An interesting sentence, uttered by a friend of mine while we were chatting over drinks, was that “Art has no purpose, only consequences.” and these six words really struck a chord with me. In today’s blunder therefore, I’d like to explore this statement, because I think a lot of us may posses a misconstrued understanding about our artistic production that could (and probably does) influence our ability to reach the right audience and consequently grow as artists.
But why does art not have any purpose? If you’re a regular of this blog, you’ve probably noticed me state several purposes pertaining to art throughout my writings and podcasts, and so the idea of art without purpose might seem a bit off.
To be honest, this fact is precisely why I had to write and explore this novel perspective, as it seems that just such a misrepresentation or miscommunication could be the culprit of a lot of convolution among us artists (not to say the art world in general)!
My personal view of life is that everything has either purpose or capability; the later being a given, as physical reality cannot be without capability (if nothing else the capability of being or existing), and purpose as the basic conception of said reality, projected upon it by beings.
An art piece, regardless of whether it is a painting, drawing, installation or any excuse for a real work of art, like the stuffed shark that made headlines decades ago, seems to posses some form of purpose. Were it not so, how could one possibly explain all the weird works that serve no utilitarian function, have no real graspable concept of what their purpose was (except maybe to be sold at outrageous prices on the secondary market)?!
And such riddles can — as with anything in our beautifully convoluted world of art — quickly be explained away by some form of concept. All we really need to understand even the most unintelligible work of art, possibly even completely void of meaning at the time of its conception, is just a glint of meaning that can be quite easily provided by just expanding ones context regarding any particular work, and eventually ending up at a feasible (albeit usually quite banal) explanation of what it should be representing.
A wonderful example for this is the function of an artwork’s title, and who better to direct our attention to as an example than the famous taxidermist of the art world himself, Damien Hirst.
Hirst’s work has always been accompanied by incredibly poetic titles and this was by far no coincidence or merely a reflection of the depths of his romantic, world-pondering soul. His decisions to name a rotting cow head with flies and an insect zapper, incapsulated inside a glass tank with the title: “A Thousand Years” was almost genius.
Maybe not in the sense of the renaissance idea of genius, and definitely not in the sense of master craftsperson, but fitting to the times, Hirst’s work was exactly on point:
Make art that creates a spectacle — preferably based on shock factor, so you can divide your audience into two disparate factions — and let people quarrel over your work until full media coverage saturation has been reached. Then repeat.
Anyone fond of Guy Debord’s book The Society of the Spectacle will quickly notice that such an approach cannot be sustained indefinitely (and alas, after Hirst’s worldwide Gagosian show and most prominently after his last Venice gig, even history itself stands as an undeniable statement of such logic).
Let’s therefore look at how and why Hirst’s career took such a turn (and why a lot of contemporary art will face the same music eventually):
Let’s start with why it failed, because his why was actually interlaced with what interests us the most — purpose. Damien Hirst’s work does not have any purpose, but what is even more problematic than that, it had no capability to ever have a purpose — at least not in the usual sense of how artworks become integrated into society.
While nothing really has purpose on its own, things achieve purpose because people project function upon them. If done individually, such a mechanism produces singular tools, like hammers, spears and axes, and if done communally (meaning by a group of likeminded people), such mechanisms create systems.
These systems are more or less just collections of particular tools and their interrelations, that, exactly because of these interrelations, produce much more complex and profound meanings and usage scenarios, than if the tools weren’t part of a singular system (think Gestalt theory) .
Simply put, the fax machine when it was invented was useless, just like the phone was useless, because such a tool’s only purpose was to connect to other similar tools. If you’re the only guy or gal with a fax machine, it just doesn’t make sense to have one. You need others to have it too, and only by a myriad of other fax machines in operation does you own fax machine become a valuable asset — the more fax machines there are, the more valuable yours is.
And it’s similar with art, too. A painting is only as valuable (in monetary and historical/cultural terms) as the amount of people that share the belief of it being valuable.
You can also think of the amusing joke that used to circulate the internet (and probably still does in some places), where a distinction between religion and clinical insanity is drawn by comparing how many other people also believe and can communicate with an imaginary man, living in the sky. If you’re the only one one, you’re most likely crazy and should be hospitalised, but if it’s thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people, well, then it’s OK, because it’s a religion.
But I don’t wish to press any buttons here, religion has its place in society (take it from a no-nonsense atheist).
But to get back to our example about Hirst; his works, while incredibly amusing, profoundly shocking in their nature and extremely well done, did lack one important part — a perpetual common ground amongst the art goers that saw them.
Without it, they would (and did) vanish into oblivion, because if a work of art does not possess the ability to latch-on to a particular aspect of its contemporary cultural context (or in hindsight the same context, but viewed in retrospect), the work cannot hope to stay significant after the initial shock has lingered and the magician turning the knobs and leavers behind the green curtain gets outed by the public.
