Some time back, I was eating dinner out for a change of pace (there are times when even us hermits feel the need to breath in the humidly fluorescent air of city life). In the middle of my meal, I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation between two individuals seated somewhere behind me (I couldn’t see them, but judging by their voices I think it’s safe to assume they were women). They were discussing how popular musicians are resorting more and more to the use of cheap gimmicks to promote shock value for their image (they gave examples of needless profanity, absurd fashion, over-the-top antics, etc.). Then one of them said something I’ve heard repeated many times before: “The point of all art is to provoke and challenge people.” This is one of those statements that on the surface sounds like it simply has to be necessarily true. After all, who would argue that the most memorable works of s/he can recall of the top of our her/his head was not some piece that initially provoked a high degree of emotion or thought in her/him (for better or worse). The idea that the purpose of paintings, photographs, music, poems, literature, graphics, furniture designs–whatever else people create to artistically engage onlookers–is to stimulate a response from potential admirers and detractors alike, seems all too obvious when we consider how important the emotional response of an audience is in immortalizing the aesthetic longevity of any work of art (and by extension, the artist). And yet, I still find myself disagreeing with the original statement.
The claim that the purpose of art is to provoke and challenge the individuals who come across it, seems somewhat glib to me. Now, I can see that as a factor in the greater equation, or as a possible end result, but I ultimately I feel that it missed a key point in what makes art such an indispensable part of human expression. Art provokes, and it challenge; but what about the times it doesn’t? Does it cease to be art? When I’m walking through a museum, and I’m glancing at the classic works of history, I cannot say I’m really being challenged by them. I suppose you could say that they provoke a sense of admiration in me, but they certainly don’t do much in provoking any new insights for me. Not to mention, quite a few pieces evoke complete indifference on my part, but still don’t diminish my ability to recognize them as decent works of art. They are still good and beautiful expressions of art, which they are simply for the sake of being art, independent of my subjective liking of them. Or, to put it more articulately: the point of art, in my opinion, is first and foremost to exist for its own sake. The meanings we assign, and emotions we ascribe, seem to me like secondary functions.
The art itself is adaptable to an evolving landscape, and its specific appeal changes with time and surroundings, but the aesthetic value innate to the work remains untouched. Even if you dislike a particular painting, you will still not dismiss paintings as a whole. Even if you just hate a particular song or genre of music, you will still see the artistic value in music. The same goes for poetry and literature, and a multitude of other modes of artistic expression you have no personal interest in. The reason being that, although we might recognize that a piece of art is not appealing to us, not because it provokes or challenges us, but precisely because it fails to do either, we are still able to acknowledge some potential aesthetic value in its existence (even if not for our own tastes).
Unless, you happen to be a professional art critic or social commentator, who nowadays seem to get paid to dismiss everything.