The Purpose of Art

Fish swim, birds fly, and humans create. Many wonders of the world were given birth by our collective ability to imagine, dream and build. In the process of creating our modern society, we’ve built up a host of abstract concepts to give meaning to the world around us: money, beauty, time, and my personal favorite, music. Independent of our experience, music is only a collection of sound waves wobbling around in a busy and chaotic universe. This, however, does not mean that music and your experience of it are meaningless: far from it!

In my previous post, I argued that the only objective way to judge art (or, more specifically, a song) is to measure whether or not the finished piece conveys its intended emotional impact. Well, if you fancy yourself a keen observer of the human race, you may have noticed that no matter how well-crafted a piece of music may be, not everyone will have the same reaction to the same song.

As a teenager, I belonged to the group of people that hated pop music. In fact, there were multiple occasions where I could be found spouting the popular hyperbole that, “Justin Bieber makes my ears bleed.” At the time, I also developed a strong aversion to music that my parents listened to. Journey, the Naked and Famous, the Dixie Chicks– it didn’t matter. I just wanted desperately to be my own person. I can’t say for sure, but when Journey wrote Wheel in the Sky, I doubt that their intention for the song was to serve as a springboard for teenagers to begin the process of distancing themselves from their parents.

I may have missed out on the true intent of the song, but on the flip side, it aided me in the completely normal and healthy process of pushing against my family’s standards so that I could eventually discover who I was,  independent of my family’s ideals. Music helped me to express that, albeit in an indirect way. (After all, if we spent our entire lives adoring our parents, there would be no reason for us to ever become our own person and move out!) Fortunately, music was also there to help me reconnect with them when the time was right. The point is, even though I didn’t like the music at the time, and even though I didn’t realize it until much later, it was still giving me exactly what I needed.

The greater purpose of music, and of art in general, is to show you something about yourself that you didn’t realize was there. But to find it, you have to be willing to listen: not with your ears, but with your heart. Really great art isn’t made so that you will like it; it should cause you to see yourself and the world from a different perspective. Strong reactions to a piece of art reveal more about yourself than they ever could about the artist or the work they’ve created. Art serves as a safe but powerful means to project strong or uncomfortable emotions that you didn’t even realize you had.

The greater purpose of music, and of art in general, is to show you something about yourself that you didn’t realize was there. But to find it, you have to be willing to listen: not with your ears, but with your heart.

Effective art is emotionally engaging and psychologically stimulating; it’s the numinous bridge between who you believe yourself to be and the long-lost pieces of yourself that lay shackled with shame beneath the subconscious. If you’re mindful of your reactions when you experience a piece of art, you can learn a lot about yourself.  If you find your lip furled with disgust over the product of a certain musician, I encourage you to stop and ask yourself, “if I were to like this song, what would that mean about me, and why is that so bad?”

Fortunately, this applies to both you and your audience: at the end of the day, some people will love your art, and some people will hate it. But you can take comfort in the fact that no matter what a person’s reaction may be, they are getting exactly what they need from it, too. The next time someone scoffs at a song, do them a favor and ask, “why?” They will thank you for it later!

 

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