What Is the Purpose of Art? Cover

What’s the Point of Art?

In 2001, contemporary artist Damien Hirst went to the opening of his new exhibition in London. Standing in the rubble of the afterparty, he felt inspired — and turned it into an impromptu art installation.

The next morning, the janitor was the first person in the building. Sadly, he didn’t share Hirst’s sense of imagination — and chucked his assortment of ashtrays, coffee cups, and beer bottles right into the trash. Oops.

Hirst thought it was hilarious. The gallery owner probably didn’t. On the surface, this is just an ironic, funny incident. But if we analyze it, it reveals something much deeper: Damien Hirst truly understands art.

In Germany, we have a saying. We use it when someone’s clinging to an item out of nostalgia, mostly in a good-spirited, but also a slightly mocking way:

“Is this art or can this go?”

It’s a joke, but it’s also meant to help you move on. Not from the nostalgia or the good memories, but from the item. It’s your art exhibition, but we’re the janitor. And we’re here to clean up the building.

I don’t “get” Damien Hirst. I don’t get the animals or the dots or the skulls. And I definitely don’t get the sculptures of giant uteruses. But then again, to this day, I struggle with most contemporary art.

I keep catching myself, asking: What’s the point? And I think that’s the exact right question to ask. But because I keep looking for subjective signs of effort and quality, I’m missing it. Have missed it.

Because now, it’s starting to dawn on me that, maybe, art is not about what you can spot. What you can directly see. Maybe, it’s about what you can feel.

And there’s no rulebook for who feels what with which kind of art.

On April 20, 2018, we lost famous DJ Avicii. Exactly one year later, two cellists released a video. They played his biggest hit to 50,000 people. When I watch that video, I can feel it. And I can see all the people in it feeling it too.

But when you watch it, you may not. That’s fine. In fact, that’s the point.

We all have different feelings at different times. But we feel in different ways too. And that’s why we need different art. Why we need a whole lot of it. Because as different as we are, we all want to feel something.

That something is connectedness. And that’s what art can give us.

Art can take on infinite forms. It could be a nod in the street, a silent wave to the stranger at the bar. Maybe, it’s an email to stressed parents or a coding tutorial on a napkin. And yes, sometimes it’s oil on canvas or a symphony.

But as soon as it connects two people, if for the briefest of moments, it works.

Once it’s done that, it can go. Even if it’s “art.” Because we’ll remember the connection. We can summon it with our senses. As long as we do that, we’re never truly alone. We might be lonely or misunderstood or lack intimacy, but we’ll always be human. Still one of many who are one.

Art is just the reminder. That’s what Damien Hirst knows. And that’s why the janitor can throw away his art.

Sometimes, we can find this reminder in a tribute. Sometimes, we can find it in the trash. But we can always find it in a memory.

The composition may long be swept away, but the connection forever stays. It was never about the installation. It was about us.

And that’s the point of art.