“The arts are merely a decoration imposed on the top of human life, they do not express it.”
Art is the vessel of permanence and ephemerality. In ‘To the Lighthouse’, Virginia Woolf explores this paradox by making art the object that makes the character of Lily (the novel’s central artist) realize the transitory nature of life. Trying to construct a fictitious composition of mother and son, meant to be aesthetically pleasing, the artist discovered a deeper lesson: we will all be forgotten in this transient life. However, completing the artwork and participating in the creation of art and beauty gives her a sense of meaningful permanence in her existence. Is thus art meant to be a product of the expression of human life or merely a decoration to add captivating yet useless beauty into the world?
Many artists have tried to answer this inquiry. Oscar Wilde, for example, states his impression in the preface of ‘The picture of Dorian Gray’ writing: “All art is quite useless”. Following a letter demanding the meaning of this phrase, the author expands saying art is useless for its only aim is that to create a mood and not animate and change the minds of those who regard it. He further compares art to a flower which, beautiful in it’s blossoming, gives us a moment of joy looking at it being yet superfluous to our existence. Many appreciators of contemporary art might antagonise this opinion, calling it outdated. However, one must not look far in time to find opposing views.
Oscar Wilde… expands saying art is useless for its only aim is that to create a mood and not animate and change the minds of those who regard it
Wilde’s contemporary Leo Tolstoy, renowned Russian author, approached the dilemma in a rather dissimilar way. He argued that art was the means through which an individual, aided by external means, transmits to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are ‘infected’ by those feelings and likewise experience them. Art thus becomes an active process through which beings can transmit and explore a range of diverse emotions, the latter being the defining trait of human life. Art is thus the vessel of human expression and expresses human life through this process. This theory is easily applicable to forms of art such as Expressionism; one needs only to engage with artists like Munch who used strong vivacious colors and thick brushstrokes to attribute deep, disconcerting and sometimes disturbing emotion to an image.
With the progression of time the focus of art shifts from emotion to imagination and intellectual thought, animating its creators and viewers with socially and politically engaged themes. Here art becomes an act of shared communication and a right to freedom of expression dealing with key questions of our modern world that encompass democracy, human rights, the economy, migration, and the environment. Art today is an act of shared communication that can alter what we think and challenge the given. Art challenges problematic views of the world reaching further than the socially accepted. In areas of war and conflict art can foster dialogue, reconciliation and is the last frontier of unregulated free expression; and isn’t expression what makes us human?
Art challenges problematic views of the world reaching further than the socially accepted
Art has always been part of the human culture. In the past it’s purpose might have been that of being mere decoration, yet nowadays, looking back at a king’s portrait, a depiction of an epic battle or a church fresco, it is clear that art serves the function of narrating the stories, cultures and values of our ancestors expressing their humanity. Art’s function has shifted to transmitting emotions and then ideas and opinions always being a true expression of human imagination and human connection. It is a difficult task to appoint one true objective to art where it can be seen as creation of beauty, symbol for the ephemeral, vessel of emotion or spark of philosophical conversation. Yet can it not be argued that humans encompass all these traits and that they therefore all express him? As abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock simply states: “Every good artist paints what he is”.