Art is created and enjoyed by many people for many reasons. However, one of the things that art does is extend and expand our shared common visual language. When new visual ideas are first introduced by the artist, they are often seen as shocking, and perhaps even as incomprehensible. However, with time the best and most effective of these ideas are accepted. There is nothing harder than trying to grasp what was shocking or illuminating about certain images, or ways of making images, once the shock is gone, and we have all absorbed this bit of visual data into our own vocabularies. Artists show us new ways to see familiar things, and how to interpret new situations and events through various kinds of visual shorthand. This creation of visual language may be the artist’s intention, or it may be a side effect of other purposes.
So what are some of the purposes that art fulfills?
Probably the oldest purpose of art is as a vehicle for religious ritual. From the prehistoric cave paintings of France to the Sistine Chapel, art has served religion. For centuries the Church was the primary patron of artists. In traditional societies even today, the primary purpose of art is religious or ceremonial.
Art may also serve as a commemoration of an important event. The event may be of major historical importance, such as the coronation of Josephine by Napoleon as recorded by the artist David, or it may be important only to the participants, like the image of a wedding or a baptism.
Art has often served as propaganda or social commentary. Propaganda images are attempts to persuade us toward particular viewpoints or actions promoted by public or private institutions such as political parties, lobbyists, governments, or religious groups. The propaganda purpose may be one we approve of, such as World War II efforts to get women behind the war effort, as epitomized in Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter. It might also be a purpose we disapprove of. In either case, the power of visual images has frequently been used to persuade masses of people to accept beliefs, take action, or follow leaders. The artist as social commentator may simply make us more aware of the human condition as he/she perceives it, without suggesting particular action.
All societies engage in propaganda, but here are some links to propaganda art created in China, and by the Allies during World War I. and during World War II.
Art may be simply a means of recording of visual data— telling the “truth” about what we see. After the Renaissance, artists became preoccupied with new ways of capturing reality such as the use of linear perspective, and the realism possible through the use of oil painting technique. In time, artists like Courbet and Cezanne (and many who followed them) began in various ways to challenge the basic idea of what it is for an image to be true and real.