Does art have a purpose or need one?

A question sometimes asked about art and artists is ‘Does art always have to have a purpose?’ Modern art begs this question because the art found in art galleries and museums is confusing and absurd.

There’s also the history of ‘art for art’s sake; most advocated by Abbott McNeal Whistler, who makes art for its aesthetic or formal qualities alone. That is the art is to be appreciated for it colour, shapes, forms, lines and composition.

My answer is as complex and paradoxical, as informed by my Buddhist leanings.

I’m reminded by Alan Watts the populariser of Buddhism and Daoism says the about the purpose of dancing.

‘The sound of the rain needs no translation. In music, one doesn’t make the end of the composition the point of the composition… Same way in dancing, you don’t aim at one particular spot in the room… The whole point of dancing is the dance.’

Alan Watts

The purpose of dance is the dance, an Autotelic, or ‘self-purpose’ activity. Purposeless is where we have fun, just as kids will play without direction or aim.

This is my view of art, it can and often does have a message. Politics, beauty, ideas, and feelings can all be found in art. But some art needs no message, consider Black Square by, Malevich, no form, no subject, no message, no narrative. There’s nothing to get, no idea to apprehend, so, art for art sake.

Black Square by Malevich

The attitude of many towards abstract art bears this out; people get upset looking at abstract art because it doesn’t live up to their expectations, as if it somehow its supposed to.

Art for sake is often derisorily looked at as mere decoration, that value judgement is not held by all. In the far east the decorative arts are held in high regard. It’s elitism, the fine arts looking down their noses at other forms of art and seeing them as inferior.


Art without a message highlights our narcissistic self-absorption, our egotism. We strut around art galleries (and life), grasping for meaning and purpose, expecting it to all make sense. 

It’s an attitude that expects the world to make sense to twist and squeeze the world into our expectations and ideas. Our own neediness is at centre stage. However, the world, art and artists are not obligated to live up to our expectations. It’s our insecure ego that’s the problem.

‘An over examined life is not worth living’

Not Socrates

It’s the same teaching of the Buddha. We grasp for answers, and because we don’t get what we want, we suffer or get upset. As an aside, it’s also an attitude I see in the debate between Atheists and theists, ‘Does the cosmos have a purpose?’

Those who argue there has to be a purpose to art are fettered to their expectations. Dragged along by a neediness the world is obliged to satisfy. For myself, I chased after answers only to learn I didn’t ned them. It taught me to let go, that my neediness was causing my suffering.

There is something compelling about aimlessness, and purposelessness, because it’s so foreign to how we normally work and live. Looking into the void, it becomes a wellspring of creativity, of authenticity.

The ones who demand meaning and purpose to art are the same people who suck the life out of life by demanding it also must have a transcendent purpose.

Perhaps the purpose of purposeless art is to remind people that art and life don’t need a purpose, it’s there to be enjoyed just like dancing.

‘A painting — before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote — is essentially a flat surface covered with colors arranged in a certain order’

Maurice Denis

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