The question of the meaning of art, and whether it has a purpose or not, is nowadays as current as ever. Throughout time, it has been a matter discussed not merely by academics and scholars, but also by simple people: if you have ever seen a modern piece of art with family or friends, it is likely you questioned what was the meaning of it. As art became more accessible to everyone, the views on the matter diversified: more people could see art and discuss about it. With the arrival of contemporary art, understanding art became ever more challenging as all the typical standards that were once acceptable in order to judge it seemed out-dated: the technique and style no longer mattered as much, there had to be an interesting idea behind it and a charismatic artist. Questions about what art exactly means and what is the purpose of all of it became even more frequent. As art became more intellectual, the objective of achieving Beauty was lost- at least Beauty understood as that which pleases the eye (Thomas Aquinas).
During the XIX century, the theory of “art for art’s sake” thrived and became extremely popular. It meant to divorce artistic creation from any use other than art itself, focusing on aesthetic value and forgetting about educational, political or moral purposes. Art was to be judged separated from its themes and purposes. Oscar Wilde, the famous British writer who was linked to the movement, in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, famously said that all art is quite useless, later explaining it in a letter:
“Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility. If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realise the complete artistic impression.”
This tempestuous century was also the time of the great realistic historical paintings used as a means of propaganda for kings and government that wanted to show their success and status; as well as the explosion of new artistic techniques such as Impressionism. It was a period of intense debate around the concept of art, and it would be the seed of the significant art revolution that took place in the early 1900’s. From that time onwards, art became a means of expression: social, political and philosophical ideas could be manifested through it.
It became evident that there was a clash between the artist and what was being painted: who was the real protagonist?
If you’re interested, don’t miss this great video that reflects upon this topic further in an easy accesible way: HISTORY OF IDEAS: ART