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Why do we make art?

September 22, 2013

Island Magazine (No. 134) has recently published mini-essays on Why do we make art? And why do we seek out art made by others (in museums and galleries, reading fiction, listening to music, and so on)?

My entry is as follows:

We make and appreciate art because doing so is both intrinsically rewarding and functionally valuable. Through it we share ideas, emotions, perspectives, and values. Art serves multiple purposes and is done for diverse reasons, which is not surprising given that it links and unites many facets of our human nature.

This is apparent from the earliest art, dating back forty thousand years. Some cave art is found in resonant chambers that might have hosted communal rituals. But much work is confined to inaccessible spaces. And some caves were only rarely visited when the painting was done. So, art behaviors were often a private matter.

This ancient art reflected what was important to its makers. They were hunters living in a world dominated by animals, so that is what they painted and engraved, often with great power and skill. Erotic graffiti and sexually explicit Venus figurines also were made, indicating males’ interest in sex. Finger flutings and handprints were easy to create and probably satisfied the human desire to leave a mark on the world. Prehistoric art also is replete with abstract, geometric figures. Though we do not know their significance, clearly they are expressions of symbolic thought and possessed meaning as insignia or the like.

The earliest art was not for distanced contemplation. And there would not have been a clear separation between art and the utilitarian products of other skillful behaviors, such as sewing and carving. Everywhere, functional objects were skillfully decorated and humans adorned their clothes and themselves. In recent centuries, some art has become the exclusive province of expert makers and connoisseurs, but when art loses touch with its vibrant origins it can be deprived of its power to speak movingly to the human spirit.

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One Comment
  1. rebecca l farinas permalink

    Art as sharing… I like this thought very much. Possibly early art inspired our very origins of common values, helping us form peaceful communities. Thank you for sharing your clear thoughts.

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