The Purpose(lessness) of Art

After two years in an MFA program, I’ve learned one thing: The creation of art, or the appreciation of it, is a leisure activity. As human beings, we need food, water, and shelter. Our purpose, as far as we’re concerned, is to stay alive. We have to breathe, we have to eat, but everything else is extraneous.

Over the course of history, humans have created tools of increasing complexity, making their lives easier and allowing more free time. What started as stories by the cave fire have become Netflix instant queues, ebook libraries that grow with the touch of a button, summer blockbusters, etc. I’m imagining that ’50s era housewife sipping a cocktail and flipping through a catalog as machines wash the clothes and dishes. Hell, I’m delegating tasks to my computer right now. It remembers my schedule, holds a record of my monetary funds, it even stores every word I’ve ever written, it probably even has some record of the letters I’ve typed and then deleted.

Now we have time to entertain ourselves, and to create. These are all things that are secondary. So how do we attach so much meaning to things that are essentially purposeless? How do we spend our lives hoping for an afterlife, throwing money at institutions to allow us to turn our free time into purposeless art?

What is so fascinating about art is that it is inessential, yet people have been painting the walls and building mounds as far back as we can know.

What it all comes down to is happiness, or maybe contentment. Because with free time, we become lost as we drift from our original focus of staying alive. Like everything, our purpose, our potential has evolved. And so do our demons. We become depressed, we need some sense of direction, some reassurance that our lives are worth living. And this has become the most immediate threat to our survival in a world full of hospitals, this self scrutiny. Tumbling through space in a post-modern world, knowing in the core of our existence that God is a billion lightyears away, we need something to hang onto. Not only do we need the resources to help us stay alive, we need a reason to stay alive.

So maybe it is the purpose of art to fill us with ideas, with purpose, and to show each other that we are not alone. Art has taken on a new dimension of survival, it does not serve a purpose, but it offers one to us. It’s like a water tank. The water tank does not really aid our survival, but without it, how would we all have access to the water we need to stay alive, the water that most of our physical bodies are composed of? Art ends up fulfilling us in the same way food and air do. It keeps us alive. Literally.