On the Functions and Value of Art

In a conversation between Tyler Cowen, a George Mason economics professor, and David Salle, an artist and writer, Salle discusses several functions of art (mostly visual art) that I found interesting. Here’s what he said:

I think people might underestimate the decorative function of painting. Painting has various functions. A good painting satisfies most of them or all of them, pretty much at a high level. One of the functions, historically, is to make the room look better, to make people’s emotional temperature quicken slightly when the painting is in the room as opposed to when it’s not in the room. That’s a decorative function. It’s an important one.

I remember the first time I met Jasper Johns. He actually said to a friend of mine, who was standing with us, “The first obligation of a painting is to make the wall look better that it’s hanging on.” It is one of those statements that is so simple-minded it brooks mystification, but it’s just a simple fact.

What else does painting do? Obviously, we want it to do more than just be decorative. I think any good painting — really good painting — expresses something true about the time in which it was made and about the maker. But that’s another level and doesn’t have to be apparent in the same way that its decorative value is apparent.

What else does it do? It locates the maker in a certain history, a certain dialogue, a certain discourse. It sometimes takes sides. It sometimes provokes arguments. These are other things that paintings can do.

I’ll say more about this later.

One thought on “On the Functions and Value of Art

  1. “Making a room look better”

    This line struck me–on one level it’s obvious, but on another level it surprised me, too. I guess I normally don’t think of this function, or, maybe more accurately, I view this function in a slightly disparaging way. On one hand, it seems superficial. On the other hand, maybe I’m under appreciating this function–maybe making a room look better is more difficult and more valuable than I understand.

    I suspect a big factor involves the extent to which an artwork makes a room or wall look better. Does it make the room look better in a way that has a powerful effect, evoking emotions and ideas, on the people in the room? This would be like listening to a great piece of music, watching a great movie, or reading a great novel or poem. I think if a visual artwork has that type of effect, that is a big deal–I’d want to have art like that in a room. In this way, “looking good” means making people feel and think in an impactful way.

    But Salle also mentions other functions or attributes to a good/great art, and I’ll try to comment on them in the next posts.

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