What is the Purpose of Art?

Novelist Susan Patron misses the answer.

To my delight, I was recently introduced to the writings of Sigrid Undset, a Nobel Prize recipient who expertly mixed poetry and philosophy into her realistic novels. Undset’s determination to avoid the choppy modern style of her contemporaries has served as a beacon to me during these summer months, when the humid warmth combined with a slight respite from work lures me away from more substantial reading. At one point, Undset wrote that she desired to “write in a painterly way…if only I could master the language…make the reader see the springtime.” In my estimation, she exceeds her goal through her beautiful prose. In her late work Ida Elizabeth, for example, the growth of the main character’s garden flowers mirrors the development of her soul and the tumultuous Norwegian seasons parallel the story’s events.

Undset’s writing stands out against the fun, fast-paced novels my tired mind is often drawn to at the end of the day. Yet, as I learned more about her and her writings, I sensed there was a deeper reason for their lasting impact. I did not understand why, however, until I read a recent blog from novelist Susan Patron.  Patron wrote to defend her decision to include the character of a prostitute in her soon-to-be-released addition to the children’s “Dear America” series.  While explaining the thought behind her choice, she takes advantage of the opportunity to remind parents and readers of the purpose of literature. It is not just to produce a good or entertaining story, she emphasizes, but to help us be more “human” through its realism. Patron declares, “The job of writers and other artists is to prod and poke, to provoke questions, to challenge assumptions, to lift that corner of the rug and give readers a look at what’s been swept underneath.” The importance of this task, she then asserts, limits the reach of parental discretion. It does not prohibit parents from supervising their own children’s book choice, but it does preempt their right – and thus the public’s right – to censor other children’s reading.

While I concur that Patron has uncovered a truth here, I find she also obscures literature’s purpose on two subtle points.

First, her judgment that any writer is fully equipped to determine at what age children can be exposed to a controversial subject is a bit high-handed. If the honest portrayal of reality to readers is the sole important factor in this discernment, as she appears to claim, what limits can truly be placed on the material that falls into children’s hands? Pornography is realistic; is it therefore suitable?  The standards she appears to recognize are relative, and thus not applicable standards at all.

Second, apart from her flawed reasoning, she misconstrues the purpose of literature on an even grander scale. Indeed, as she delineates, much of literature should be realistic and thereby reveal truth. The entire goal of the introduction of the novel, after all, was to offer a representation of reality to the literate populace. But if realism is the only end of writing, how could we judge the excellence of an author’s style? The manner in which the word performs this task of representation is just as important. Art is meant to lift man higher, to ennoble him by revealing truth through beauty. Otherwise, it is superfluous to culture. Is there value to a book or a film which shows some depraved element of human nature, or some horrific sin of society? Certainly, in its teaching quality, but the same effect could have been produced through a news flash or a walk down the street. Such a work merely reflects a question that already existed. An excellent writing selection would also impart something new to the reader. Take as a model, the various screen-writings about the Holocaust. Does the depiction of the horror of the extermination camps satisfy us? Of course not – it would leave us feeling pessimistic at best and, at worse, despairing. The strength of the human spirit to withstand evil is what endears these stories to us. Beauty is the element which turns our minds and hearts to a new perspective and a positive change, and art that does not reveal truth through beauty is somehow lacking.

Perhaps Patron would agree, and she had simply failed to hash out her ideas completely within her article. At any rate, this brings us back to Undset and her commitment to write stories which would not merely be told to the readers, but would be painted for them. Her artistic prose succeeds: we are not simply interested by her characters, but we are drawn into their world. Once enthralled with its beauty, we explore not only their emotions but also the meaning of their lives and our own.

Undset’s perfect balance of realism and beauty causes me to wonder: in how many areas of our lives have we blinded ourselves to the good by focusing narrow-mindedly on what is wrong, or forfeited joy for wallowing in pain, which feels more real at the moment? Perhaps in our reactions to political policies which sadden or infuriate us to no end? In our friendships and relationships which require hard work to maintain? As the summer dwindles, Undset’s words call us no doubt to turn our focus from the reality of the lengthening nights and look instead to the springtime ever ahead.

