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1.4: Functions of Art

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    Functions of Art

    by Jon McCallum

    The language of the Elements of Art and the Principles of Design help us to look for certain details in art and consider it in a deeper way than just mere "looking" at art. The elements and principles are about the visual language being used and how things are visually expressed. But then comes the question of what the work is about, what is it saying, what is it for?

    The answer to these questions usually fall within one or more of the following six categories known as the functions of art:

    • Delight (pleasure, enjoyment, entertainment) The focus is on humanity's inherent desire to delight in beauty and wonder.
    • Commentary (explanation, interpretation, description, criticism) This function acts like a specific viewpoint or opinion on a particular subject, issue, or happening.
    • Worship and Ritual (spiritual practice, beliefs, teaching, symbolism) These kinds of works help people to better acknowledge, experience, and understand unseen worlds.
    • Commemoration (celebrate, honor, acknowledge, remember) This category celebrates particular values and figures who represent those values.
    • Persuasion (convince, encourage, entice, argue, cause change) The intention here is influencing others to alter their views or take some action, such as buying a particular product or choosing a certain path in life.
    • Self-Expression (personal emotions, views, therapy, dreams, getting insides out) Here there is less of an emphasis on the external world in favor of the artist's own unique experience. Of course, the work may still include imagery of the outer world, but the main force of the work is more internally-based. Interestingly, for most of art history, up until more modern times, self-expression was not a main function of art.

    When considering which function fits a particular work of art, ask:

    • Which one of the six Functions of Art does this artwork seem to best fit?
    • What specifically is going on in this image (expressed through the visual Elements and Principles, concept, or the suggested message or story) that connects it to that category?
    • What symbols or metaphors might be a part of the work? Artists often use symbols and metaphors to point to cultural and universal concepts.
    • What other contextual information can be considered to support or challenge your reasoning? The artist's life, situation, values, culture, location, time period, etc. bring other layers of meaning and insight into an artwork. Sometimes an artist will intend a certain message and sometimes the artist simply follow their intuition and not really be aware of a work's significance. Other times an artist will intentionally obscure the message or meaning of a work, preferring instead to simply raise a question or simply pose a conundrum for viewers solve.
    • While we do want to get a right choice for which function is most present in an artwork, there is some degree of subjectivity here. The main point is that we are engaging in the work, asking and thinking about these things, and developing the ability express our views well and better understand the views of others.

    Note that it is possible for an artwork to fit into more than one category of function. For instance, a work may express much Delight and also Commemorate a remarkable figure. Both could be equally true. The goal here is to recognize what the work most seems to be about and to be able to give reasons for our choice based on evidence seen in the artwork and insights gathered from the artist's life, culture, and time period, etc.

    Now let's explore an example for each of these six functions.

    Content on this page written by Jon McCallum, 2024.

    1.4: Functions of Art is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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