Does Art Require a Social Purpose?

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“The idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ is as strange in our times as ‘science for science’s sake’. All human activities must serve mankind if they are not to remain useless and idle occupations,” Russian philosopher Nikolay Chernyshevsky once said. 

To “serve mankind”, Chernyshevsky implies, is to assist the development of man’s consciousness and improve the social system. A noble and well-grounded goal, of course; I myself struggle to comprehend a more important and universal aim than social progression. 

That is, the increasing capacity of a society to meet the basic human needs of its citizens, establishing the building blocks that allow individuals and communities to enhance and sustain the quality of their lives, and creating the conditions for all individuals to reach their full potential.

Given the extremities of such intention, the point of non-essentials — namely anything that does not serve to keep us alive nor directly feed into social progression — falls under question. 

What good can art fulfil in the face of growing homelessness, world hunger, or the devastation caused by war?

Many artists use their work to draw attention to social and political woes woven throughout society, attempting to ignite change. Indeed, since its very beginnings, art has been used to pass judgements on the phenomena of life with so many artworks born out of a fixed narrative.

Art is used as a method of spreading ideas, messages and beliefs, and some of the world’s most famous and influential pieces of art have undeniable socio-political intent.

Mark Godfrey, senior curator at Tate Modern, points to this: “Artists are rarely making work for themselves and are rarely making work because they want the world to stay the way it is. In one way or another, artists want to talk to other people and they want the world to be seen in a new way.”

Often, the desired change of the artist is explicit. And their work is attached to a specific political movement: Picasso’s ‘Massacre in Korea’, criticising American military intervention in Korea in the 1950s, Dmitri Vrubel’s painting ‘The Fraternal Kiss’ appearing on the East side of the Berlin Wall, or more recently, Olafur Eliasson’s public art instillation ‘Ice Watch’ that he timed in tandem with international climate talks across Europe from 2014-2018, are obvious examples of this.

An artist’s call for change may not sit on the front lines of a contemporary political issue, however, and the power of introspective art can be equally potent when paired with social intent.

Much autobiographical work illustrates the relatability, and thus widespread nature, of certain suffering and hardship — an artistic advocacy of the personal is political.

For example, most of Tracey Emin’s work draws upon her own experiences to shine a light on poignant political issues, ranging from sexual abuse, abortion and suicide to gender. As she explained in an interview: “I realised I was my work, I was the essence of my work.” 

Abstract artist Tia O’Donnell pours personal emotion onto each page, reflecting her struggles with mental health in the hope of raising more awareness and initiating conversation: “It’s important to bring light to such a taboo subject. Being able to express my emotion through my work is a tool so that my words can be heard.”

This social responsibility exhibited by so many artists in their work certainly fulfils Chernyshevsky’s requirement. But what about art that doesn’t? 

The phrase ‘art for art’s sake’ (from the French l’art pour l’art) teaches that art is an aim in itself — to convert it into a means of achieving any extraneous aim, even the most noble, is to lower the dignity of a work of art.

It continues that judgements of aesthetic value should not be confused with those proper to other spheres of life; art should be assessed apart from any themes which it might touch on, such as morality, religion, history, or politics.

Artist Matt Dosa expresses this view: “Art has enormous social capacities and can be an incredibly powerful tool used in various social situations, which is great, but it should not be a requirement.”

Indeed, art may reference social issues and problems or be socially critical, but to me, this is not where its force lies. So many great scientific discoveries occurred through fluke or accident — “science for science’s sake” we might even call it. I believe that art holds a similar, but social, capacity to broaden our capabilities and sensibilities to an unknown limit. And to prescribe a purpose upon it is to suggest an end to the experimental thinking that remains so crucial in an imperfect, ever-evolving, world.

Art with social intent indicates a mind made up. And while expression of our views is absolutely crucial – and to do this through art is both aesthetically and culturally enriching — as an ongoing process, social progression requires growth of perspective.

Contemporary philosopher, Catherine Malabou, points to this, suggesting that in order to create new, yet unknown alternatives, we must create spaces in which the things of the world can reveal themselves in their (possibly infinite) complexity. Thus, paradoxically, artworks that carry a direct message actually limit space for significant change and transformation. Therefore to put such a requirement upon art in the strive for social progression is redundant. 

What is more successful is art that opens up space for independent and widespread interpretation and thought, encouraging viewers to look beyond an artist’s own perspective. I contest that the only prescriptive nature of art must be unwavering accessibility, as diversity remains the unsurprising, though ever-disputed, crucial ingredient for evolution of thought.

The arts are increasingly deemed as closed and elitist. Most gallery exhibition openings are guest-list only and the artwork is only accessible to the public once the champagne has dried up — a routine scenario in a capitalist society.

And while it may be over the top for me to suggest a complete overhaul of our current social framework, what must be the case is that everyone is free and encouraged to experience the artworks afterwards.

Unfortunately, we are far from this being a reality. Overwhelming cuts to the arts over the past decade have further entrenched limited accessibility and participation.

Almost £400m has been stripped out of annual local authority spending on culture and the arts since 2010, according to research by the County Councils Network, and artistic education has been devastated with many UK schools unable to even offer creative subjects as part of the curriculum.

The internet and social media have enhanced accessibility, providing artists with a platform to share their work with a wider and much more diverse audience. However, viewing an artwork on a screen simply cannot be compared to the experience of being absorbed within a collection or witnessing a piece up close.

Art is a crucial expression and enrichment of our sensibilities and if we want to truly unlock its potential to enlighten perspectives, we really must do everything in our power to protect it.

Words by Madeleine Coffey

This article was originally published as part of The Indiependent’s May 2020 charity magazine, which raised money for the British Lung Foundation. Find out more here.

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