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John Armstrong
What Is Art For? « Back to Story

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Michael F Shaughnessy February 06, 2014 at 2:49 PM
This is an excellent paper on a most relevant topic. One only wishes that the schools and Common Core would take this into consideration.
The only ways we can see the world is by the ways we've seen it represented. Every new way really is good in and of itself, provided it has a coherent form. Art as therapy is nonsense.
Gentlemen:

Art must show us things that we cannot ordinarily see. To make an effort to unveil our blindness we must meditate, or at the very least spend a long time looking, on the art displayed before us. If this be therapeutic so be it. It is probably a more moral activity than we care to admit in spite of the fact that we must allow the artist, and only the artist, to move about without the use of a moral compass. And, of course, because of this exemption we can and should delay in actually paying him anything for his work.
As far as the Greek goes, we should require more study on it-- and to hell with women actually voting.


I remain Sirs your most humble, obedient, etc.
Lakashmi Krishnamurthy January 04, 2014 at 8:30 PM
As a traditional artistLakshmi Krishnamurthy involved in revival,restoration, resarch and documentation of especially the Pan-Indian - Scenario, I 100% agree with your theraputic theory. For me it is much more -the sensitivity opens up more vision, perception, content and assimilation. The joy is like a breeze and the freedom for creativity makes me fly like Jonathan's Seagull. The euphoria in seeing the many splendours of nature is awesome. A falling leaf, a bud opening, dried foliage curling up -their interpretation into your work and trying to share them with willing , like minded students and/or artists is an experience. For me art has to create a sense of peace,tranquility and happiness as the pantheon of gods and goddesses portray- For Eg. Durga even while destroying evil is not fearsome but has smile in her eyes and so on.
Art can certainly be thrilling, eye-opening, informative, inspiring. I guess that could be theraputic, but who knows? Each viewer could be influenced in their own unique way, regardless of what the rest of us think.
You are in good company: Wittgenstein. Perhaps therapy is also the purpose of Philosophy (“there is not a philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, like different therapies” (PI 133)).
Tolstoy says " Art is a microscope which artist fix up on the secrets of his soul and show to people these secrets which are common to all." If man has the urge to be artist,it is because he needs to find himself.Poet must write if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself.What man can be he must be true to his own nature.This need be call self-actualization.Only write know thyself other all writing is futile
Here is a simple question: how do each of you respondents imagine our common culture 100 years from now? Is there one? The technical problem of survival is trivial compared to the manifest failure of human civilization to thrive in the face of willed ugliness, determined ignorance, and a rejection of human agency, all occasioned both by bad metaphysics and the art which arises from it.

I liked this article, and agree with it in total. He is both asking and answering needed questions.
And the value of therapy is the political.
Several of the comments have indicated "mere" entertainment as the bulk utility of art but it is worthwhile to examine what "entertainment" comprises. Really powerful entertainment does something extraordinary to one's viewpoint and, in the long run, can even change lives. Of course people are captured by good entertainment but an artist must really have something very special to produce that effect.Good art is created by people who are very special, who can examine the world from unusual viewpoints with great skills and exhibit new or unsuspected patterns to their audience. This is not easy nor is it common. But it is revelatory and greatly inspiring if it works.
Thanks for a nicely written article. I wouldn't dispute that art very often does serve the purposes you identify, and that is part of its value. But I think that for most people, the first function of art is simply to give us pleasure by entertaining us. The problem is, we feel a need to "justify" it by emphasizing its other functions. But most of us who drift past paintings in a gallery, or listen to music while washing the dishes, or who finish one novel and immediately pick up another, are mainly looking for entertainment.
A great read. My first true experience of art was through its therapeutic powers, sometimes fleeting but permanently useful for that particular time in life.
Art in its many disciplines, like science, like mathematics, is the exploration of patterns and their abstract and fascinating inter-relations amongst themselves and their relationships with perceptions of what we consider the real world. Those patterns can be delightful or horrifying or amusing or all pf those things and more. Good art opens new avenues for possible exploration. Bad art merely re-exhibits familiar patterns in ways that can quickly become boring. Really novel art is frequently dismissed because the revelations are so far out of synch with the familiar that they can be perceived as ugly or frightening. Beauty is only a small component of art and is not always necessary.
Near the beginning, God saved my life. Then Art saved me from religion. Art fed my imagination and this helped me more 'to be good at living, even in challenging circumstances.' I am a better person because (some) people of faith shared with me how to live by certain values, and other people(artists) share insights, suggestions, nuances, questions and reflections. This contributes to the relationships I might develop with other people. Fun and entertaining may be, but the best art is always more than just these.
I like Yeats' reflection on the importance of the Imagination in his essay William Blake and the Imagination: "He (Blake) had learned from Jacob Boehme and from old alchemist writers that imagination was the first emanation of divinity, ‘the body of God,’ ‘the Divine members,’ and he drew the deduction, which they did not draw, that the imaginative arts were therefore the greatest of Divine revelations, and that the sympathy with all living things, sinful and righteous alike, which the imaginative arts awaken, is that forgiveness of sins commanded by Christ. The reason, and by the reason he meant deductions from the observations of the senses, binds us to mortality because it binds us to the senses, and divides us from each other by showing us our clashing interests; but imagination divides us from mortality by the immortality of beauty, and binds us to each other by opening the secret doors of all hearts. He cried again and again that every thing that lives is holy, and that nothing is unholy except things that do not live—lethargies, and cruelties, and timidities, and that denial of imagination which is the root they grew from in old times. Passions, because most living, are most holy—and this was a scandalous paradox in his time—and man shall enter eternity borne upon their wings.
The negative comments under this excellent article merely show how much a sense of artistic meaning has eroded in modern times. The article simply articulates an age-old common sense understanding: without it, art is merely some sort of pointless entertainment like TV sitcoms, and the logical conclusion would be to sell the contents of Louvre, the Vatican Museum, the National Gallery etc. because they are merely pointless entertainment items and would better be objects in the consumer market. When a society has merely contempt for its cultural treasures, it signals the beginning of barbarism.

