What does art do? In the abstract, the question applies evenly to the visual and performing arts, handmade crafts, and creative design, and haunts makers of all levels: dabblers, students, hobbyists, and professionals. In practice, each distinct discipline hosts countless media, activities, and professions, and each medium, activity, and profession serves its own purpose. For now, we’ll focus on the big-picture patterns and connections threading between all artistic pursuits.
Because this is a huge topic, this article runs long, but it’s super organized. If you need a quick pick-me-up in your own pet field, scroll down and skim the category headings. We can’t have breadth, depth, and brevity all in one go.
Art is language. Craft is technology. Design is order.
Humans are compulsive creators. Art and craft aren’t the only outlets for creativity, but they are important ones, and they play a greater role in society, culture, and survival than their detractors would have us believe. Art and expression form the warp threads of our social fabric.
Art is language. Craft is technology. Design is order, innovation, efficiency, and beauty applied to language and technology. Language allows us to communicate with each other, explore our world, pose questions, and process our own experiences. Technology prolongs and enriches survival.
These are fundamentals, and they are everywhere. There are no cities, no academies, no religions, and no marketplaces without art, craft, and design.
“All Art Is Quite Useless.”
Whether or not you’re still a maker, you’ve very likely heard some of the following from important people in your life about a creative pursuit you love(d):
That’s not a job.
Only really talented people can do that.
The world doesn’t need another [whatever-you-want-to-be].
There’s no money in that.
It's wrong to charge money for that.
It’s a waste of time.
Everyone who does that is poor.
Everyone who does that is a crook.
You need to be more serious.
You need to be more productive.
XYZ else comes first.
Everything else comes first.
What would you want to do that for?
What good does it do?
That said, inequity in the arts is a social and economic problem—not a reflection of art’s monetary or cultural worth. By now, that inequity runs parallel to staggering inequity in every other decent career field. Social immobility is a serious problem, no matter what we study or do with our free time.
Class warfare, gatekeeping, and snobbery are bullshit. Art can certainly be a haven and vehicle for that bullshit. There are rock-solid reasons for working class people to say “fuck off, Art, you’re not better than me.” That doesn’t mean that all art, in all forms, is bullshit. Art can be a haven and vehicle for calling bullshit. Art is a method, a power, and a tool. How we use it reflects more on us than it.
Other times, these same art-bashing messages spring from cynicism, burnout, disenchantment, or a posturing kind of apathetic glamour from elevated artists and dealers themselves. As Oscar Wilde wrote, “We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.”
Wit deceives. Unconscious trust follows admiration. 125 Years later, Wilde still has it. Of everything charming, bright, sophisticated, and persuasive, we should ask, “but it is true?”
It’s a shameful waste of time, energy, and resources, that something so demonstrably valuable and intrinsically human as art, craft, or design needs justification even to those most engaged in creating and sharing it. If that’s where we’re at, though, that’s where we’re at. I know I need that validation. Whether or not I should, I do. How about you?
Fortunately, we can combat the critics, skeptics, and bottom-liners with logic, observation, and good sense. One of the best ways to re-value art is to catalog what it does—to answer the questions “but what does it mean?” and “what is it for?” honestly, directly, and without apology. To look closer before we say “nothing.”
Art does a lot, and when you pay attention, you can see it everywhere.
Art is For:
Art catches attention through bright color, loud noises, beauty, mystery (including anything odd or puzzling), and the unexpected.
In order to signal, warn, train focus, teach, or sell, we must first catch attention.
Processing & Telegraphing Emotion
There’s a kind of universal synesthesia through which light, color, shape, texture, and sound carry emotion and mood. The mechanics are complex, and the specifics vary between cultures, but we instantly recognize when a song or painting is happy or sad, and we feel that influence in spite of ourselves.
Art serves the artist by holding, processing, exorcising, and expressing complex or intense emotions. Art serves the audience through emotional contagion. Shared, externalized emotions can raise energy, spread joy, foster empathy, and provide bonding, catharsis, and release.
Art can also manipulate, for better and worse. To influence emotion is to influence behavior.
Art facilitates focus through immersion in beauty, mystery, or strong emotion.
Emotions are sticky; they pull us into contemplation, wallowing, calculation, and celebration. Moods of all stripes take their time with us, and focus requires a steady state of mind suspended over time.
Religions have always used art to set mood, raise energy, and sustain focus. Most objects of meditation, contemplation, or transcendence are objects of art.
Educational and political art manipulate focus as well.
Art’s appeals to the senses and emotional transmissions generate pleasure, stir the imagination, and make possible vicarious experience. Pleasure, imagination, and vicarious experience are the cornerstones of entertainment. Entertainment is storytelling, and storytelling is a key tool for understanding our history, our selves, and our place in this world.
Decoration is a passive form entertainment. Its primary function is pleasure. Decoration manipulates mood and emotion through the medium of place. It facilitates calm and comfort, and reflects personality, values, and tastes back to the viewer. Unlike books, music, and movies, which actively trap attention, decoration recedes to the background, where it stirs imagination and suggests vicarious experience subliminally. Decoration implies story without structured plot; its narratives are subtle. Decorative objects occasionally serve as objects of meditation or conversation, as needed, then recede back out of focus.
Entertainment and decoration are the art functions most frequently dismissed as frivolous and unnecessary, in part because pleasure is wrongly seen as a luxury, not a right or necessity, and in part because they are so prevalent, they become easily taken for granted. Entertainment not only serves and makes possible every other aim of art, it makes life bearable, and whispers of what is possible.
