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The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Contents Page
The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Semper Quarens - Always Looking

Art’s Purpose Is?

Felice Varini's site specific pieces of essentially functionless but unique expression

Felice Varini's site specific pieces of essentially functionless but unique expression

Yoko Ono said “the spirit of art is to express the truth”. But is art always true?

Artists are a protected little community. Many don’t like to talk too much about their work so as not to make it too specific or give it a single interpretation. If all people saw the same thing in a piece it would be almost valueless like a direct mail flyer through your letterbox. Art survives on being un-pin-downable. But what is its purpose?

The purpose of art has always been unclear, though its nature has changed over time. True art, though, is essentially timeless, while being at least partially a reference to where we were, historically and culturally, when it was made. Art exists because it has value. A viewer sees something desirable or intriguing reflected in it. Good art is a rare commodity. People are trained in all spheres of life to produce commodities; the best produce them well and define themselves by what they produce.

There exists a stereotyped image of a monastic obsessive artist who must create, hunched over their work in the small hours while the rest of the world sleeps, furiously getting their fleeting inspiration into a more concrete form before it is gone; someone who is compelled to the manufacture of art by their own talents and obsessions. This is propagated by many artists who will answer a question of “why?” with an answer of “I must”. As Phil Collins (not THE but A) points out, this is a very privileged thing to say.

George Orwell described this scenario in Why I Write. He described an ability to write becoming first enjoyable and then an addictive passion as his abilities increased. He suggested four reasons for careers in art production: egotism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political impulse. By these he means to leave behind your calling card, for the sheer beauty of creation, the search for truth and cultural influence.

Animist works at Niaux

Animist works at Niaux


Art is a troublesome creature: When did it start? What is art? What are its themes? The trouble is that any answer varies over time and from society to society, and will inevitably be incorrect, or at least partially so at some point.

The purpose of art is impossible to pinpoint without sweeping and, at times, wildly inaccurate generalisation. As with the other questions art raises, this purpose has changed and evolved as we have. As an obvious example artists in general no longer observe a slavish adherence to technical displays of draughtsmanship, leaving many beholders to pronounce “I could have painted that”. This leaves certain viewers thinking that art used to be about factual representation – when did this change? Perhaps this is why art books don’t like to discuss the question of purpose.

The history of artistic endeavour is immense, a roadmap of human progress. If we accept cave drawings as some of the earliest art, then we start art history on unstable ground. We cannot definitely categorise these drawings as art because their purpose has been lost over time. They have been championed as purely aesthetic in value by commentators such as Guy de Mortillet. Religious or magical reasoning have been attributed to them by Abbé Henri Breuil and Count Henri Bégouën (such fantastic names). One theory holds that Niaux, in France, was a winter residence and the drawings of the animals there were the animals people hoped would return to the lower plains in spring. David Lewis-Williams proposes the drawings are interpretations of altered mental states. Were they simply instructional diagrams for hunters?


Jean Clottes proposes art as an interpretation of the world. He admits this is constrictive and is really only speaking about Neolithic mark making. This doesn’t extend very well beyond early art, as it portrays humanity in its infancy only beginning to make sense of its surroundings. It is Gavin Turk’s intention that these marks were left as testament to the inhabitants; something that would remain after them.

Historically art kept pace with society. As we came out of the caves so did art. Marks were made on stone tablets for language and currency, on walls for decoration and, especially in the case of Ancient Egypt, to tell stories. From an early stage art fulfilled as many purposes as it does today. The media were different but many aims were the same.

Livia's Garden in Rome displays conflicting purposes of commissioner and artist

Livia's Garden in Rome displays conflicting purposes of commissioner and artist

Consider Livia’s garden. Here is a roman house where an entire wall is covered with a huge mural whose purposes are manifold. Its base reason is simple decoration, which has very much fallen out of favour as a raison d’être, notwithstanding arts & crafts revivals. Livia’s Garden was also a tromp l’oeil to make the house look bigger as well as being a vehicle to showcase the artist’s mastery of technique. It’s real reason of course, was to show how wealthy the owner was, that they could be the patron of such lavish artistry. However, Livia’s garden is not a self-initiated work but rather commissioned and this approach brings us to almost all the way to the nineteenth century.

