The Function of Art

Art is a complex phenomenon, one that has long attracted the attention of philosophers. It is not a single object, activity or concept but rather, according to Richard Rorty, a “catchy thing” that evokes an emotional response in its viewers. As a form of expression, it may also be political or moral in nature.

In addition, the arts are increasingly being used in therapy for many ailments and as a way to improve our quality of life. Art is often described as “healing,” and research suggests that it can alleviate the symptoms of PTSD and other mental illnesses, including depression. It can also help people living with chronic pain or trauma to cope. Art can even be used to help patients deal with the end of life and find meaning in their final days.

Its unique ability to illuminate culture and history is one of the reasons that it’s so important to humanity. It can help us understand societies with different values and create bridges where there are none. It also inspires activism and facilitates constructive discourse on pressing issues, such as the environment, gender equality or social justice.

Traditionally, the function of art has been defined as being the representation of an element of truth in a culture and thereby revealing what a community values. This perspective is rooted in philosophy and predates the modern science of aesthetics.

However, a more useful approach to understanding the function of art might be to view it as a kind of grasping of the world, not just the physical realm that is addressed by science, but all the other domains that are encompassed by human culture, such as society and spiritual experience. Hence, a work of art might serve the following six functions:

These are not mutually exclusive, as many of these functions may overlap. For example, entertainment and edification are not incompatible with conveying important social messages; and, as we will see below, the fact that a work of art is aesthetically pleasing may also suggest that it has been carefully constructed.

Art has a long tradition of serving these cultural, ethical and spiritual purposes. These are the reasons why it is celebrated, venerated and admired across cultures worldwide, but its significance goes beyond this, in part because of the power of art to engage with important contemporary issues, such as climate change, inequality and war.

It has been argued that the practice of art is uniquely human because it involves symbolic and abstract cognition, as well as the display of aesthetics. This, coupled with its seeming non-functionality, has led to three major brain theories:

These include the localized pathways theory, the cognitive equivalence theory and the evolutionary art theory. These all posit that the underlying reason for the development of art lies in critical pivotal changes in the neuroanatomy of early humans and Homo sapiens, namely increases in regional specialization, interconnectivity between specialized regions, and in the formation of tight, hierarchical social groups.