What is Art for?

You might think there was a simple to answer
to this. After all, we know how to say what most things
are for, like this or that And people flock to museums like never before, so they must have their motives. But when it comes to art, people get strangely
afraid to ask too directly what it might all be for – because well, everyone except you might know the answer
already It’s perhaps too obvious It’s perhaps too complicated The result is an awkward silence and a lot of confusion. But maybe it shouldn’t be that hard to say
what art is for. Maybe we can have a go at ascribing certain
rather clear purposes to art. Here’s five things art might be able to
do for us: It’s an obvious but striking fact that the
most popular works of art in the world show pretty things: happy people, flowers in spring,
blue skies. This is the top selling postcard in the world
from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York This enthusiasm for prettiness worries serious
types a lot. They wonder: have people forgotten what life is really like? But that seems a misplaced worry. We need
pretty things close to us not because we’re in danger of forgetting the bad stuff, but
because terrible problems weigh so heavily on us, that we’re in danger of slipping
into despair and depression. That’s why prettiness matters. It’s an
emblem of hope, which is an achievement. Prettiness, those flowers and blue skies and kids in meadows,
is hope bottled and preserved, waiting for us when we need it. The world often requires us to put on a cheerful
facade But beneath the surface, there’s a lot of
sadness and regret that we can’t express from fear of seeming weird or a loser. One thing art can do is to reassure us of
the normality of pain, it can be sad with and for us. Some of the world’s greatest works of art
have been loved for their capacity to make the pain that’s inside all of us more publically
visible and available. Like putting on a sad piece of music, sombre
works of art don’t have to depress us… …rather they can give us the welcome feeling
that pain is part of the human condition. Art fights the false optimism of commercial
society It’s there to remind us with dignity that
every good life has extraordinary amounts of confusion, suffering, loneliness and distress
within it. and that therefore we should never aggravate
sadness by feeling we must be freakish simply for experiencing quite a lot. All of us are a little unbalanced in some
way. We’re too intellectual or too emotional,
too masculine or too feminine, too calm or too excitable… The art we love is frequently something we’re
drawn to because it compensates us for what we lack: it counterbalances us. When we’re moved by a work of art, it may
be because it contains concentrated dose of qualities we need more of in our lives. Perhaps it’s full of the serenity we admire,
but don’t have enough of Perhaps it’s got the tenderness we long
for, but that our jobs and relationships are currently lacking Or perhaps it’s suffused with a pain and
drama we’ve had to stifle but want to get in touch with. Sometimes a whole society falls in love with
a certain style in art, because it’s trying to rebalance itself, like France in the late
18th century that wanted David as a corrective to its decadence,
or Britain in the 19th century that looked to the pre-Raphaelites to counter the effects
of brutal industrialisation The art a country or a person calls ‘beautiful’
gives you vital clues as to what is missing in them. It’s in the power of art to help us be more
rounded, more balanced and more sane. The media is constantly giving us hints about
what’s glamorous and important Art also tells us about what’s glamorous
and important, but fortunately  – given that you weren’t invited again to the Oscars
this year – it usually picks on some very different things. Albrecht Durer makes grass look glamorous John Constable draws our attention to the
skies: Van Gogh reminds us that oranges are worth
paying attention to Marcel Duchamp challenges us to look again
at the seemingly mundane These artists aren’t falsely glamorising
things that are better ignored, they’re justly teasing out a value that’s been neglected
by a world with a deeply distorted and unfair sense of what truly matters. Art returns glamour
to its rightful place, highlighting what is genuinely worth appreciating. Nothing seems further from good art than propaganda;
the sort encouraging you to fight or what government to support But one way to think about art is that it
is a sort of propaganda, in the sense of a tool that motivates and energises you for
a cause – only it is propaganda on behalf of some of the most important and nicest emotions
and attitudes in the world – which it uses its skills to make newly appealling and accessible. It might be propaganda about the simple life: Or about the need to broaden one’s horizons Or about a more playful, tender approach to
life It’s a force that stands up for the best
sides of human nature and gives them a platform and an authority in a noisy, distracted world. For too long, art has attracted a little too
much reverence and mystique for its own good. In its presence, we’re like someone meeting
a very famous person. We get stiff and lose our spontaneity. We should relax around it, as we already do
with music: and learn to use it for what it’s really
meant for: as a constant source of support and encouragement for our better selves.

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