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Purposes of Art
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Through most of its history, art has served a variety of purposes: to honor the dead, to recall the appearance of rulers or relatives, to give visual form to gods, to create sacred places, to display wealth, to teach, and to give pleasure. Many people today think of the visual arts at best as isolated objects to contemplate in museums or, at worst, as mere frills, unnecessary in education or life. Historians trace such attitudes to 18th-century philosophers who hoped to find an intellectual basis for our perception of beauty and thus separated it from other activities. Their view became known as "art for art's sake."

Even if we think of art as isolated from the rest of life, we still must turn to architects to design buildings with important functions, whether churches or banks. We still value design in furniture and other useful everyday objects, and want monuments to honor our heroes. Visual effects in movies astound us, well-designed Web pages appeal to us, and gorgeous images in advertising persuade us. The methods and materials have changed dramatically, but art is still very much a part of our lives.


An artist's ability to reproduce the appearance of things in our world lies behind some of the earliest uses of art. Prehistoric people may have made carvings and cave paintings of animals to ensure the fertility of the flock or for use in rituals aimed at guaranteeing a good hunt. Female figures in prehistoric sculpture typically have exaggerated breasts and genitals and were probably used in fertility rites. Other sculptures found at burial sites show the appearance of the person buried there. Although no written records exist from this period, it seems clear that prehistoric people made images for use in rituals related to the most important events in their lives: birth, death, and hunting - the means of the group's survival.

In many periods, works of art that showed the appearance of important people served as substitutes for those people. Egyptian statues served as substitute bodies that the pharaoh's soul could inhabit after his death. Statues or portraits of leaders served as reminders of their power, a function especially important before mass communication became available. But even ordinary people turned to artists to record the appearance of their loved ones in portraits and in tomb sculpture. Today, photographs of people surround us, and it is easy to forget how important the art form of portraiture once was. Talented artists from places as different as ancient Rome, the royal courts of Spain, and colonial America created vivid portraits from paint or marble that remain living presences for viewers today.


Art can also make visible things we normally cannot see. The extraordinary special effects in movies have their origins in the ability of human beings to imagine and transform these imaginings into substantial form. Dreams and visions are dominant themes in some styles of art - symbolism and surrealism, for example. Throughout history, people have made images of gods, angels, and demons; of events from the distant past or the far-off future; and of what they wished the present would be but is not. Imagination is at work in more practical forms of art as well. Any act of planning involves imagining a result, and the artist or architect uses drawings or models to show patrons - the people who request the work—what the completed project will look like. The drawings, as well as the finished projects, are valued as works of art.

Giving visible form to a deity is only one way people have used art for religious purposes. Some of the most important works of architecture are religious structures, such as cathedrals, chapels, mosques, or temples. Their sizes, plans, and decoration reflect the religious practices of the people who use them. An enormous, ornate structure shows the power and glory of the god, while a smaller, restricted space may express the mystery of the divine presence. Some societies have found exquisitely worked, costly objects as appropriate ways to honor God, while simpler forms might emphasize the accessibility of God to humans.

Just as monumental architecture can honor gods, it can also show the power and prestige of human beings and their institutions. The scale, organization, and ornamentation of government buildings, schools, and residences (palaces or private homes) give us good indications not only of the function of the building, but also of the social or economic status of the owners.


Art in all its forms can display wealth, power, and prestige. Because of the high value of art, it may seem affordable to only an elite class of patrons and collectors. Some works of art, however, were created specifically to appeal to the general populace. For example, art that adorned churches communicated religious beliefs to worshipers. Portraits of leaders or images of historic events sometimes carried a political point of view. Before newspapers became widely available art also conveyed news of general interest. Easily reproducible art forms, such as photographs or prints, are the perfect media for art that teaches or persuades.


An important purpose of art is to delight and decorate our living space. Some works of art are beautiful or charming in themselves. Others delight us through their visual intricacy, by reminding us of patterns in nature, and in many other ways. Some art works even delight by frightening us with terrifying sights, which are not really terrifying because we know they exist only in the work of art.

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