This was a time of patrons who wanted representations of themselves, their deeds and the gods so they could situate themselves on a par with these deities and have their images be preserved forever. Artists were taught as apprentices how to master their chosen métier and the attendant skills of materials production. As Robin Blake describes in his biography of Van Dyck “(the Baroque) did not consider naked subjectivity to be the business of artists and Van Dyck would have been considered a raving madman if he had used his work as a medium of pure self expression”.


The membership of the guild of painters was joined upon the completion of a masterpiece and the apprenticeship ended. Art was a skilled craft to be bought or commissioned in a similar vein to a graphic designer or photographer today, or even indeed a portrait painter. Art did not yet speak for itself, but gradually its silence would be eroded in a process that would take centuries.

Bit by bit self-expression came into art from Goya and El Greco on. But when photography appeared with its factual visual record questions were asked where the visual arts should go. The Impressionist movement (those stalwarts of chocolate boxes and doctors’ waiting rooms) broke from pure representation following Turner’s lead into interpretation. Their images had feeling.

Change came quickly as artists found new reasons to create works that would not have existed were it not for their own individual explorations. The twentieth century was full of movements and -isms as artists took stock of their collective history and chose their purpose. The conceptual became prominent over the technical and art became a philosophical pursuit more concerned with the why than the how.

The Assumption of the Virgin bu Anthony Van Dyck is a Counter Reformation propaganda piece as artistic garndiose counterpoint to Puritanism

The Assumption of the Virgin bu Anthony Van Dyck is a Counter Reformation propaganda piece as artistic garndiose counterpoint to Puritanism

In (almost) Conclusion

Of course, art history is not quite so linear as this. Through history it has spoken with determination with its own voice, whereas at others times its reason has been that of its commissioner and not the artist. Art has been used as religious propaganda in the case of Van Dyck’s counter-reformation religious pieces for the Jesuits in religiously divided Antwerp. It has been an instructional religious tool in the case of the biblical scenes for the illiterate devoted masses in Kells, Ireland. Art has signalled cultural change with Rodchenko and the emergent communist Russia. It has been a counter-point to the prevailing political winds with the Bauhaus. It has wilfully perpetuated myths as in Leni Riefenstahl’s films. It has made ambiguous comment on contemporary culture to elicit response from the viewer (as an example does pop art admonish our materialism or applaud it?)

Germany divided by the vision of Bauhaus and the Nazi ideologies as visually defined by Riefenstahl

Germany divided by the vision of Bauhaus and the Nazi ideologies as visually defined by Riefenstahl

Most of all art is a dialogue. it is an internal conversation the artist must have as part of the creation. Andy Goldsworthy describes how it helps him form relationships with places. But the purpose of his transient pieces is? He sells coffee table art books by the truckload so it must fill some basic human need within his audience. Not that this was necessarily his original intention – between creation and reception the purpose may have been subverted. After all, is the perceived purpose of art the same reason the artist made it? Ronald Reagan brazenly attempted to do this with Bruce Springsteen’s anti-war song Born in the USA.

Richard Serra tried to have the last word when asked what art is. He described it as something that is inherently useless. Of course this raises as many questions as the art itself, and its time to wrap up this piece, so we might ignore him for the moment.

We could always fall back on some Duchampian fable that art is art because an artist made it.

Richard Serra's work is of imperious architectural dimensions but without function. Shown here a piece called joe, at Pultizer.

Richard Serra's work is of imperious architectural dimensions but without function. Shown here a piece called joe, at Pultizer.

Gavin Turk in The Artists’ Yearbook 2008/9, edited by Ossian Ward, Thames & Hudson
Artists Make Art Because They Must by Nancy Van Ness
Why I Write, George Orwell, Penguin, 2004
Anthony Van Dyck, A Life, Robin Blake, Ivan R. Dee, 2000
Charlie Rose with Richard Serra (December 14, 2001)
A Guide to Art, Ed by Sandro Sproccati, LB Books, 1992
Cave Art, Jean Clottes, Phaidon, 2008
The Mind in the Cave, David Lewis Williams, Thames and Hudson, 2004
Art of the Twentieth Century, Taschen, 2000
Roman Art and Architecture, Mortimer Wheeler, Thames and Hudson, 1964
Art Crazy Nation, Matthew Collings, 21 Publishing Ltd, 2001
Seven Days in the Art World, Sarah Thornton, Granta, 2008
Hand to Earth, Andy Goldsworthy, Thames and Hudson, 2006

This article was posted by on Monday, May 11th, 2009 at 03:38.
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