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Art: Why Do We Have the Urge to Create?

Updated on June 20, 2013
This is Starry Night, one of the most recognizable and famous paintings in all of human history.  The artist responsible for this masterpiece is Vincent van Gogh.
This is Starry Night, one of the most recognizable and famous paintings in all of human history. The artist responsible for this masterpiece is Vincent van Gogh. | Source

What is the point?

"Art" is far too vast a subject to exhaust thoroughly in a single article. In fact, it would probably take an entire volume of textbooks to give art the fair shake it deserves. This article will take an incredibly abbreviated glimpse at it, and then try to deduce not what it is, but why it is.

What is Art?

In my opinion art has two primary characteristics. The first characteristic is utility. Utility is a measurement of usefulness. For a mechanic, a wrench has high utility while a bottle of weedkiller has relatively low utility. A piece of art's utility measures whether it has value for use in other people's lives. The second characteristic is aesthetics. Aesthetics is a measurement of beauty.

To get a better idea of how these measurements work, consider painting. Portraits focus on utility, as they attempt to convey information (the way a person looks) while something modernist is more likely to focus on color and shape, thereby emphasizing aesthetics. Sometimes the best art utilizes both utility and aesthetics.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The Tongan people are a tribe who use oral tradition to pass down familial legacy.The Egyptian Pyramids are the largest tombstones in the world, used to document the existence and reign of Egypt's great Pharaohs.Cave paintings are the traditionally recognized earliest forms of art.  They were used to document pieces of everyday life and also culturally significant themes and ideas.
The Tongan people are a tribe who use oral tradition to pass down familial legacy.
The Tongan people are a tribe who use oral tradition to pass down familial legacy. | Source
The Egyptian Pyramids are the largest tombstones in the world, used to document the existence and reign of Egypt's great Pharaohs.
The Egyptian Pyramids are the largest tombstones in the world, used to document the existence and reign of Egypt's great Pharaohs. | Source
Cave paintings are the traditionally recognized earliest forms of art.  They were used to document pieces of everyday life and also culturally significant themes and ideas.
Cave paintings are the traditionally recognized earliest forms of art. They were used to document pieces of everyday life and also culturally significant themes and ideas. | Source

Art "Then"

Over time, the way that art is used changes. Even year to year, or decade to decade, the differences between art can be drastic. For perhaps the most obvious example, consider fashion! Clogs, above-the-knee shorts for men, knee-high socks, and side-of-the-head ponytails are just a few of the trends which have vanished within my short lifetime.

If you were to go back far enough then you would see even more significant differences in the different forms of art. In a general way, even the very purpose of art changes when you go backwards in time.

"In the beginning" art served high utility. The family genealogy was passed down orally from one generation to the next and served as, perhaps, the most original form of storytelling. Visual expression was plastered on the inside of caves and tombs to convey the significance of a tribe or individual's life. The location and life of the dead were also marked by sculpture and architecture.

Granted, this is not even an inkling of the entirety of scope of what constitutes "art" and it ignores thousands of cultures, and even more time--I don't argue to the contrary. However, it is evident that if this sampling serves as even a microcosm of art outside of modern history, then "art of the past" had a high level of utility.

Art "Now"

Nowadays, if most people were asked about the purpose of art, I imagine that their answer would include some reference to beauty. It is expected that art has a certain level of aesthetic satisfaction.

In light of growing populations, higher standard of living, increased communication, and larger periods of free time, it makes a lot of sense that utility has less importance in the artistic realm than it used to. Easy publication of written word, television, and the internet greatly reduces the need for maintaining the historical record and passing information--these are things for which we've already accounted. Our histories are recorded in books and on DVDs so we don't need to preserve them with storytelling. Our homes are digitized forever on the SD cards of our digital cameras, so we don't need to carve their images into rock. Today's population (in the Western world especially) largely lives on par with the kings and queens of the past. The ruling class had the means and free time to demand aesthetic beauty, and today--for many of us--we likewise have the privilege to do the same.

Is the Utility Gone?

