Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Real Purpose of Art

In a recent Washington Post article about his current installation in the Dumbarton Oaks garden, North Carolina artist Patrick Dougherty talks about his relationship with the people in the organizations that commission his work. He says,
I find myself helping the organizers move toward the real purpose of art. It's not to buy or sell. It's not to last, really. It's the immediate impact. That they're really stirred by the impact, by the immediacy of it. They want to walk around it, want to talk about it, want to touch it, want to go get their family and bring them back to it.
 Dougherty's installations are part of a larger movement among artists who work with ephemeral materials like bamboo, willow saplings, roots, or even water, ice, or leaves. Like the short-lived works of Andy Goldsworthy that are documented in the 2001 film Rivers and Tides, these things cannot be collected, bought, or sold.  Existing only for a brief period before melting, disintegrating, or otherwise returning to the earth, they invite the viewer into a heightened awareness of the fragility of each moment.

This sensibility values process over product, yet the actual products -- the objects, arrangements, installations --are as aesthetically pleasing, evocative, and visually compelling as many more permanent works. What intrigues me about them is that this intentional impermanence undercuts the common assumption that artists seek immortality through their works. If the artwork is intended to last only minutes, hours, or at most a season, the ancient maxim ars longa, vita brevis (art is long, life is short) is turned on its head. These artworks will be dust long before their makers.

As Dougherty notes, however, the purpose of art is not to last, to be a monument to an idea, a person, or an event. Rather, it is stir up ideas and emotions, to make people think and to feel, in the moment of encounter. The question is not whether the object will last, but whether the encounter will leave a lasting impression on the viewer. If an artwork can open one person's eyes, raising awareness not only of its own tenuous hold on existence but that of the world surrounding it, then perhaps it has served its real purpose.

1 comment:

  1. My first thought is that people use art for different reasons. Some people are trying to be collected by museums--thereby becoming famous, while others are trying to make a buck (the guy selling garish canvases on the sidewalk for instance). People who are making conceptual art like the ephemeral art you're describing are making something more like music, or poetry, that exists in the immediate present moment.

    Short-lived art also reminds me of our lives "going the way of all things." That art could be seen as a comment on the way things in our world change it and leave it.