What does art do?

22 December 2020
22 Dec 2020

Science improves our ability to control and predict the future. Music stirs emotion. Cooking produces food. What does art do?

I think one reason this is an interesting question is that art usually produces an artifact, so when we think of “what is art” we think of the artifact, like Jackson Pollock’s art being the paintings or Toni Morrison’s writing being the “art” of her writing.

But in science, we don’t take the conclusion of a research paper like “X gene has a Y% correlation with this phenotype” and say “this is science.” Science is more a steady stream of work that’s self correcting and self-modifying. I think art is probably closer to that. It’s a continuous stream of work that exists beyond a single artifact or artist, and its total effect on the world in inhabits is to self-invalidate and redefine what art is. The point of science isn’t to “do science”, it’s to understand some part of nature better. The point of art isn’t to “create art” per se, it’s to be a conduit to some idea the artist has. But we lump them all together because it’s a continuous stream of work through history that builds on each other somewhat and it’s convenient.

I think art creates space in the world for things that otherwise don’t have permission to exist. It’s kind of a circular definition but I think that’s why it’s so hard to define. What art does is not necessarily what it is, but what other things aren’t. As such, it’s constantly expanding and changing to fit around and fit through the circumstances of its time.

If I had to draw an analogy to the motivating examples at the top, I would say if music speaks to emotion, art speaks to your memory, and your human experience as a whole.

Thanks to John Forbes for sparking this question in my mind that led to this note.

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