art as purposeful activityOverview

Most individuals and societies believe art serves some larger purpose — hence state funding and the prestige of artists. But that purpose becomes difficult to demonstrate, and argument rapidly enters the even more contentious political and psychological arena.


Most societies seek to control art. The means may be overt, through censorship and repression in totalitarian regimes, or the more subtle ways of the western democracies through the artist-critic-outlet chain, school and university curricula, selective public support. To many the control is scarcely evident, just the purchasing power of public taste refracted through beliefs and social presuppositions. {1}

Perhaps that applies to art with a capital "A", fine art. But the distinction between the fine and the practical is a recent development, originating in the Renaissance and finding expression as "aesthetics" with Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten in 1735. {2} Neither the ancient nor the medieval worlds recognized the difference. Artists were simply craftsmen, producing goods that were useful and pleasing. The end product was obvious, and could be easily appraised. Plato believed that art should convey intellectual insights into reality. Aristotle, on the contrary, accepted art as imitation, provided this imitation brought out the universal character of the experience. The medieval Church employed art to narrate the gospels and celebrate God's glory.

Today we are less happy with such ulterior purposes. We set them aside and insist that art is that which remains when social expectations, patron's instructions, effect of the medium employed, etc. have all been removed. Fine art, we say, serves only itself. Wider issues are no doubt involved — market forces, psychic health, social representation — but such issues should not control art. To view a good book or film exclusively through its social message is to behave as a provincial philistine. Fine art has its own criteria, its terminology and aesthetics, which we must learn if we are to be admitted into the circle of a cultured elite. {3}

Art as Social Engineering

Karl Marx (1818-1883) argued that all mental systems (ideologies) were the products of social and economic realities. To these realities he ascribed religious beliefs, legal systems and cultural expression. Marx emphasized that it is not the consciousness of men that determines their social being, but the other way about. And whereas philosophers have interpreted the world variously, the important need was to change it.

But if art, philosophy and literature are ultimately determined by economics, they also possess some autonomy. The connection of art with social order was indirect and complicated, or we should not understand how the great art of fourth century Athens came from a slave-based society. And Marx, moreover, was concerned with not any society, but one based on the equality of true economic principles. Art should both reflect economic realities and further the aims of that society. If citizens of western liberal democracies find such views coercive or simplistic, Marxists retort that the so-called art of the free west only legitimizes and promotes a system based on yawning gaps between classes, which derived from inherited privilege more than individual merit or service to the community.

Art therefore changes. It makes no eternally valid statements of the human condition, but reflects the society in which it finds itself. And to be part of the political struggle, socialist art must make sacrifices. It must be accessible to the masses and promote their needs. It must exemplify and instruct. Entertainment is escapism, which only puts back the day of victory. Sometimes art must descend to propaganda to put its point across. Even censorship, self or imposed, may be required. Mistakes need to be pointed out, but political leaders should not be undermined, nor Marxist principles thoughtlessly discredited.

Such attitudes go far to explain Marxist criticism in communist countries. To the party faithful, the strident exhibitionism of artists like Stravinsky and Kandinsky could only be the decadent products of late bourgeois society. Modernist novels fell into similar categories: explorations of trivial and sometimes sordid inner worlds through a technique inexplicable to the greater public, and perhaps intentionally so. Not so the great realist writers of the nineteenth century: Stendhal, Tolstoy, Dickens, Balzac and George Eliot. These the Marxist critics praised for their explorations of society, for being — to quote a phrase of Stalin's — "engineers of the human soul".

A socializing view of literature has a distinguished ancestry. Plato banned poets from his Republic. The Elizabethans were addicted to didactic poetry, Shakespeare in his early play stressing the benefits of Tudor absolutism over the preceding feudal anarchy. The Enlightenment sought to root out ignorance and superstition. Tolstoy removed the title of art from anything which did not serve the brotherhood of man.

Of course there are critics who ask how Marxism can be so self-evidently true. And how Marxism manages to continue in its old form when it developed from nineteenth-century exploitation, which has largely disappeared, at least from European societies. These and other problems have been addressed by literary theorists of communist regimes (Lukács and Brecht), by French left-wing intellectuals (Sartre, Barthes), by members of the Frankfurt school (Althusser, Adorno) and by Structuralist Marxists in the west (Eagleton, Jameson). Though all accept the fundamental principles of Marxism, if sometimes with great difficulty, each has its characteristic concerns and point of attack.

Louis Althusser, for example, spoke of ideology, by which he meant prevailing relationships towards society which were false but promoted by the capitalist system. Here the individual freedoms were a myth, though not obviously so because of subterfuges built into common language — a language more pervasive, real and influential than any individual utterance. Nonetheless, despite its tainted character, that same language could be used to expose its own gaps and contradictions, and so arrive at a truer picture. Reality, a complete picture, was unattainable, but reflection and analysis would disclose injustices and argue for social change. {4}


But practically all these theorists were men, adopting typically masculine attitudes — i.e. were competitive, objective and unaware if not indifferent to the real needs and struggles of one half of mankind. Feminists sought to redress the balance, first by reexamining the difficulties that women writers like Virginia Woolf had complained of — subordination to the needs of family and husband — and then by attempting to find a more generally female approach: fluid, sympathetic and supportive. Much of the subsequent debate was one-sided and unnecessarily strident, but a male bias in the vocabulary that society uses for the most mundane of descriptions was not hard to find, and study has moved on to the cultural presuppositions that divide the sexes.