To propose a more general example, imagine a portrait painter of the 18th century — anyone really, it doesn’t matter — because our hypothetical (or real) portraitist will be of the “crowd pleasing” verity, meaning his or her (but let’s not kid ourselves, it’s the 18th century, it’s his) art will most not be created to embody any deeper meaning or message, apart form the obvious goal of portraying his commissioners in the best manner possible.
Such works will most likely be shunned by his contemporaries and the only possibility of ever attaining significance in the grander scheme of things will be if after let’s say one hundred years or so, historians establish our crowd-pleasing artist’s era as a time of empty shenanigans and meaningless debauchery.
In the grand image created, his work might become a prominent example of his time, because the merit upon which quality has been decided has changed for the usual “how much impact does any particular thing or person have on its society” to “how much of a particular thing or person is (or was) present in society” — to say differently, quality has morphed into quantity.
And this phase of understanding Hirst’s body of work is still to come, as much more time has to pass for the collective thought to become detached from what has been in the context of what is now, to notice and propose such an understanding of art (and everything else we produce).
But the gist of the starting remark was that art has no purpose, only consequences, so let’s explore how that fits into everything we’ve talked about so far.
Art — like everything we create to be part of our society — has purpose, because everything that is observed intently by a being ultimately has some purpose.
Even if just a tiny, insignificant one, like the purpose of a pebble that was moulded by millions of years of environmental change and turmoil, only to be tossed into a lake by a child at one time in its existence.
It’s really the system in which art is exhibited that helps it attain some form of purpose; as we’ve stated, for anything to have “a purpose”, it first has to be noticed, and with an ineffable amount of things floating in the universe, noticing any particular thing is quite the statistical miracle.
Galleries (and museums) help here, because they serve as undeniable locations where art and art-like objects can be found. After any object has been placed inside a gallery or museum, it kinda becomes art — if nothing else, it gets a chance to be scrutinised by members of the inner sanctum of any particular art society (or even the whole art world if we’re talking mega-exhibitions).
The way such progressions form is by first attaining the status of “maybe it’s art”, then evolving to “yep, it’s art” and sometimes to “magnificent art”. In rare cases, a work will even become “the best of its time”!
Here’s a rough draft of how that happens:
The art-like objects can usually be found in galleries (especially lower tier ones). Because they are located inside of the gallery (sometimes they can also be found outside), they get the status of “maybe it’s art”. After the show opens, they are judged primarily by a smaller group of people, and if they pass, they are given the “yep, it’s art” stamp of approval — albeit a tiny stamp to be honest.
But the journey doesn’t just end there, now, if a person of higher status and stature finds them particularly interesting, they might get another chance at a bigger gallery and for a larger, more important crowd (usually they judge how well they can be incorporated into contemporary society in the context of not only the “now”, but also the past and sometimes even the future).
If they pass that part too, they might become “good art” or “magnificent art” and if eventually they end up in any permanent museum collections, they attain the label of “certainty” and such artistic objects usually go on to become “the best of their time”— that’s why artist’s works grow more important if they become part of any museum’s permanent collection.
But, all of this is still only talking about purpose though, there is still no sign of consequence. My personal take on why this is so, is because the consequence part is only true at the initial phase of the artistic process — when we are creating art — and we haven’t been talking about that at all.
We rarely even see that part of the artistic process, it we’re being honest! The problem is, that at the end of a long painting session or after the completion of a sculpture, the status of the finished object transforms from personal and intimate exploration of self, into a public trace of the process that has unfolded.
This of course doesn’t ring exactly true for performance art, happenings and the like, where the process of personal exploration itself becomes the literal (and ephemeral) trace — the artwork — but regardless if anything you create has a physical body in some way or another or if it’s just a fleeting moment in time, it’s all the same as far as questions of purpose and consequence are concerned.
The process of creation bears as its consequence the trace; that’s the art work. This is the intimate part of creation, the part that no-one can really explain away by saying “You did it, because of this or that.”
Its existence is not a consequence of any particular concept or desire, it is a consequence of being. This is the place where no-one can judge a good or bad expression, what matters is that whatever it is that needs to go out is actually expressed, and that it’s done so fully and without constraints.
This is the space where play happens, where we let go and enter into a state of just being.
But after playtime is over, after we regain full consciousness and contextualise ourselves again in the grander scheme of society, time and space, our creations, the traces of our free expression can become imbued with purpose, but only if we so desire. If we do, we present them to the public and insert them into the system that we call “The Art World” (though sadly it’s now more or less referred to as “The Art Market”).
If they appreciate our creation and we have the right combination of good timing and luck, our creations beget purpose, because people create it because of them and project it onto them. If not, they stay consequences, consequences of pure will, determination and the ability to let go and synchronise with the moment.
In either case, it’s always a combination of courage, skill and craft. Without courage, artisans create empty shells, without skill and craft, artists create bollocks. But in the middle, there lays the promised land of not only appreciation and monetary independence, but also of a life fully lived.