1. Art or/and Function
To some, art has no function. It's just something made for it's own sake, l'art pour l'art, any use inferred from it considered a sacrilege, an unholy act. Art is seen as something totally detached from life, totally detached from the necessities of life, from the very elements of life even, from the living and their institutions, from time even. Art also, by some, is seen as the product of an original creation by some genius creator/thinker, making it a solitary happening and a holy thing, something to be absorbed by an awed beholder. Art also, by some, is seen as a refuge, an escape into a dream-world, a totally arti-ficial cloud-minded edifice whose consumers are not having any connection to the so-called real world. Art also, by some, is a concept so glorified and sanctified that for it to be sincere it must be so abstract, so devoid of any pragmatist elements, so devoid of any worldly concerns, so un-common and aristocratic that it is only for few to enjoy, for even fewer to create, and anything gaining some larger following and making some "concessions" to public taste being considered anything but art. Yet for some also, art is nothing but an instrument, a truly pragmatic institution to support and underline political and ideological needs, to serve as an instrument of what is understood as education.
Those approaches are usually not clear-cut phenomena but rather occurring in some combination, thus I'll address all those points in one attempt. What's missing in such kind of thinking are several kinds of premises which should at least be considered first before jumping to any high-brow (or low-brow) conclusions.
Naturally, one question has to concern the very nature of art itself. What is art, what does it encompass, what does it do. I'm always keen on linguist analysis, that's often a first step, my interest in etymology probably comes from my also being a historian. But neither the Latin root ars nor the Greek equivalent of technê, both meaning something like faculty or skill, then inferring production, can be of much help with such a term. They may deliver an interesting sidenote, underlining a rather pragmatic origin for the phenomenon called art. Maybe from contemporary words like "artificial" and "technical" we may infer a sense of something different than nature, or contrary to biological nature, something peculiar to humankind even. Art seems to be a similarly confusing term as culture, revealing both everything and nothing about its nature. Art indeed seems to be something peculiar, something not necessarily linked to the most acute needs of the earth.
Setting this question aside for the moment, I'll try getting to the weak points of above mentioned arguments. First of all, art is produced by somebody. That somebody is a human being, female or male. The producer of art is not an empty plate, no tabula rasa, and the production doesn't take place in empty space. The producer is a biological and spiritual and social being with biological and spiritual and social needs, capabilities, disabilities. The producer is made both biologically (by their biological parents) and spiritually/socially (by their biological and societal parents), s/he is embedded into an entire history and exchange of ideas and concepts, witnessing events around them, being subjected to perception and both limited and guided by language of whatever kind. S/he is not a god-like creator-genius of their own making, neither just a processing machine creating a certain output from a certain input. The truth, it seems, lies somewhere in the middle. Art is thus rooted, not completely artificial, not timeless. It has a history, it has a biological, anthropological component, as well as a cultural, societal and spiritual one.
Neither is art just happening in an empty space for no particular reason, for no particular purpose. Physics teaches us that an object tends to stay in the state it is in unless it is shaken up by some kind of impulse. Then, and only then, it changes its course and does something. Living beings tend to be like that: if everything is fine, both physically and psycologically, they can remain happily in one state. Certain needs or impulses are necessary to make them do something, even if it's just boredom - or something so primal as earning a living. Also, there's a reason for everything, be it apparent or not, conscious or not. Why paint a picture when you could also take a photograph or write a poem or make a sculpture? There's a choice here. Why write something down when you could just indulge in the moment or memorize it for yourself? Why tell it to somebody, whom to tell it to, why write something down if not for a possible reader? Otherwise, sometimes a cigar may just be a cigar. Really? Biology doesn't produce waste. As biological beings, we are always performing a certain function for a certain purpose. That this purpose may be unknown, or inexpressible, doesn't unmake this purpose. Art is produced out of a certain incentive, and made for a possible audience. Even if it's just a boy running to his parents to show them the sand castle he's just built, out of a psychological need to gain recognition and attention.
Art may be produced (not created) by somebody, but this somebody could never completely understand all the discursive variables behind her or his doing, or the unconscious parts of the production. Neither is the audience completely known, nor all possible effects the consumption of the piece of art may have on any possible person. There is no original author, there is no final audience. Even if the planet should explode one day, killing all inhabitants, there is no reason a deeper spiritual level should not have been touched in one way or the other, granted that physical existence ain't everything. Whatever purpose may be attributed to art, such attribution can only be a very narrow prediction, in an equation with that great many variables it is impossible to calculate a definite result. There's no reason for art to be seen just in one prescribed way, there are lots of possibilities for using a poetry book, from reading to memorizing to inspiring somebody to write poetry of their own, down even to using the paper for assisting a very basic biological function. Who knows? Who could possibly know?
Thus art seems to be neither with a definite function nor without it, neither with a creator nor without one, neither understandable a concept nor not understandable. That sounds like a rather Buddhist answer, and I don't quite know if it makes any sense. Let's just leave it at that for the moment.
Anything can be the object of art. But although this would make it a very painstaking process to name all possible things art could be, all pieces of art have one basic thing in common, whether it be a Shakespearean sonnet, a play by Sophokles, a Mozart symphony, a painting by Da Vinci, a building by Schinkel, a film by David Lynch or an episode of "The Young and the Restless", doesn't really matter. What all these share is what they do: They mimick something, reflecting upon some aspect of perceived reality:
to te gar mimeisthai symphyton tois anthrôpois ek paidôn esti (kai toutôi diapherousi tôn allôn zôiôn hoti mimêtikôtaton esti kai tas mathêseis poieitai dia mimêseôs tas prôtas)
kai to chairein tois mimêmasi pantas.
The object of mimicking can be a physical as well as a non-physical one, the result of the mimicking need not even look like the object which is depicted, abstract art can be, well, rather abstract. Nevertheless, there remains an act of mimicking, the object of mimicking can even be identical to the incentive to perform this activity.
The function Aristotle attributes to mimicking is to enjoy (to chairein, s.a.) or to bring enjoyment (hêdonê, 1459a / 23,20), the latter being a rather controversial term, especially for Plato, but we'll come to that point later. But Aristotle here has to be understood in the context in which he is writing. Firstly, Peri Poiêtikês - like all of his writings that have survived - is just a collection of rough notes, not a finished text, it's esoteric, not exoteric, not intended for public use, thus it may not be as coherent as it would have been if it were a finished text. Secondly, Aristotle restricts most of this thoughts on the theater, on the Greek tragedies. Given the context they were performed in, he may be completely right, and surprisingly candid about it. It's just entertainment. That's what most art is, if not all of it, yet not everybody is so open about that.
Nevertheless, though I like the freshness of his honesty, I wouldn't necessarily restrict art to entertainment only, mainly if "entertainment" is understood as bringing joy, not just to entertain some thoughts. Entertainment, in a neutral sense, can just mean comsuming something, spending your time and mind on something. Yet this sense is usually lost in that context now, and I do not agree that "hêdonê" should be the sole object. A documentation about the Shoa may be a piece of art, yet it's purpose surely isn't to provide "hêdonê".
So does art have a function? Definitely. A piece of art is just like any other text (understanding "text" in a more abstract sense here, as an entry into and part of the discourse), it has a past (precursors, influences, inspiration), a present (the moment of production) and a future (its continued life in the discourse). Yet there is one thing where art and scholarship may differ: While an academic text mainly addresses the rational side of the audience, art tends to go more for an emotional reaction. And in contrast to academic writing, which should follow some kind of logic, there are no rules in art. Anything goes.
September 1st, 2001