We hear a lot that art’s purpose is this or art’s purpose is that. We hear that art is meant for showing us God or poking holes in the hegemony or disturbing the viewer or making the world more beautiful—or that art is meant for the purpose of any one of a pile of other competing dogmas. (Usually this is because whoever is speaking has a tidy point to make either about a particular work or in order to prop up some ideological call to action.) But this isn’t exactly right.
Art isn’t for any one thing. There is no Purpose to art—not in any such singular sense—not unless we prescribe a goal for art that is so broad to be nearly unusable for whatever cudgel we intend to shape art to be for the Very Important Argument we intend to make.
Art is, simply, expression. Communication. And just as there is no one purpose for our most common and immediate medium of expression, the voice, there is likewise no one purpose for art. Art, after all, is merely voice through another medium.
And using your voice, you may present the deepest truths you’ve learned about humanity’s reason for being. You may explain to a child how brakes work. You may give instructions on preparing French toast. You may offer ovation to the Creator of the universe. You may critique a political position, a film, or an ideology. You may bless or you may curse. You may explicate, educate, elucidate, or elevate. You may do one of a hundred things with your voice. You may even hum yourself a little nothing to keep yourself company with your own thoughts or thoughtlessness.
And just as there is no one purpose for our most common and immediate medium of expression, the voice, there is likewise no one purpose for art. Art, after all, is merely voice through another medium.
And it’s the same with art. These are all among some of its various ends. The thing communicated is up to the artist, the method of communication is up to the artist, and the clarity of communication is up to the artist.
But with art, as we’re probably all aware, there’s a natural loss of data. Art is not binary, but nuanced. Whatever the artist intended is blurred or often entirely lost almost immediately (depending on the piece) and so the appreciator becomes much more the arbiter of meaning than in more crisp forms of communication. This too is one of the intended goals of art—to give the opportunity for the artist to create an avenue for an audience to create added value in the form of additional or tangential meaning.
As an artist and illustrator, I appreciate this. It is possible for me to create a piece, for a viewer to misinterpret my intention, and to create their own meaning. The meaning they derive from my work doesn’t change the piece and doesn’t change what I’ve expressed, but it does give them the opportunity to create along with me (and sometimes at odds with me). And allows me to create meaning along with other artists whose work I appreciate.
Art appreciation is all about ways of seeing. You look at art and you see from a vantage particular to you alone. There may be others in proximity to you who see from nearly the same vista from which you view a work, but no one can see precisely as you see—no one can bring to a piece the same history, environment, ideology, chaos, family, memory, hopes, dreams, and tastes that you do.
So the ends of a piece of art, beyond those intended by the artist (consciously or subconsciously), are going to vary, and one of the nicest, least phony things we can do with art is honestly share with others what these pieces do for us. What they mean to us. What purpose we find in them. By sharing in this way, we further expand and explore the worlds they develop.
To that end, here follows an appreciation of art that moves me in some way. Perhaps in talking about how I enjoy and appreciate art, you’ll further develop your own appreciation.
Art can move me with its beauty. And sometimes that is purpose enough. In each of these examples there is more than just beauty at stake (the Campion piece, for instance, leverages sentimentality to heighten the sense of comfort in this couple’s close proximity and conversation), but in each I relish the aesthetic wonder each artist chose to express.
Art can move me with its evocation of some aspect of reality. Even when I have not actually experienced the thing depicted (as in this metaphorical depiction of a couple’s argument), I can be invited into an experience and thereby grow my appreciation for the world.
In this spread by Fumio Obato in his book Just So Happens, I find expression of that wonderfully isolated sense when you are at home with your own thoughts, senseless to the world around you, until a persistent interruption brings you back into the wider world.
Art can move me with its technical virtuosity. This video of Francois Schuiten just casually tossing out one of his run-of-the-mill highly detailed illustrations knocks my socks off. I don’t even need to know what he’s drawing or why: his evident skill alone is enough to let me feel blessed to be alive in a time I can view his work.
And Kaoru Mori is an incredibly detail-oriented artist whose current work is an examination of betrothal and nuptial practice in the region surrounding what was once the Aral Sea during the Great Game-era. Her technical feats serve to breathe reality and solidity into her work, giving it an air of veracity that a less accomplished craftsman couldn’t invoke.
Art can move me as it expressionistically pares down the world into a new creation that simultaneously reveals the old creation. Using artistic notions, a creator while stridently working in unrealistic styles nonetheless create a world that feels real, or at least representative. Monet does this in his impressionistic work and Sergio Toppi (above) does this in his furiously fantastical method of hatching.
