You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

In a 2022 New York Times interview, Brian Eno, the English musician, producer (of U2, Talking Heads, David Bowie and Coldplay), and among the more cerebral figures in the pop music world, was asked to reveal “the hidden purpose of all art.”

His answer is that art is a way to create and explore new mental spaces. Art, in his view, is a mechanism for shaping and reshaping our perceptions and experiences of the world. 

Eno, in short, views art not merely as a vehicle for aesthetic pleasure or communication, but as a profound process that helps us understand and adapt to our continually changing environment.

Among his key ideas is that art serves a critical function by being “unnecessary” in a conventional sense. This “unnecessary” nature allows art to exist outside practical and utilitarian purposes, giving it the freedom to explore new realms of thought and feeling, thus enabling innovation and cognitive flexibility in society. 

Eno suggests that art helps us cope with the complexity and uncertainty of life, providing a form of simulation through which we can practice emotional responses and explore hypothetical scenarios in safe ways. Thus, the hidden meaning of art is found in its capacity to expand our understanding of ourselves and the world around us, fostering a kind of cultural evolution by constantly challenging and reshaping our perceptions and beliefs.

Many artists (and scientists) have offered their own take on art’s meaning and purpose.

According to Michelangelo, “The true work of art is but a shadow of the Divine Perfection.” Francis Bacon thought that “the job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.” Frank Lloyd Wright felt that “art demonstrates and reveals.” Einstein wrote, “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.” Leonard Bernstein said, “Art never stopped a war or got someone a job. That was never its function. It cannot change events, but it can change people.”

Philosophers of art have gone well beyond the aesthetic experience that artistic works offer.

Plato, as we all know, expressed ambivalence about art. In his Republic (itself one of the supreme works of literary artistry) he argued that art is an imitation of reality and thus twice removed from the truth. He worried that art could stir irrational emotions and mislead people, especially if it imitated bad behavior. Thus, he proposed censoring art to ensure that it promoted moral virtues.

Yet, Plato did acknowledge the educational and philosophical utility of certain forms of art. In the “Symposium,” he explored how art could inspire and elevate the soul by leading it toward a love of beauty and, ultimately, a love of the Forms. 

Art for Aristotle offered a way to understand the world more profoundly. By mimicking reality, art provides insights into the human condition, revealing universal truths through particular instances, contributing to human knowledge and to individuals’ moral and intellectual development.

He also believed that art can represent life, both as it is and as it could be. For Aristotle, one of the primary purposes of art, especially drama, was to evoke a catharsis—a purging of emotions, particularly pity and fear. This emotional cleansing helped the audience refine their feelings and learn from the experiences depicted in the art.

Immanuel Kant approached the purpose of art from a different angle in his Critique of Judgment. For him, the key to understanding art lies in the concept of aesthetic judgment and the experience of the sublime and the beautiful. Unlike Aristotle, Kant believed that the purpose of art isn’t found in its ability to imitate reality or evoke catharsis but in its capacity to provoke a disinterested pleasure—a pleasure that is appreciated for its own sake without any desire for possession or practical benefit.

Kant introduced the idea of the “purposiveness without purpose” of art, which means that art does not serve a direct, practical or utilitarian purpose. Rather, art allows viewers to appreciate a work through a free play of imagination and understanding, engaging the faculties in a way that is unique compared to other forms of cognition or enjoyment.

Art, for Kant, also plays a critical role in the moral development of individuals by cultivating the sensibilities, fostering a community of shared taste, and facilitating a sense of a common human condition through aesthetic experience.

For Hegel, art was one of the ways in which the spirit (or Geist) manifests itself and drives progress toward self-knowledge and freedom. He saw art as an expression of cultural and historical truths, embodying the spirit of an age. His aesthetics emphasized the historical development of art, suggesting that art evolves through a dialectical process, reflecting changes in human self-consciousness over time. 

Arthur Schopenhauer viewed art, especially music, as a means to temporarily escape the suffering inherent in life. Art provides a way to perceive the eternal realities that underlie the painful world of phenomena and desire. Art allows individuals to step outside the constant striving of the will and achieve a state of pure perception or will-less contemplation. 

Friedrich Nietzsche, in turn, celebrated art for its life-affirming qualities. He believed that art is capable of imbuing life with meaning, countering the nihilistic impulses that he saw as pervasive in his era. True art, according to Nietzsche, emerges from the interplay and tension between the Apollonian—order, beauty and rationality—and the Dionysian—the forces of chaos, passion and destruction. Art’s power lies in its ability to affirm life, with all its chaos and suffering, and to transfigure it into something sublime.

Theodor Adorno, the critical theorist, believed that the highest purpose of art is to act as a form of social critique. He argued that true art challenges the status quo and reveals the contradictions and tensions within society.  In the age of late capitalism, much of culture has become commodified—reduced to mere items of exchange that serve to reinforce existing social structures. However, authentic art resists this commodification, instead embodying a form of negative dialectics that refuses to be reconciled with the dominant societal norms and instead insists on the potential for a different world.

