Throughout the history of mankind, art has served several functions; everything from creative expression to therapy, from historic telling to the expression of ideologies, from engaging an audience to engaging the mind. Art is often cited as of no practical use to humanity, something nice to have, but not of the same practicality as the sciences or literature. However art has served both as a functional as well as an aesthetic purpose – here, I’d like to talk about just a few of the ways that art has helped mankind.
The Telling of History
Before photography (though an art form in itself), paintings, sculptures, and other forms of classical art were among the few ways that our ancestors helped us understand their lives, the events that formed them, and the cultures that shaped them. I don’t only mean the great war epics you find in great monuments and the houses of nobility, but even moreso art which depicted the everyday lives of people in the past. We see depicted the gaps between the rich and poor, the religious views of the people, the way in which different cultures intersected throughout history. By bringing all these together we form a timeline of a sort, watching humanity as it has changed over time – its ideas, its values, its great events. We see the scientific revolution in the mathematical precision of architecture in the Renaissance, we see the lavishness of the French nobility in the Palace of Versailles, we see the strict religious values of the Middle Ages in the stained glass windows of a Medieval church. When even the literature of an age is lost, it is often the art of an age which stands firm against the weathering of time to tell the present of the past.
A more modern use of art is its role in therapy, the use of art to an individual to express themselves and help them to gain understanding when all other methods have failed. ‘Outsider art’ is a form of this – the artistic expression of those with mental illness, those who are imprisoned, etc. Through their art they are able to achieve many things – find a sort of peace, gain a better understanding of themselves and the world around them, or communicate with a world which can’t otherwise understand them. As well as helping the individual, by viewing this type of art people can look into the minds of the ‘outsiders,’ see them for once as people – different, but yet the same. However art can be therapeutic to anyone – the benefits of having a creative outlet are often proclaimed by those working with mental health – as humans we feel the need to understand be understood. Art is one way of doing that, often working where other media hasn’t. Literature often works in the same way, it is a form of expression which allows humans to communicate on a greater level and to a larger audience than a simple conversation can. Art allows people to express what words often can’t, and humanity gains a greater understanding of the many people within itself for it.
Spreading A Message
Art can often be open to interpretation, the artist may want each individual to form their own opinions on a piece, making it personal to each person viewing it. However at other times, the artist may want to send out a clear message; whether it be ideological, political, religious, or otherwise. Through art people can express their distaste with the current state of world affairs, can incite the world to action, can commemorate those who have suffered or achieved great things, or show the world the true colours of those who have done terrible things. Photography in particular is known for this – photographers flying out to developing countries to show the rest of the world the true horrors of poverty and disease, capturing moments in history to be remembered forever, or to express emotions at times when the world isn’t quite sure how to show what its feeling – as with the famous photograph of the ‘Falling Man’ from the 9/11 attacks. Art allows everyone to have their say, and doesn’t require that people be great speakers or intellectuals, they can use any number of materials to show the world that they have something important to say. And in turn, it can inspire people, make them think or spur them into action – it should never be underestimated how powerful a tool art is for provoking both thought and action. It is accessible to everyone, and can be produced by anyone, it is a universal language.
What could perhaps be considered one of the less valuable qualities of art is its capacity to simply be beautiful. However, I would argue that this in itself is also important. Using art we can create emotions, atmospheres, different spaces where people can relax, and get away from a world where functionality is becoming increasingly important. It reminds people that there is more to life than simply being useful, that you can sometimes simply stop to smell the roses and enjoy what there is to see around you – whether it be made by nature or by man. Art can create something beautiful for everyone to enjoy without attaching a price tag to itself, or trying to force itself to be functional, or even practical. It’s something that can be enjoyed simply for what it is, and can bring moments of peace in what can be an extremely hectic world. A beautiful garden may not cure a disease or solve world hunger, but it can bring moments of joy, perhaps to people who otherwise have very few. Beauty is something which may be appreciated by everyone – young or old, rich or poor, and it can bring these people together in their shared enjoyment of something which has no purpose other than to bring a smile to someone’s face.
Just from these few things, we can already see that art is invaluable to humanity. Without it, we as a people would be very much different – it has shaped history, culture, and the minds and actions of people. It is a powerful tool which should not be underestimated.