Beauty and pleasure are grounding, comforting and relieving. This world is harsh and life is difficult. The senses are so often assaulted. What if they were not also delighted? Nature is the first, and still most powerful source of beauty, pleasure, and grounding. How well do we do in mechanized, indoorsy humanscapes, divorced from nature, without surrogate beauty, crafted pleasure, and shared entertainments? Physical survival under these conditions is possible, but thriving is not.
The assumption that entertainment is useless leans on the assumption that pleasure and imagination are either superfluous, or only for privileged and silly people—lazy, feminine, or indulgent people without more serious things to do, or wealthy people who’ve achieved enough to deserve pleasure that others do not. Cruelty and inhumanity are baked right into dismissals and rejections of entertainment. These require a failure to recognize who we are and what we need.
Art teaches through entertainment and illustration.
Entertainment delivers information in an enjoyable, and thus memorable package, and connects new ideas to familiar stories. Known narratives and scripts act as incremental stepping stones, helping learners absorb new information faster.
Illustration makes the abstract physical, demonstrates complex concepts through simplified symbols, and clarifies ideas through pictures, analogies, and metaphors. (Commercial illustrator, Andy J. Pizza talks about this process all the time in his Creative Peptalk Podcast. Worth a listen if you’d like to learn more about the value of illustration, analogy, and commercial art.)
Art supplements verbal learning by engaging multiple senses, and repeating lessons in multiple media and contexts. Repetition aids memorization, and variety of sense and context serves a more diverse range of interests and learning styles.
Art can persuade whenever we simultaneously employ techniques of catching attention, manipulating emotion, and delivering information. Persuasion covers art’s roles in both sales, politics, and propaganda. Persuasion can also highlight and deprogram sales and propaganda. Persuasive art and illustration pop up constantly in memes, comedy, radio, and television.
Art translates across barriers of verbal language, experience, and understanding.
Universally recognizable signs and symbols, like a stick figure slipping on a puddle, crossing a street, or putting on an airplane oxygen mask, communicate in multi-lingual environments and convey messages faster than text.
In the more abstract spheres of experience and gnosis, symbolic art and illustration articulate subtle ideas and impressions that others feel but might not be able to describe, explain, or express. They make what’s subtle, subliminal, and tricky more visible, more relatable, and understandable. They translate between the unconscious, imaginal, and conscious minds.
Art marks memories, turning points, and rites of passage. It reminds us of important people, times, events, and places through keepsakes, ephemera, mementos and memorials.
Art represents meaningful ideas, philosophies, and groups. We keep audio and visual hangers for guidance or personal ethos. These may include religious, mythic, memento mori, alchemical, occult, political, ethnic, tribal, and familial pieces. Symbols, codes, mottos, rallying cries, and crests.
Art represents, uplifts, and advocates for marginalized and underserved groups by writing new scripts, modeling new ways of being and interacting, and expressing personal identity in the public sphere.
Representation raises awareness, soothes loneliness, deepens understanding, codifies values, crystallizes personal philosophy, and strengthens bonds.
Art serves the artist by carrying, venting, and releasing personal expression. The art process is a method of self-discovery, gnosis, and acceptance. It externalizes thoughts, tastes, and personality, and reflects these back to the artist, clarifying values, interests, and priorities.
Art serves the audience by sharing experiences and representing identities and personal truths that might otherwise be inaccessible. This satisfies curiosity and facilitates compassion and wisdom.
Art opens the gates between the conscious, waking mind, the dreaming mind, and the imagination. Art transforms imagined experience into external, physical, sensory experience. This gives art immense power to question and explore what is, what has been, and what might be.
Art allows us to imagine new structures and technologies, and new modes of being, and share these with others. It allows us to explore, question, and make sense of the world through abstraction, play, nonsense, story, poetry, myth, and symbol.
Art connects us to self, to others, and to the world around us through representation, expression, and exploration.
Within self, artistic exploration can connect us to ego, identity, vanity, and salient personal archetypes.
In community, art brings together people who think the same thoughts, through those who can best articulate them. It lets us know we’re not alone. Art provides comfort and solace through beauty, resonance, humor, and kinship. This kind of connection drives music, fashion, meme making, cartooning, and comedy.
In the wider world, art remembers and gives voice to nature, cosmos, and spirit world, and all their creatures, landscapes, and archetypes. Western societies culled their shamans and folk magicians and moved indoors, but our innate mythic and animist impulses still express through the arts (and sometimes the sciences). Artistic exploration can probe the stories of our species, and connect us back to other species and broader landscapes.
Emotion is contagious and so are ideas. Art delivers both in packages that are attention-grabbing, provoking, challenging, puzzling, novel, and delightful. Inspiration naturally follows. Art is self-propagating. It always sparks the next idea in others—whether continuation, opposition, reaction, or innovation.
Art is everywhere.
So the next time Grandma asks why you wanna waste your time, degree, and/or life pursuing art cause nobody needs that stuff, and nobody makes a living at it, you can point to just about everything in the room—every patterned strip of wallpaper, every floral printed curtain, every book, every greeting card, every board game, every graphic tee-shirt, every cartoon on every cereal box, and every sound and picture escaping the TV set is marked with somebody’s art and somebody’s communication. In every instance, that art does something, or it wouldn’t be there.
Art on the radio. Art on the sidewalk. Art in the gallery. Art in the classroom. Art on the internet. Art on your stuff.
Art is everywhere, and we’re better for it. It’s inescapable. Supportive. Worthwhile. Invaluable. Make of it what you will.