Art is supposed to be experienced. Recently in Massachusetts, there has been a big push for why the arts matter. People blasted social media with photos holding signs explaining why the arts matter, which was truly awesome. I love art, and I highly commend them for their efforts. However, it is always surprising to me how many people rest their whole case for the arts on self-expression. In my opinion, this is probably the most trivial reason why art matters. It doesn’t really add much to the case for art. Narcissism cannot be the only reason to make art—though some might argue many this descriptions fits many artists. If that’s true, I submit it is purely incidental. Hey, I’ve something really important to express. No, I do. Ad nauseam.
Now to be fair, expression certainly happens in making and appreciating art. But is it really the main reason art matters? This is what I find a little disheartening. I remember one time I walked into an art museum, and I examined each painting. I thought some were amazing in their detail and level of skill. I thought others had beautiful color schemes. But there was one in particular that caught my attention. I didn’t think it should hang on the wall. In my opinion, it wasn’t art because I had no idea what it was expressing. So, I pulled out a knife and sliced that canvas from end to end, saving the art world from this injustice. (This is fiction!)
Why is what one person wants to express so supremely important?
It isn’t, at least not necessarily so.
Do we always care what an artist is expressing or trying to express?
I doubt it; sometimes we want an object to inspire us.
Do we always know for sure what an artist was trying to express?
Yet somehow we manage to enjoy ourselves anyway. Sometimes we just want to be in the presence of an object of aesthetic worth—whatever this means is, admittedly, contentious.
If I want to express myself, I am fairly articulate at doing so using words. I find this to be more efficient in getting my actual point across with ambiguity. Think about how many works we have enjoyed without really knowing what the artist was trying to express, sometimes without even knowing who the artist is (either because we have never heard of that artist or the artist is anonymous). There are multiple interpretations, often contradictory, of any given work. While it is interesting and highly enjoyable to discuss what an artist may have expressed through a work, it is highly suspect that this exercise is the primary purpose of art.
If we examine many different works of art, can we really say that what the artist wanted to express was, in fact, expressed. What did Georgia O’Keefe express in her paintings? Was she really espousing a feminist ideology? Or was she, as she herself claimed, just trying to show people what she saw? If art is really about expression, then art remains unjustified?
Obviously, I never destroyed a painting in a museum. But people always enjoy art that they don’t ‘understand’. And this, I maintain, is because there is an even more fundamental purpose of art. That is, art’s primary purpose is to provide a uniquely aesthetic experience. This may involve beauty, the sublime, or any other important aesthetic property. It is the excellence of the art that keeps us coming back for more, regardless of whether we get what’s it’s trying to express. As a matter of course, it is only through its excellence—broadly construed—that we care what it might be trying to express. (Yes, I realize there are some works of art the are intentionally ugly; that’s something to be discussed later.)
There are certainly differences of opinion about what works possess aesthetic excellence and to what degree. But my point here is that a ‘bad’ work of art is something we don’t care to know anything further about. We don’t care what it might be expressing. Ultimately, I am merely concerned that we have reduced art to self-expression at the expense of other excellent qualities. The aesthetic is what draws us in, even if the expression is what keeps us intrigued.