Few reflections on art remain more relevant in our age of artificial intelligence and machine learning than Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” written in 1935, which explores transformations in the nature and purpose of art resulting from its technological reproducibility. 

He introduced the concept of “aura” to describe the unique presence and authenticity of a work of art that exists in a particular time and space. He argues that the aura is tied to its history, and its originality. With the advent of technologies like photography and film, art can be reproduced on a massive scale, severing it from the domain of tradition. Mechanical reproduction diminishes or destroys the aura because copies lack the original’s presence in time and space. This change alters how art is perceived and valued.

Yet, despite the loss of art’s aura, mechanical reproduction also democratizes art by making it more accessible, allowing those who otherwise might never see the original works to experience and appreciate art. Increased accessibility, he argued, can have emancipatory effects, potentially changing the function of art in society, shifting art from ritualistic, traditional contexts to politically charged ones, where art can serve revolutionary purposes.

Still, there is a risk that new forms of media, like film, can become sources of distraction, encouraging passive forms of engagement with artworks, rather than active, sustained contemplation.

I can think of few more valuable conversations in my classes than those that revolve around what art is and its purpose, meaning and functions.

I want my students to reflect seriously about art’s role in human culture, to understand how different cultures and eras have viewed and valued art, and to respond to certain timeless philosophical questions:

Can anything be considered art, or are there specific criteria it must meet? When I was an Oberlin undergraduate, the distinguished art historian Ellen H. Johnson said that an artwork needn’t meet certain aesthetic standards, or demonstrate skill, or express an artist’s personal vision. It’s “whatever an art critic says.” That’s not a perspective that makes my students comfortable.

What are the different purposes of art? Art can, of course, be a source of aesthetic pleasure, a tool for social commentary, an expression of complex emotions and personal experiences, or a commercial product to be sold and consumed with a marketplace. I want my students to be able to view artworks through multiple lenses.

How does the context and creator affect our interpretation of art? Here, I want my students to understand how the culture in which an artwork is created or viewed can influence what themes are considered relevant or appropriate, and what styles or forms are valued.  I want them, too, to understand how the time period in which the work was made can provide insights into its themes, techniques and significance, and illuminate how the work was understood. And further, I want them to reflect on how their own personal experiences, beliefs and emotions influence their reaction to and interpretation of particular works.

Does art have a responsibility to society?  Especially now, when the older notion of art-for-art’s-sake has been supplanted by the idea that all art is political, I want my students to ask whether art should convey a moral or political message or promote social justice and the public good, or contribute positively to society’s development, or whether art should be autonomous and free from ethical or didactic obligations, prioritizing artistic expression and innovation over societal expectations.

How do different art forms convey meaning differently? I want to encourage my students to ponder how each art form uses distinct methods and mediums to communicate and evoke responses—whether that’s form, color and composition, movement and sound, or narrative structure, character development, and stylistic elements such as metaphor and symbolism to tell stories, express ideas or explore themes.

During his interview with Brian Eno, The New York Times journalist David Marchese quips: “Almost all recorded music now is ambient music, in that it’s used as background while we do other stuff. But it doesn’t feel like musicians are responding to that reality in any interesting ways.”

Is that true? Or is it just another example of the hyperbole and sweeping overgeneralization that characterize pop cultural criticism?

Certainly, a wide range of artistic creativity and innovation continues to flourish and many artists push boundaries in style and content. Yet, we must also be attentive to the commercial pressures artists face and to shifting contemporary listening habits.

The way people consume music has dramatically changed with the advent of digital media and streaming services. Music is often played in the background during activities such as working, exercising or browsing the internet. This shift suggests that many listeners are not engaging deeply with the music.

There is some evidence that parts of the music industry are adapting to these listening habits. For instance, there’s a trend toward producing shorter songs with quicker hooks to grab listeners’ attention in a streaming-dominated market where plays are monetized.

Record producers, composers and lyricists increasingly use algorithms to effectively shape the music landscape to align with listener preferences and market trends. These tools help identify emerging artists through streaming data and social media engagement; generate chord progressions, melodies, beat, tempo, rhythms and lyrical content; personalize music curation and optimize playlists for listeners on streaming platforms; and target advertising and promotion.

As a consequence, the sheer volume of music being released has increased, resulting in more music designed to grab listeners’ attention without necessarily engaging them on a deeper level. Still, artists in genres such as jazz, classical, experimental and even certain areas of hip-hop and rock, often emphasize intricate compositions that demand attentive listening.

Despite the trend toward passive listening, music remains a deeply social experience for many. Concerts, festivals and club events are more popular than ever, suggesting that communal and engaged listening experiences are still valued.

We live in an age when big data has met big art and big tech, an era of algorithmic aesthetics, formulaic fantasies, market-aligned art, corporate curation and binge-worthy brushstrokes, tunes and shows. Popular art increasing exists on an assembly line, with tastes tailored for sales, culture crafted for cash, and aesthetics mass-produced and market-driven.

What we need more than ever is art unchained from commerce, creativity beyond commodification, and artistic visions unveiled and unfiltered by the constraints of the commercial.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational, and Equitable Experience.

Next Story

Written By

Found In

More from Higher Ed Gamma