The Purpose of Art

The Purpose of Art

In In the Real World , Mr Shriver, a high school English teacher poses his class of sixteen years olds the following question: “Why is it, do you think, that all the great literature of the world deals only with a few subjects?” he asks. “What is the subject that is on the mind of most every student in this school, or any other school for that matter? What is on your mind today? Why do you come to school?”

Not surprisingly, the teenagers have their answer ready. “Boyfriends,” one of them jokes.

But then the teacher surprises them. “That’s right,” he says.

He tells his students that natural attractions (and repulsions) between individuals are not a choice people make but driven from within. However, “what people do with them has been the subject of almost all literature and drama in any society”.

Just think about it: What stories, movies, operas, musicals, ballets, theatrical dramas and songs can you think of right now that do not deal with human relationships – especially love relationships? And almost all of them will follow one of two scenarios: The first is when two people act on their mutual attraction despite social or cultural boundaries – they do not conform to the rules of their environment but allow the attraction to rule their actions. They either run away together or have an affair, destroying their existing relationship with their family or partner in the process. “The winner of all tragedies is the lover-and-jealous-spouse relationship that ends in crimes of passion, war, or divorce”.

The runner-up is the other extreme, when the attraction is denied or forbidden – the characters conform to the rules but suffer as a person so much that they end up committing suicide or acts of revenge against those who made the restrictions – their society or family.

Of course, these stories do so well, because these situations are not limited to the fictional realm; they happen in real life all the time, which is why people can relate to them.

There are two other possible scenarios to this natural attraction: the situation where two people without social or cultural limitations fall in love and live happily ever after, and the one where two people who are separated by social or cultural limitations play the attraction game without over-stepping the boundaries. Neither of those make for very interesting fictional dramas.

But real life does not consist of one relationship; every person is at all times involved in multiple relationships and all of those may be played differently. So while the protagonists and their teachers in my book play the game of mutual attraction cautiously, balancing on the edge of what is socially acceptable, other relationships, like that between the kids and their principal, get out of hand. That happens because there are those who naturally conform and expect others to do so, and those that naturally rebel. This is not a choice people make, but a part of their inborn personality.

This divide between personalities in relation to society and culture is extremely prominent in fictional writing. Many other personalities write for different reasons – like some are natural science writers and others focus on human relations, some write action and others contemplations, some are satirists and others deadly serious – but this difference between conformist and non-conformist lies at the basis of every story.

This does not only apply to writers, but also to readers. The example I often use is that of Dangerous Liaisons by Laclos. This book, more than any other, evokes two kinds of (emotional) responses in readers depending on their inborn type: those that are outraged by the amorality of the main characters: Mme de Merteuil and M. Valmont, and those that are equally outraged by the moral preaching of Mme de Volanges and Mme de Tourvel.

So writers express their hurt, their frustrations, their problems and the conflict that exists between the inborn needs of the individual and the rules of the society and depending on their type that makes for different writers.

So what is the purpose of art?

From the moment humans began to live in tribes or societies that allowed them to spend some time away from direct survival skills like foraging for food, there has been creative expression, ranging from decorating items of everyday use to art for art’s sake.

But art has never been solely a pursuit for aesthetic purposes; art is creativity that expresses on the one hand the beliefs and truths of a culture or generation – what one culture considers beautiful, another finds revolting, and parents seldom consider the music of their children acceptable – and on the other hand the frustrations (pain, anger, despair) of the individual – those who feel misunderstood in their own culture.

In other words, there is art that conforms in style and topic to the accepted beliefs of a society, culture or generation and here is ‘rebellious art’ that is intended to draw the attention to a problem, a hurt or an injustice in order for social change to happen.

By using fictional characters, writers can bring problems to the attention of the population and slowly help promote change. For example, had not writers (and filmmakers) started to portray homosexuals as normal people – fictional characters the reader could crawl into the mind of and thus relate to – they would still be treated as mentally ill or social outcasts.

Art is therefore not universal and not unchanging, since it not only records change, but initiates it. Every personality type has its own excellence and style of writing, its own preferred topics and goal. For me, as an INFP, the purpose of art in general, but of writing in particular, is to stop dogma and injustice – to change the society.

Why do you write or read?

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