While many of the traditional art forms used to have serious utility functions, much of that over purpose has vanished in place of an attraction to beauty. That does not mean, however, that art has lost all function. In reality, the purpose has become more individualized. Our poems are rarely historical epics or odes to the mighty king. Our paintings are rarely intended to convey a particular scene to future generations. Our art tends not to serve someone else's ends, it serves us. What we create records not what is without, but what is within.

A few of many forms...

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Jeanine and Jason, contestants on So You Think You Can Dance.  Dance is rhythmic physical movement and falls across a very wide spectrum.A small stone tower I made at Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border.Graffiti by anonymous British street artist Banksy.The Thinker, a powerfully simple piece of sculpture by Auguste Rodin, cast in bronze.Brief poem by legendary English Romantic poet John Keats.Myself with a pile of some of the best written works in modern history.That age-old childhood art form turn professional--a sandcastle!
Jeanine and Jason, contestants on So You Think You Can Dance.  Dance is rhythmic physical movement and falls across a very wide spectrum.
Jeanine and Jason, contestants on So You Think You Can Dance. Dance is rhythmic physical movement and falls across a very wide spectrum. | Source
A small stone tower I made at Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border.
A small stone tower I made at Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border. | Source
Graffiti by anonymous British street artist Banksy.
Graffiti by anonymous British street artist Banksy. | Source
The Thinker, a powerfully simple piece of sculpture by Auguste Rodin, cast in bronze.
The Thinker, a powerfully simple piece of sculpture by Auguste Rodin, cast in bronze. | Source
Brief poem by legendary English Romantic poet John Keats.
Brief poem by legendary English Romantic poet John Keats. | Source
Myself with a pile of some of the best written works in modern history.
Myself with a pile of some of the best written works in modern history. | Source
That age-old childhood art form turn professional--a sandcastle!
That age-old childhood art form turn professional--a sandcastle! | Source

Spoken Word Poet Phil Kaye discusses Storytelling

The Secret Third Component

Much of art holds onto its utility, but in a very personal sense. Few projects are designed to serve as the foundation of maintaining the culture. Rather, the creations seem almost exclusively to cry out "Here I am!" For many, art seems to stem from an internal craving to be recognized, appreciated, remembered. It is out of this need that the third component of art really grows. Art is self-expression.

Any painter who ever put his brush to canvas or musician who ever strummed a chord had something to say. Sometimes it can be an opinion for the masses, such as George Orwell's masterwork Nineteen Eighty-Four which was a strong warning of what the author believed was the eventual and unavoidable fate of modern society. Other times it is with regard to a specific person or feelings, as with Shakespeare's famous love sonnets.

Music and Film rolled into one!

So WHY do we create art, again?

This question was posed to seven artists of widely varying specializations and each had their own thoughts. No one said "utility" or "beauty," and though photographer Judy Dater did say that she likes expressing emotions, my favorite answer was that of cartoonist and graphic novelist James Sturn.

Depending on my mood, on any given day, I could attribute making art to a high-minded impulse to connect with others or to understand the world or a narcissistic coping mechanism or a desire to be famous or therapy or as my religious discipline or to provide a sense of control or a desire to surrender control, etc., etc., etc.

Whatever the reason, an inner compulsion exists and I continue to honor this internal imperative. If I didn’t, I would feel really horrible. I would be a broken man. So whether attempting to make art is noble or selfish, the fact remains that I will do it nevertheless. Anything past this statement is speculation.

Perhaps, in the end, that is the real attraction to this eternal process. It is true enough that once upon a time paints were the only way to pass an image down the generations, but it would be a lie to say that the expression was limited, or that the desire to create was at the mercy of the reds, yellows, and blues.

Art is a bedrock of human culture. Upon it lies the ability and willingness to express ourselves as individuals, as cultures and sub-cultures--as a people. In it can be found the truths that can be understood but not explained. We create art to explore not only its bounds but our owns. Art is not optional. We create because we must.

Pick your favorite!

What is your favorite art form?

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Interested in some of the above-mentioned pieces of art work?

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