Art in a Pluralist Society

Suppose we sever art from politics? In orchestrating public opinion behind some policy or other, politicians must appeal to emotional stereotypes, simplify positions and present one-sided arguments. Something more relevant to a pluralist society was developed by Stanley Fish. His reader-response approach to literary criticism saw the value of a literary work as the sum total of its individual vales to its readers, i.e. its relevance to them. Such readers varied greatly in their literary and social experience, of course, but Fish argued that the matrix of interpretations was indeed what the text meant: there was no definitive interpretation that could then be extracted and taught. {5}

What happens when a class of thirteen year olds reads Spenser's Faerie Queen? How will they cope without a glossary and some grounding in Renaissance attitudes? Hermeneutists like Gadamer or Ricouer accept that we can never escape our current prejudices, but argue that the worlds of past writers are partially reenacted in our reading of them. Artworks are the shared ways in which a community understands itself, and our view of the past is not wholly distorted by our understandings of the present.

But must we relinquish the notion of a public morality? Not necessarily, but what we should avoid, argues Wayne Booth {6}, is blanket judgements. Works of art should not proselytize, but they can assess matters of social concern by looking sensitively at events and relationships. One choice is certainly not as good as any other, and we can explore the consequences of choice by writing a literature which grapples with real dilemmas. What could employ more usefully the devices of the modern novel than an investigation of the moral choices we are all of us called upon to make in our workaday lives?

Why use an imaginative medium rather than a factual survey? No doubt both are needed. But objects and events become available to us through the medium we are using {7}, in life as in art, and to employ "factual" surveys is to suppose that public attitudes are more objective than the novelist's. Yet public attitudes are created and fostered by the media in all its forms, most of them with commercial interests. Our deeper reflections we draw very much from literature, which represents the world with more discrimination than our self-seeking and bustling existences will allow. True, in imaginative literature we see the world only through eyes of its creator, which need not indeed be representative, but the views are worthy of respect if the novelist has done his job properly.

Art as Moral Agent

What job? Presented the honesty, good humour, anger, clarity, breadth of vision, warmth of imagination, vitality and sensitivity etc. that we expect in imaginative writing, essential in writing of any description, said the traditional critics. {8} And good writers in time become old friends, with gifts and failings that we value and make allowances for. Indeed, say moralists, artists should not only display but promote these qualities. Art must make the world a better place. It should further the brotherhood of man thought Leo Tolstoy, {9} or educate the sensibilities of the reading classes argued Lionel Trilling (1905-75). {10}

That's nonsense, reply the Postmodernists. Art has no purpose. It is not reality explored through the potentialities of language, but a reading of codes, a construction whose meaning if anywhere lies in underlying social structures. Supposing there is a meaning at all, add the Poststructuralists, who see only chains of words endlessly deferring to each other. Texts are undermined by their latent meanings, and the author does not exist. Art may seem to pick out and concentrate patterns of experience that are diffusely present in our lives, but there is effectively no life to refer to: art is something we look at, not through.

Why then make art? Because it is in our natures to do so, how we function, perhaps even a psychological need. Poetry tells us nothing, thought the critic I.A. Richards (1893-1979), but simply provides a psychological adjustment to our nervous system. Literature consists of pseudo-statements, but nonetheless orders, controls and consolidates our experience. Many New Critics took this further, representing the complexities of poetry as "tensions" and "resolutions" of emotive content. {11}

Art as Pure Discovery

But if these views are right — and they rest on doubtful foundations — then artworks are not representations but experimentations, things created by inspired play that eventually become significant to the artist and then society. There is no simple representation in music, and "music" said the critic Hoffmann reviewing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, "opens up an unknown realm to which he leaves behind all the feelings which are determinable by concepts in order to devote himself to the unsayable." {12} Art is discovery. By a system of skilled experimentation with the medium, the artist finds his way to saying things which are not communicable in any other way. What things? The unsayable of course, what is lost in translation or description. And that is the difficulty. Two renderings of the same sonata are perfectly distinct to a trained ear, and can be fairly described as "sparkling" or "wooden", but the precise way in which they differ can perhaps only be expressed by performance. Describing has to give way to doing.

Art as Religion

But is the moral view so ridiculous? In a country of enormous injustices and suffering, it is not surprising that the Russian novelists, from Pushkin to Solzenitsyn, have often presented themselves as social commentators, teachers or prophets. How else, asked Tolstoy, could the prestige of artists be justified? Not for their productions of beauty, but for the astonishing sincerity, individuality and lucidity of their expressions. Unfortunately, King Lear, Michelangelo's Last Judgement, and even his own Anna Karenina are damned on these criteria. Indeed, hardly anything survives. But the real objection to a crude moralist view is not the resulting bonfire of vanities, or its indifference to aesthetic form, but the difficulties that underlie the expressive theory of art generally.

