Art, in all its forms, fine art, literature, film, music, is the antidote to the amnesia of history. Art does not allow injustice to rear its ugly head again. Art wakes us up. It does not let us forget. It reminds us of our power at the most common and pedestrian level. It unites us.
The question of the purpose of art is, obviously, a very big question, and could be broken into parts or perhaps asked in different ways. First, I’ll answer it in the most straightforward way: I see art as time capsules for the future so that the truth may hold hands across time. To put it another way: the purpose of art is to gift the present into the future in a manner that only art can, which is to breathe art's unique truth telling out into the world, so that nothing can be hidden, not now, not ever. This is why art is the most effective, important and valued means for humans to connect across the ages.
Second, purpose is hard to separate from value, after all: if something has the purpose of doing some thing in the world, then you would say that this is its value. The value, therefore, of art, at least the one that I find the most important, is that a beautiful work of art, carefully crafted, loved by the artist, something of true beauty that we, as a viewer, recognize unquestionably, without hesitation, uplifts us. This kind of art, which is so rare lives in contrast to so much of the junk out there posturing as art, which belittles us, tells us that we don't understand its conceptual riddles. Great, beautiful art is impossible to deny, and when we encounter it we feel uplifted and dignified, because what we feel is the great potential within every human to create things of such beauty. These works of art transport us up and out of our everyday selves, and the artist becomes irrelevant, the work of art stands as something that has come through the artist, a universal and human voice of our greatest united potential. This is why we feel that art is ours, for all of us, why we have museums, because art is a pure representation of something much larger than the artists; it is the voice of us. This is the greatest value and purpose of art, in my view, when it brings us this kind of undeniable and universal dignity; it inspires life itself, brings it color, value, a shape, a form we can feel; art is our mirror.
Art is also profoundly important in its function at the day to day level, today, right now, as it gives its recipients a deep view into their very way of being, which can be so hard for us to see. What could be more valuable than this ability for us to simply see ourselves honestly? Art both shows us what our large cultural choices are and it is also the very shaping of those choices. This is why art is always deeply political and complex in how it fits into our lives and society. Each thing made is a choice and therefore a voice, a way of shaping the present and yet also a way of revealing ourselves back to ourselves. This kind of revealing that is so unique to art cannot simply be a matter of feelings that are there for our enjoyment or pleasure; it requires us to think and to feel in much more important ways than mere pleasure or entertainment. This is the real power of art. It summons us, calls us to work for it and elevate ourselves.
Art requires us to be alert, to think, as opposed to entertainment, which does not, unless we distinctly decide to academicize it. We have to ask (ourselves) hard questions with art. Art holds this unique and, in my view, most authentic “voice” for humanity. It tells us who we are both in the present but also for generations to come. It unifies us in this way. I don’t think it shows us much in terms of progression, because I’m not yet convinced humanity has progressed, but it certainly shows us who we are, who we were, who we may have hoped we are or were, as the case may be. Art shows us these things through a kind of materiality that escapes everyday grammar and language.
Art wholly evades language and lives in the realm of the felt, the done, the very visceral reality of our bodies. Art is therefore akin to birth and death and sex and bodily functions, specifically bodily-emotions; the art experience is the one place where mind and body unite in both pure emotion and pure “thingliness”.
When I walk into a museum, no matter the exhibition, no matter the era, no matter the work, I see gifts for the soul, time capsules to be opened by those willing to do so. This is why the purpose of art, in my view, cannot be separated from the "act of art". Art is participatory. If the viewers are not changing themselves, thinking, feeling, opening their minds and receiving then art will serve them no purpose whatsoever. This is one of the great crimes of contemporary art, that so many of its purveyors would like to stand in between this experience of the viewer and the art object and rather than fulfill the respectable role of bringing viewers closer to the experience of art they seek to distance them, to make art an erudite and academic process, when it is absolutely not; worse yet are the artists who rely on these devices of which we sadly find many. That line of thought is, perhaps, for another set of questions...