All art has purpose. Good art transcends its purpose.

In an article, How Christianity can help us recover the usefulness of art, Alain De Botton laments the ‘veneration of ambiguity’ in art today. According to him, the art world doesn’t like the idea that art could have a purpose outside of itself. ‘Christianity, by contrast,’ he claims, ‘never leaves us in any doubt about what art is for: it is a medium to teach us how to live, what to love and what to be afraid of.’ But this raises an interesting question. If the purpose of a picture of Mary is to remind us what tenderness is like, then what does it matter whether or not it is good art? Couldn’t a poorly executed painting of Mary teach us about tenderness just as well as a masterpiece?

The thing is, an art work can have many purposes, ranging from the purely intrinsic (belonging to art by their very nature) to the completely extrinsic. One of the purposes most intrinsic to art is to express emotion. Another is to describe the visible and another, to create an aesthetically pleasing object. One of the most extrinsic purposes is to make money. Somewhere in the middle are the following: to convince, to teach and to encourage.

If an artwork is created for mostly extrinsic purposes, chances are it will suffer as a result. It may seem paradoxical, but an artwork that tries too hard to deliver its overt meaning (or “message”) will end up weakening itself. Most of us have experienced this phenomenon in cinema: a film essentially about the triumph of good over evil may portray one particular character as wholly evil, with no redeeming traits, and another as completely good. Whereas a more satisfying film will portray characters with more complex facets. (Think of Disney versus Pixar.) Yes, with complexity comes a certain degree of ambiguity, but that’s what life is like and that’s what art aspires to, even so-called “non-realist” art. Ambiguity also allows room for our interpretation. Otherwise, might feel we are being assaulted with overt meaning.

In the gospel of John, Jesus says, ‘… unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.’ (John 12:24, NIV) Although the original context of this verse is Jesus talking about his own crucifixion and resurrection, it can also apply to art. The urge to communicate a message may have been the original motivation for creating an artwork but unless the artist is prepared to let this message “fall and die”, the artwork will be stillborn.

What is art?
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