Perhaps art is its own religion? {13} It is not absurd to concert-goers or visitors to major galleries to talk of spiritual nourishment. The later Collingwood appears to have thought art superior to religion, essentially because it affirms nothing in particular. More particularly, to critics like Matthew Arnold and F.R. Leavis, art points beyond itself, but also respects the limits of its powers. It makes sense of things, it reconciles us to life, without requiring that we make assertions about a God we cannot believe in or understand.

But the religious do believe. They know God in a way not answered by art. Worshippers in the higher religions all believe they can sense a transcendent, divine Being: a God that is immanent in human hearts, representing the highest in goodness, truth and beauty. He reveals himself in love and mercy and grace, and is to be sought in sacrifice, renunciation and self-discipline. {14} Art is an important element of life, but it cannot supersede religion, and only those blinded by spiritual pride would confuse the two.

Art as Significance

But the above ends are still somewhat specific. Is there not something more general, which better reflects the importance of art? Take the Greek, Chinese and Islamic civilizations: their history is for specialists, but we can all admire their painting, architecture, music and literature, if only through the distorting glass of current preoccupations. But could we not say that art should serve something that is fundamental to our natures, which perdures, which gives shape and significance to our lives?

Many art-historians and aestheticians believe so. For if art intended only sensory pleasure or self-expression we should do better to opt for a good meal or convivial evening with friends. But art, argued Tilghman, is about the depth and mystery of life, about relationships, and about conflicts within the human soul. Any theory of art which did not recognize these features would be a mistaken theory. {15} Is this an article of faith? Certainly by contemporary standards, by the anti-aesthetic and iconoclastic nature of much of what passes for art today, though not by the testimony of history. Art we prize above craft for its greater significance — as we do Shakespeare's Tempest more than some TV soap, however engrossing may be the latter's treatment of contemporary issues.

This and other pages in the theory section have been collected into a free pdf ebook entitled 'A Background to Literary Theory'. Click here for the download page.


1. David Novitz's Function of Art in David Cooper's (Ed.) A Companion to Aesthetics (1992). Also Bryan Appleyard's The Pleasures of Peace: Art and Imagination in Post-War Britain (1989) for the muddled attitude to such funding in the UK.
2. p. 112 in Oswald Hanfling's Philosophical Aesthetics: An Introduction (1992).
3. D. Novitz's Ways of artmaking: the high and the popular in art in British Journal of Aesthetics, 29 (1989), 213-29. Also Richard Shusterman's Popular Art in Cooper 1992.
4. Chapter 3 of Catherine Belsey's Critical Practice (1980).
5. Reed Way Dasenbrok's Fish, Stanley in Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth's (Eds.) The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism (1994).
6. Chapter 4 of Kemal and Gaskell's (Ed.) Explanation and Value in the Arts (1993).
7. Chapter 1 in R.P. Bilan's The Literary Criticism of F.R. Leavis (1979) and Chapter 2 in Kemal and Gaskell 1993.
8. Chapter 2 of F.L. Lucas's Style (1955) and Chapter 6 of Bilan 1979.
9. David Whewell's Tolstoy, Leo in Cooper 1992.
10. William Chace's Trilling, Lionel in Groden and Kreiswirth 1994.
11. Chapter 8 of David Daiches's Critical Approaches to Literature (1956).
12. David Cooper's Ineffability in Cooper 1992.
13. R.A.D. Grant's Religion and Art in Cooper 1992.
14. F. Heiler's The History of Religions as a Preparation for the Co-operation of Religions in Eliade and Kitagawa (Eds.) The History of Religions (1954).
15. Chapter 5 of B.R. Tilghman's But Is It Art? (1984).

Internet Resources

1. Aesthetics. Malcolm Budd. 1998. Art and non-art: ways of distinguishing.
2. The Nature of Beauty in Contemporary Art. Suzi Gablik. 1998. Art as an engaged, participatory and socially relevant.
3. Insufferable Art. Jeff Jacoby. Jul. 1994. Case against public patronage of the arts.
4. Portrait of the Critic as a Young Artist. May 2000. Ruskin as art and social critic.
5. Communist propaganda art. propart/propart.htm. Examples of socialist realist art from from Agitatsiia za schast'e.
6. Marxism as the Art of Class War. Manuel Yang. Feb. 2004. Extended article.
7. The Art of Marxism. Directory of articles on site.
8. Wayne Booth. Randy Harris. 2003. 793B_web/793B2.html. Note, bibliography and links.
9. Art as Religion without Religion. William W. Wells. 1999. Chapter 10 of an online publication entitled Art as Theology.
10. The Center for Research on the Origins of Art and Religion. The art of early man.
11. American Society of Aesthetics. Free samples of papers; otherwise $70/year subscription, which includes back issues in electronic form. Excellent listing of aesthetics resources and websites.
12. Canadian Aesthetics Journal. Free online papers from Spring 1996.
13 The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest. . Online journal for the counter-culture in politics and aesthetics.
14 Aesthetics and Visual Culture. Emphasis on the visual arts, but providing a good listing of sites.

      C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.