What is the point?

Community artists are often accused of instrumentalising art. We can be said to instrumentalise something when we use it to achieve a different goal than that for which it is designed. In the arts, the argument goes like this. Art is intended to create aesthetic experiences, therefore to use it for another purpose, such as social change, is a distortion of its essential character. This is a version of the art for art’s sake argument. Unfortunately, it is full of holes.

First, it depends on a shared idea of what art is and what constitutes an aesthetic experience. It doesn’t take much knowledge of art history to see that there is not now, and has never been, such a consensus. People have always made art, but they have made it for different purposes at different times and in different cultures.

Secondly, art has always been instrumentalised, for instance as a way of expressing belief. Greek drama was part of a religious festival. The masterpieces of Renaissance and Baroque painting were mostly created to serve the Roman Catholic church. J. S. Bach worked as church musician and his principal work consists of more than 200 sacred cantatas he composed for services.

Thirdly, it requires a very simplistic view of human affairs to believe that anything people do has only a single purpose and effect. Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel can offer people aesthetic experiences whilst also affirming a theology, demonstrating the power and authority of the Vatican and being a major aspect of the Italian tourism industry. Arguably, it is the tensions between these meanings that make them so interesting.

Art does not exist without people. It was invented to do what they needed, to empower them, to serve their purposes. So what we should ask is not whether art has been instrumentalised but how, for what purpose and in whose interest. A discourse about the ‘intrinsic value’ of art serves only to mask those questions and protect power. Art has no independent life. But people do.

We made slavery illegal because we recognised that one human being must not be made to serve the purposes of another. This is the instrumentalisation that matters. People are their own ends: they must not be subjugated to other purposes. However bad things are, there is never a justification for making people the means to achieve other goals. Theology, political ideology, art – whatever faith we may place in these abstractions, we must never place them before real, living individual human beings. We are the point, never the means.


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