The Role of Art

What is the role of artists in contemporary society?

February 9, 2011

Artists are manipulators of experience.

Bear with me, because it will take me a bit of work to pick that sentence into meaningful parts.

I am using “experience” to mean not just what a person sees and hears and touches; but also what happens in their mind. A sensation that does not lead to a mental effect is not (for the purposes of this argument) an “experience”.

There are two ways that experiences can help a person become better: by organizing, and by causing introspection.

By “organization” I mean the way that one thought leads to another. Organization usually happens unconsciously. For instance, when I was younger, I lived in Colorado. My mother used to take me hiking, and one day she stepped off the trail and put her nose up to the rough bark of a tree. I didn’t understand, but I followed suit, and was astonished by the rich, sweet smell that gently gripped me. The tree was a Ponderosa pine; its bark smells of butterscotch and vanilla. For the rest of my life, when I smell butterscotch, I will think of Ponderosa pines, the mountains, my mother, the good tired feeling that comes from exercise outside, boy scouts, embarrassment, chili, snow, and on and on.

That day, hiking, and that moment, smelling — that was an organizing experience, but an unplanned one.

Art can do the same thing — it can bring many disparate ideas together, and bind them in our minds — and it can do so in a planned, intentional, and voluntary way. Those new and novel connections allow us to think in new and useful directions.

Introspection, the second way in which experience can effect a person, is much more obvious.

Think about the important things that have happened to you in your life –moments that caused you to rethink who you are. The death of a relative; leaving home for the first time; falling in love.

Those moments can let you think about important questions: what should you do? How should you react when what you do fails? How do you cope with mortality?

Those are introspective experiences, but they are unfortunately also tragic, painful, and occur almost entirely by chance.

Art can create a space for introspection, a seed around which new partial answers can form. Art is viewed purposefully — one can prepare for the experience — and it is made purposefully — the artist will (hopefully) give you as little trauma as possible while still pushing you to think. Art hopes to help you gain Wisdom with less pain.

Introspective and organizing experiences are how we grow and reinvent ourselves. The purpose of art in contemporary society is to provide the kind of experiences that can make us worthy of the world we live in.

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