Rachel Ronnow, a graduate of Ave Maria University, loves to write during her afternoon coffee break (a.k.a. nap-time) when her duties as a mother and teacher abate temporarily. She currently resides in Alexandria, Virginia with her husband and darling baby girl.

5 Comments

  • Avatar
    August 20, 2012

    Mattie

    ‎”Art is meant to lift man higher, to ennoble him by revealing truth through beauty.” I take issue with this. Beauty is not the sole or even the primary tool for revealing truth. If this statement were completely true, then Kincade would be a good artist. (An exaggeration!) My point is this: it’s frustrating to me when people assume that truth and beauty are the same–there are too many wonderful, dark novels and paintings of the grotesque and holy which communicate truth more powerfully than (for examples) Cole’s paintings or Wordsworth’s poems for one to safely assume this.

  • Avatar
    August 20, 2012

    Rachel

    Mattie, I think you bring up a very good point, and a distinction needs to be made here. Truth is not always revealed by only beauty. That is why I note above that Patron correctly identifies realistic representation as a medium for revealing truth. I do believe something is lacking though if a work of art lacks beauty. This beauty, of course, can be manifested through different things, often the content, but just as frequently through the style or some symbolism. Thus, a dark subject can be portrayed artistically, and that art is inspiring. Also, I do not believe beauty should be confused with the heart-warming sensation we feel when we view a painting or a story that appeals to our particular taste. Kincade is appealing to many viewers because of his illumination techniques, but that popularity doesn’t necessarily translate itself into beauty. As a further example, I myself do not particularly care for modern art but upon reading E. H. Gombrich’s “Story of Art” in high school, I recognized that some aspects of certain twentieth century works were beautiful. Beauty is something recognizable to all, but it may not be the first impression we are left with.

  • Avatar
    August 20, 2012

    David

    I think Rachel’s point is an important one, and I do agree that beauty must be present in art to give it its value. This beauty, of course, is not synonymous with “prettiness” or “niceness.” It may be fierce, sorrowful, or terrible. The beauty it must have, apart from skillful technique, is a moral beauty. I hold with novelist George MacDonald’s belief regarding Art that “in physical things a man may invent; in moral things he must obey–and take their laws with him into his invented world as well.”

    I do not understand the scorn with which Thomas Kincade is frequently held. It seems to me to reek of snobbishness. He was not a great artist, nor a varied one, but he was good. I don’t know him personally; apparently he found one type of picture he could do very well and set himself to reproducing it endlessly with little variations in order to make profit — not the highest of artistic goals, to be sure, but one whose main offense is a lack of artistic curiosity. But those domestic nature scenes with their glowing, colored lights…those are beautiful. They take the viewer to a new place, a place that may never have existed anywhere, an Eden. They do spark the imagination. They do delight the senses. They do qualify as good art. Modest art? Unchallenging, perhaps? Yes. But while Picasso may be a greater artist in terms of his originality, brilliance, and ability to challenge, but I fail to see as much beauty in what he produced, and I’d be healthier surrounding myself with Kincades than with Cubist depictions of war and angst, if I had to choose solely between them.

  • Brian Brown
    August 20, 2012

    Brian Brown

    David, nicely put re: beauty. As far as Kinkade, I used to be similarly perplexed about the scorn some of my friends had for the man. Then I read these:

    http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2010/06/thomas-kinkadersquos-cottage-fantasy

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/godandthemachine/2012/04/thomas-kinkade-art-christianity-and-hypocrisy/

    Bottom line, Kinkade did at one point portray beauty. Then he realized most people confused beauty with the warm fuzzies, sold out to commercialism, and made a fortune portraying a fantasy world that displayed nothing but contempt for the real one (the opposite of what even good fantasy does).

  • Avatar
    August 21, 2012

    Rachel

    Brian, those are two excellent articles. Carter shows quite expertly the difference between beauty and sentimentality.