And then, the crazy argument that great art has not been able to stop nazi criminals from exercising their murderous appetites, is one of those silly clichées based upon misconception: people can enjoy art and have no idea of its implications. The fault lies then with the spectator not with the art.

The only element I found missing in the article is the aesthetic one: apart from its 'therapeutic' meaning, great art also aestheticizes life experience, to reveal its spiritual aura.
So funny to read the academic's definition of art...it is with sadness I rebuke them alll...and ask , no beg them to have the courage to feel.. without 50 cent words.
I am an artist.
There is no art (as there is no god). There is the sum of pictures, photos, sculptures, films, music, theaters etc that we call "art". How much of all that is "art"? How much is entertainment? It is just another language in which you can express anything. Therapeutic? That's ridiculous. I have never seen anyone been a better person because of "art". The whole article sounds like a mourning for the good old days......
We are soaked with art but society is more violent, not less.

Moreover there are notable exceptions to the idea that art improves lives: Reinhart Heydrich was the son of a composer, operatic tenor and double bass player. He was also head of the Nazi Security Dept who killed Jews for a living. And he was a devoted musician whose face lit up with joy when he got his violin out.

Did it make him a better person?

As one who as a classical musician for many years I came across this notion time and time again. I regard is as not only nonsense but egregious nonsense

What is art for? Fun. Entertainment. And nothing more. But this romantic notion of sacralizing art means artists and musicians cannot accept the plain truth that we are entertainers and nothing more. It is also precious, arrogant and absurd.

To seek art as other than mere diversion is to put too much and expectation on it.
As an artist and poet whose whole life has been involved in he exploration of sensation and communication I find the praise of the disciplines a bit over glorious to be digestible. My own experience is that I and others involved in media exploration and perceptual interpretation find satisfaction in seeking and persistent frustration in not finding. Only rarely is one astonished that an effort goes beyond one's aims and capabilities to lay claim to strange and surprising territories. How this comes about I cannot say.
Great article! Thanks!
I would love to see where you fit music in with all of this. As a musician myself, that would be a topic very near my heart...
Funny, I thought modern art was designed to destroy western civilization.
To approach "art" as if it were something separate from life is to show that one's own life is, well, really rather arid. People integrated into a large and rich system of understanding, of faith, of culture -- these people produce art as a bird sings or a rose blows. Art is simply a mode of life; and people who don't live with the richness and productivity of that mode will find themselves baffled by it, I suppose.
All this is about usefulness, as though we are still invited into the scenes of hunt and hunted in the Lascaux Caves of yore, not longer enterable. Eliot put it well about our situation that art is a palliative, rather than agitprop or commercial distraction:


Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before time and after.
About the Friedrich: perhaps the immensity of time and space . . . or this: from the nearly choked-off inlet whose shape is almost rhymed by the looming rocks,one emerges (barely)to be met with jagged and menacing obstruction--a block athwart one's longed-for escape.
Wonderful! Thank you~