The function and purposes of art

A few days ago, I happened to see a media article from a senior cultural figure in which they wrote about how participation in art changes lives, improves health and strengthens the economy. This kind of argument began to be made in the 1980s, when the Thatcher government was cutting arts spending. Then the rhetoric was corporatist and neoliberal (though that term had yet to be coined). Under New Labour, it shifted towards social inclusion; today it’s about recovery and levelling up. It’s understandable and not, in itself, objectionable. Governments change and in a democratic system, it is normal for those who spend public funding to take account of electorally-mandated priorities. 

My concern about the argument that art changes lives is different. It’s to do with the thinking behind the argument and a long-standing confusion between the function of art and its purpose.

  • By function, I mean what it enables human beings to do or be: its unique power or capability.
  • By purpose, I mean the application of that power or capability.

The function of a hammer is to drive in nails, which is very useful if you want to make something from wood. A hammer can be used for other purposes, including some terrible ones: hammers have been turned into weapons. I have always found this distinction between function and purpose useful in thinking about art and cultural policy. 

In A Restless Art, I felt it was necessary to begin by explaining what I understand the function of art to be. This is what I wrote: 

‘Art is the creation of meaning through stories, images, sounds, performances and other methods that enable people to communicate to others their experience of and feelings about being alive.’ 

A Restless Art, p.38

In other words, the distinctive (if not unique) capability art that gives human beings is being able to create and communicate meaning. That is common to all art, wherever and whenever it has been created, whatever judgements you make about its quality, and however you respond to the meanings it creates.

That function of creating and communicating meaning can be used for many purposes: to propitiate gods, to glorify kings, to express desire, to accumulate wealth, to enhance power, to challenge orthodoxy, to recover from trauma, to indoctrinate, to celebrate, to entertain…. How you feel about those purposes (or the many others to which art may from time to time be put) is open to you. You can admire or reject, concur or demur, applaud or boo. The purposes to which art is put belong to the world of morality and politics, to our contested judgements about the meanings we use it to create. 

Philosophically, this distinction between function and purposes may not be as watertight as I’m suggesting, but I’ve always found it useful practically. My work as a community artist, a researcher and a writer, is founded on the belief that everyone has the right to exercise art’s function as just defined. Everyone, I believe, has the right to create and communicate meaning because that is one the capabilities that makes us properly human. In social contexts, people who are denied that right are also denied to participate fully and equally in the life of their society, which is why it is protected under Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So my professional life has been about protecting and promoting people’s right to create art, but always on their own terms and for their own purposes. The nature of those purposes is not my concern. Like people who work to extend the electoral franchise, I separate the right to participate from the choices others make about how they exercise their rights. And I do so because anything less undermines the freedom and dignity of others. 

A cultural leader is free to decide that the purpose of their work is to change lives, improve health and strengthen the economy, but in doing so they are taking the arts directly into the field of politics and cannot object if others question their purposes, or, more importantly from my perspective, the ethical basis on which they seek to change people’s lives. After all, who decides what is best for someone? 

I know from lived experience and from research that art can change people’s lives but I do not believe that aiming to do so is a legitimate purpose of art’s function—and nor do I  think it can even be done in the way that policy-makers and some academics imagine anyway.  As I wrote in A Restless Art, it is the right to create and share meanings through art that matters because though it:

Art becomes a territory of meetings between people, a forum for encounter, friendship, exchange, conflict, alliance, misunderstanding, love, negotiation, mistrust, dislike, discovery, rejection—in fact, for the whole spectrum of human relations. As such, it matters enormously how those relations are regulated and who is allowed to take part .

A Restless Art, p.39