Function of Art
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What is the Function of Art? Art in the Enlightenment and Romantic Periods
Before speaking of the function of art, it is important to separate function from the utility. Both sound close and alike, but they are not. Strictly speaking, the function might refer to symbolic; political; economic, or social needs whereas Utility refers to the physical usefulness of a piece of art.
However, it is important to note that some artistic manifestations have a direct physical function. For instance, if we picture the earliest human settlements; their weaponry; tools, and cave paintings we will find they all share a symbolic function as well as a direct function. Their paintings were crude depictions of the hunt, and they used them as a way to harness the power of the prey. Their tools had a symbolic function imposed over their physical usefulness, as a way to imbue them with power and facilitate their work. That is a trend we still see in modern objects, such as scepters and crowns. Objects of daily use that also relate to a ritual function.
As men developed, they wanted their objects to resemble not only something beautiful and pleasing, but useful. That is why decoration; design and architecture holds a prominent place in the story of mankind. Mere function and physicality do not fulfill men’s spiritual wishes; that is why art holds such an important position in our society, and in our culture.
In that light, we could say that the primary function of art is social, as they intend to carry a sort of message. Regardless of the type, whether it is religious; political of economic, it still is a message. We deem necessary to add writing to this list. In the beginning, writing was used merely to convey messages, or communicate ideas. Nevertheless, writing could be also used as a form of history telling. That marked an evolution in the history of culture, as mankind had a new way to express that allowed them more complex thought.
Also, it is important to speak about the person function of art. From a psychological perspective, artistic representation holds a personal meaning for the author. It contains the artist’s experiences, and the subjective realities of the artistic representations can significantly vary from a view to another. That is why artistic styles change. As the people’s thoughts and necessities change, the methods are also bound to change.
In this essay, we shall speak about the many functions art has. We aim to demonstrate how art in the Enlightenment and Romantic periods served different features that responded to the changes in their realities. We shall use two paintings as examples to make a thorough explanation of these issues in both periods.
THE FUNCTIONS OF ART IN THE ENLIGHTENMENT PERIOD
During the Enlightenment period, art stopped having a religious service and assumed a political and social one. This marks the end of a period where all art had religious meaning and was done as a way to show the importance of God above all the earthly things. In the late during the 18th century, all the new ideas of the Enlightenment changed the way people thought about themselves and instead of considering themselves servants of religion, they became their masters. That new paradigm showed in the art as well.
The main markers of the shift were that most artists shied away from the soft pastel colors of the Rococo style, favoring a somber palette and a “masculine” style. Strictly speaking, the genre we are speaking of is the Neo-Classicism that attempted to emulate the motifs found in the Renaissance adding not only a dimension of aesthetic beauty but a less aristocratic approach to art. That is of capital importance because it meant that not only the rich would be in possession of art. In the same way, the opening of museums during the 18th France made possible that art become available to regular citizens.
That way, we shall focus on the social and political function of neo-classic painting. Diderot, one of the key figures in the Enlightenment period once said that the primary purpose of art was to serve to the people’s moral development. That way, painting motifs became revolutionary scenes that bolstered people’s moral feelings and created an atmosphere of creativity and innovation. During the Enlightenment period, the ideal of “artist” was a person with high morality and compromised to the transformation of society. That is why we chose the painting “The Death of Marat” by Jacques-Louis David, who is considered by many critics, the quintessential Neo-Classic painter.
The painting depicts Jean-Paul Marat death in his bathtub. However, the motif is not the most important part of the piece. The death of Marat shook the revolution, as it reminded people that the ideals of liberty; fraternity, and equality did not matter if you opposed the dominant. That way, we can see the painting as a satire that criticizes the ruling powers in France by showing Marat as a tragic hero. The position of the man resembles classic motifs, and the palette evokes darkness and grief for the death of one of France’s finest men. That way, the depiction serves as a posthumous eulogy for a man who helped the revolution even on his last breath.
Likewise, the painting had a powerful social significance since it showed the less favored sectors of society a situation of capital importance in the world they lived. In a way, the painting had a propagandistic function and David seemed aware of that fact. Art was the labor of a genius, or so believed people during the age of Enlightenment. That is why painters held such a prominent place in society, and some used their power to promote their thoughts through their work. We could think that this era served as a predecessor of the concepts behind the paintings. It is unlikely that David chose the subject oblivious of the implications it might have. That is why we wanted to highlight the political and social functions of paintings as a way to inform and turn significant figures into god-like individuals bound to be remembered forever.
THE FUNCTION OF ART DURING THE ROMANTICISM
On the other hand, Romantic art had a whole different purpose. Most Romantic artists focused on humanity, and feelings as their way of expression. Romanticism challenged the idea of reason above all and considered it was inadequate when it came to understanding life. That is why the motifs found in Romantic painting focused on nature and landscapes as they showed the sheer greatness of imagination and intuition. Nature held all the secrets, and by depicting it, Romantic painters found themselves. This way, art became a tool of self—actualization instead of a tool of social and political upheaval.
Romantic art emphasized feelings and spirituality, leaving behind the dehumanizing things most people lived during the Industrial Revolution. If we look closely, it is not casual that Romantic style emphasized nature, because most people, for the first time in the history of mankind started to flow from the countryside to cities to work in factories where they could barely see light. This marked the beginning of the industrial age and the contrast between men and machinery.
To show this dichotomy between the human and its infinite potential, we decided to use the painting “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friedrich. The painting shows a man on top of a mountain, contemplating a sea of mist under him. This painting shows the infinite potential of men. Friedrich shows how mankind is capable of doing whatever it wants, in complete opposition to machinery. It exalts the importance of men over nature and displays the real potential of men as a factor of change in its world.
The painting is not as concerned with an explicit depiction of reality as Neo-Classic paintings were. Instead, its approach is much more expressive as it uses the elements and materials to convey a feeling. This is of capital importance for contemporary painting because it is one of the first moments where painting is used to express feelings. That way, we can see how the primary objective of Romantic Movement was feelings. Nature was the mirror of the soul; that is why painters chose landscapes that showed the infinity of nature as a way to symbolize the infinity of the human mind.
As we can see, although art has not practical utility. It does have a function. It might not be useful in a material way, but it is in a psychological form. From the beginning of mankind, men have wondered about their lives and tried to find meaning in what they do. That what, they have passed through a myriad of styles, attempting to find themselves in the process. There is no doubt that art changes as much as humans do, and that is why art holds a capital importance in the study of mankind, regardless the era they are living.
As we could see, artistic styles try to cut the cord and separate from their predecessors as a way of asserting their individuality. Neo-Classicism shied away from the vibrant style of Rococo painting; while Romanticism escaped from the moral and political implications of Neo-Classic art. The fascinating part of art is how it shows the needs and wishes of every single generation of artists, as they try to demonstrate their individuality through their artistic manifestations.