal, is its marketing. In our info-overloaded world,  the publicizing 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.

As I read through these thoughts, my mind went back to the recent HFAA art show and judge Phil Schmidt’s discussion about emotions in art and his tendency to look for — and award — those works which included a bit of shock value or a fear factor.

The editorial continues:

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 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. 

For me, this explains why so much of the art I see in current art magazines and displays seems almost meaningless to me. Art has lost much of the traditional values I feel are important. While that form of art still exists, it isn’t going to be lauded as great art, or even good art. Instead, it’s simply brushed aside, scoffed at for being too old-fashioned, and chided for its sentiment. Beauty, love, idealism, romanticism … all those qualities which I consider important in life are seen as weaknesses in art, hallmarks of those who haven’t kept up with changing times.

And so it is that Sherlock has led me to look at art in disturbing new ways, to see it not as an expression of meaningful thoughts and emotions, but as an uncomfortable visual essay on the state of society. I don’t like what I’m seeing, and I hope in time the pendulum will swing back the other way, that we will once again prefer beauty — even imagined beauty — over the ugly realities of life.

And then I look at my painting of Fire in the Forest and wonder if I’m also being influenced by modernity, by a need to show the dangers and devastation of our world today. Did my intuition lead me there because this is where art has gone?

I don’t agree with the new direction of art. Oh, I agree as to how and why it’s happened, but I don’t like it. I want idealism in art. I want art to reflect what is good, what is beautiful, what is meaningful, and what is best within us.

Your opinions, please.


  1. Hi Judith – food for thought today. I believe like writers, artists are the chroniclers of the world we live in. We need artists to create this truth. Through art expression, of all kinds, it is sometimes the only way can understand our ever changing lives on our planet.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Good point, yet I don’t want to let go of the past either. I want art to be more than a reflection of our world. I know it is, but as the article points out, it’s primarily the “novel” artists who gain recognition. I want to appreciate more than novelty and newness. I guess I’m just not meant to ever be part of the avant garde LOL.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent post! I really enjoyed learning about your personal connection to Holmes and how that prior knowledge and experience has revealed itself within your artwork. Overall, I think it is time that we detach ourselves from the musings on aesthetics by the Kant’s and Danto’s of the (art) world, and revisit the Dewey’s. Your post resonated with me in part because I’m currently re-reading Dewey’s 1934 book “Art as Experience,” and finding so much value in his ideas about art, socialization, and democracy. To Dewey, and myself, art is for society. The laypeople who aren’t trained as artists, art historians, curators, or critics. Art is made by the artist as a response to the time they’re creating it in, but it is the process and the experience, which often gets lost when a gallery or museum displays the work. I am optimistic with the re-emergence of artists working outside of the institution. Art seamlessly integrates itself within our collective culture and it seems to me that many artists working today are also innovators in other disciplines. I’m writing about this very idea/practice currently on my blog. I am discussing the ideas behind STEAM learning and how contemporary artists playfully and poignantly embrace technology (in a broad sense of the term) to express issues and engagement within our collective culture. Hopefully it will be published early tomorrow morning. https://theartsandeducation.wordpress.com/ Thank you for prompting this thought provoking discussion!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your comments, Adam. Your words have lightened my heart a bit and given me reasons to be more optimistic about the future of art. I’m not familiar with the book you mentioned, and I am definitely going to check it out. I, too, want to believe that art is for society — at large, meaning all of us from every walk of life, at every age, in every place. The “elitism” that so often accompanies “fine art” disturbs me. I will be watching for your post. Thank you so much for the link.


  3. Hi, what a great blog post. I think art can be so many things, I wouldn’t disagree with what you’ve said but I would add that art is emotion, expression, maybe even desire captured in like a snapshot and maybe even an attempt to communicate this whatever to others.
    Thanks for looking at my work and following 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s a junk food world.
    People wear commercial
    slogan on their chests …
    gimmicks and jingoism
    is where the modern
    contemporary heart is.
    The result . . .
    simplistic Lego Primary
    School Art.
    “So Primitive … and Nuevo!”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. True, and I don’t like it. 😦 What bothers me most is that so many deserving artists never receiving recognition for their work because it’s not “cutting edge”. Shouldn’t there be a place in the art world for all styles? Shouldn’t we celebrate what’s good in art no matter if it’s “new” and “novel” or not?

      Liked by 1 person

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