Or linger for a moment over this page of a woman walking home in the rain while talking on the phone. Look at those jagged spikes erupting from the roof of the car, from the fire hydrant, from her hoodie. Rain doesn’t actually ever make neat acute pyramids like this, but through technique, artist Sam Alden heightens his illustrations’ access to reality in a way that drives us to feel just how hard it’s raining here. And the ghosts of the telephone poles in the background further contribute to our sense how dark and thick the scene is with downpour. There’s a magic in this.
Art can move me with its mood. An artist can, by use of subject and lighting and placement, invite the viewer into a mood, into a way of feeling. Nagabe does this throughout his delicate work The Girl from the Other Side.
In these two pages from GG’s Murakami-esque I’m Not Here, by presenting her dinner scene so spare and muted, she brings us into the alienation her characters are feeling.
Most of Cyril Pedrosa’s book Portugal is rendered in muted tones (largely probably to reflect the aimlessness of his protagonist, who is at a crossroads in life, not sure what he wants or what he needs). Here though, at a get-together, the scene is suddenly bursting with vibrant warmth. Pedrosa’s main character speaks little Portuguese but in returning to the land of his descendancy, finally here he begins to discover some of the verve in life. The mood is bright and lively, and Pedrosa uses his art to make sure we’re tracking the shift.
Art can move me with its whimsy. Even nearly grounded works like Miyazaki’s post-apocalyptic environmentalist epic Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind can ease us into a sense of wonder, a feeling of what might be had the world been slightly different, slightly more fantastic. And then color-blasted works of dreamy buoyancy like Lorena Alvarez’s Nightlights can spark us with joy from the midst of their flights into the fanciful.
Through whimsy, as well, we can re-encounter creation mythos as with Marnie Galloway’s In the Sounds and Seas.
Art can move me with its use of minimalism to get at the foundation of things. When an artist expresses his or her creative impulse with pared-down solids, and heavy positives and negative, we’re given the opportunity to focus more deeply on particular moments and specific objects. They’ve distilled their expression in a way to invite us to see common things in new ways.
Art can move me with the way it asks me to empathize. In crafting this dynamic, terror-fueled image of the Freedom Rider bus in flames, we can experience virtually and at a safe remove the remotest emotional connection to the terror of those in the Civil Rights Movement whose lives were imperiled simply for asking to be treated as human beings.
In my friend Abhishek Singh’s work, he creates of out his love for his Hindu faith. While I do not share his religious convictions, the joy with which he approaches his work and interacts with nature gives me a window into his heart and further underscores the beauty in the soul of the human creature.
Art can move me with how it horrifies me with its grotesqueries. Even back in the 80s as a kid, I was mesmerized by Bill Sienkiewicz’s ursine nightmare and his gargantuan depiction of Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin (on which last year’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse depended). By indulging in the grotesque, we can find ourselves reevaluating the presence of these elements, looking for additional meaning beyond their most overt and utilitarian purposes.
Unveiling the World
And to close, art can move me with how it pushes me to enjoy the world God has created.
I want to take a minute here to highlight my love of the work of Daisuke Igarashi, particularly in his five-volume series Children of the Sea. Igarashi’s work is specially known for his illustrations and treatment of the natural world. He is lushly reverent but his style is atypical, meaning it’s difficult for a lot of readers to see the allure. He invokes wonder and mystery and makes that world holy.
One of the things I thought about last time I reread the short series was how he succinctly takes the chaos and scattered beauty of nature and concatenates it into a specific image, crafting a kind of paragon nature. This is why I may feel more connection to the natural in reading his works than when in nature itself. He conveys the grandeur and the majesty without the distraction of chaos.
(Or more accurately, without the distracting appearance of chaos. Think of your own hypothetical photos of Yosemite vs. those taken by Ansel Adams. In reality we know that everything is governed by a towering compilation of causes and effects, but it’s all just too complicated, so we call it chaos to make ourselves feel better, taking perceived madness and submitting it under the thumb of taxonomy.)
Every time I read these books, they impress upon me more and more a sense of divine glory. I may see creation’s majesty more in Igarashi’s books than by any other venue. I’m averse to speaking in these terms because they are always either ineffectual at communicating or are baldly hyperbolic, but I find in Children of the Sea this cascade of Sacred Moments that I cannot get away from.
To further dive into terrible, deeply exaggerated cliche, it is in these five volumes that I find closest experience to the idea of Touching the Face of God. In reading Igarashi, I feel as though I am Moses, hidden in the cleft, witnessing not God himself but instead the contrail of God’s glory. Nothing else brings me as close.
I am an artist and a critic of art. My father was an artist. The town I grew up in is a former artists’ colony and boasts three summer-long art festivals every year. I have breathed the air of ink and paint and graphite and clay for the entirety of my life. Now in middle age, I have yet remotely to have tired of what art can offer. Much more than eyes, art is a window into souls. Through art we speak, and through art we listen. It’s not the only way we do these things, but it certainly is a marvelous one.