In a time when the only purpose of art seems to be either to sit on your wall and gain in value or to just look pretty — ideally complementing the color of the carpet — the treatment of art as a financial asset as well as an accessory for interior design aspirations seems to have made audiences rather callous and demanding.
Market price and artists’ fame has surpassed artistic value in importance and driven away a lot of the simple joy that can be derived from appreciating art for its own sake, as opposed to its fame and price tag.
Now the cynics among us might say that our modern approach to art and its inherent purpose — or lack thereof — is a rather unkind reflection of our value system and emblematic for our cultural demise, but let us be idealistic for a moment and assume that this is not necessarily true and that there will always be a perpetual human need to appreciate the deeper meaning of art.
Maybe it simply got lost along the way, with many of us not knowing where and how to begin afresh. So where did it all go wrong?
The purpose of art has always been a wildly debated subject, especially among artists with diametrically opposed points of view. For example, while the early abstract expressionists in New York delved deep into the inner workings of the human psyche and drew inspiration from Kierkegaard, C.G. Jung and Greek mythology, other art movements of the early 20th century, like the Dadaist movement, celebrated irrationality and deconstructed artistic values, while the German Expressionists went as far as seeking to overthrow every indication of contrived order, even prompting some viewers to spit on their paintings in disgust at first view.
Then there were art movements that believed in a more whimsical approach, declaring art as “everything you can get away with” (Warhol), while others like the Fluxus movement in their happenings of the 1960s, declared it their quest to “purge the world of the bourgeois sickness (…) & commercial culture, PURGE the world of all dead art (sic)”.
Around the same time, in 1965, the polarizing figure of Joseph Beuys baffled audiences with his enigmatic performance called “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare.” In it, he not only whispered intelligible explanations to a dead rabbit, he also declared “everyone (is) an artist,” encapsulating his anarchic program for transforming society and giving rise to radically new interpretations of sculpture and performative art.
This signified a shift, where art was not only made by everyone for everyone as opposed to closed academic groups for an elite audience, and today’s contemporary art eventually did away with most constricting framework or ideology altogether.
For many, the deep entanglement between commerce and art during the rise of today’s billion-dollar art industry also marked its ultimate demise.
Art critics even coined the term “Zombie Formalism” (Walter Robinson, 2014) to describe the result of what the markets’ hunger for the above-mentioned carpet-matching has bestowed on us. It therefore seems safe to say that the proverbial ship of awestruck reverence toward art has long sailed and the age of demanding commercialism has passed its zenith.
Art has been pulled from its academic ivory tower and bobbed over the cobblestoned streets of the mainstream, and nothing can undo this.
Now what does this mean for our truly interested art neophyte?
They have by all means earned the right to take a rather skeptical approach — especially when confronted with the oh-so-randomly arranged giant jelly blobs or the occasional taped banana — and to demystify contrived meaning when they suspect that there is none.
But mere intellectualization and questioning can rarely substitute for emotional substance, and you might want to use this hard-earned new freedom to simply ask yourself, what is art to you?
Does it make you feel something?
Do you feel inspired to whirl some paint brushes around yourself?
All the better.
Do you absolutely hate it?
Quite alright, and no pamphlet that is condescendingly shoved into your hand “because you don’t get it” has to convince you otherwise.
Yet, in order to get the most out of your experience, it is sometimes best to let the artwork lead the way and take a more direct approach by simply taking the time to look at it.
At the end of the day, the true purpose of art is in the eye of the beholder. The unobstructed act of seeing and opening up to the experience creates the most intimate and authentic connection, allowing the artwork to unleash its full transformational force — if there is one to begin with.