The Most Important Functions of Art

Looking at sculpture
Miguel Navarro / Getty Images

Within art, there exist purposes referred to as functions for which a piece of art may be designed, but no art can be "assigned" a function—either in scholarly studies or casual conversation—outside of the proper context. Art forms exist within very specific contexts that must be considered when classifying them. Whether a particular piece of art has existed for centuries or has yet to be created, it is functional in some way—all art exists for a reason and these reasons make up the functions of art.

Functions of Art

Ideally, one can look at a piece of art and guess with some accuracy where it came from and when. This best-case scenario also includes identifying the artist because they are in no small way part of the contextual equation. You might wonder, "What was the artist thinking when they created this?" when you see a piece of art. You, the viewer, are the other half of this equation; you might ask yourself how that same piece of art makes you feel as you look at it.

These—in addition to the time period, location of creation, cultural influences, etc.—are all factors that should be considered before trying to assign functions to art. Taking anything out of context can lead to misunderstanding art and misinterpreting an artist's intentions, which is never something you want to do.

The functions of art normally fall into three categories: physical, social, and personal. These categories can and often do overlap in any given piece of art. When you're ready to start thinking about these functions, here's how.

Physical

The physical functions of art are often the easiest to understand. Works of art that are created to perform some service have physical functions. If you see a Fijian war club, you may assume that, however wonderful the craftsmanship may be, it was created to perform the physical function of smashing skulls.

A Japanese raku bowl is a piece of art that performs a physical function in a tea ceremony. Conversely, a fur-covered teacup from the Dada movement has no physical function. Architecture, crafts such as welding and woodworking, interior design, and industrial design are all types of art that serve physical functions.

Social

Art has a social function when it addresses aspects of (collective) life as opposed to one person's point of view or experience. Viewers can often relate in some way to social art and are sometimes even influenced by it.

For example, public art in 1930s Germany had an overwhelming symbolic theme. Did this art exert influence on the German population? Decidedly so, as did political and patriotic posters in Allied countries during the same time. Political art, often designed to deliver a certain message, always carries a social function. The fur-covered Dada teacup, useless for holding tea, carried a social function in that it protested World War I (and nearly everything else in life).

Art that depicts social conditions performs social functions and often this art comes in the form of photography. The Realists figured this out early in the 19th century. American photographer Dorothea Lange (1895–1965) along with many others often took pictures of people in conditions that are difficult to see and think about.

Additionally, satire performs social functions. Spanish painter Francisco Goya (1746–1828) and English portrait artist William Hogarth (1697–1764) both went this route with varying degrees of success at motivating social change with their art. Sometimes the possession of specific pieces of art in a community can elevate that community's status. A stabile by American kinetic artist Alexander Calder (1898–1976), for example, can be a community treasure and point of pride.

Personal

The personal functions of art are often the most difficult to explain. There are many types of personal functions and these are highly subjective. Personal functions of art are not likely to be the same from person to person.

An artist may create a piece out of a need for self-expression or gratification. They might also or instead want to communicate a thought or point to the viewer. Sometimes an artist is only trying to provide an aesthetic experience, both for self and viewers. A piece might be meant to entertain, provoke thought, or even have no particular effect at all.

Personal function is vague for a reason. From artist to artist and viewer to viewer, one's experience with art is different. Knowing the background and behaviors of an artist helps when interpreting the personal function of their pieces.

Art may also serve the personal function of controlling its viewers, much like social art. It can also perform religious service or acknowledgment. Art has been used to attempt to exert magical control, change the seasons, and even acquire food. Some art brings order and peace, some creates chaos. There is virtually no limit to how art can be used.

Finally, sometimes art is used to maintain a species. This can be seen in rituals of the animal kingdom and in humans themselves. Biological functions obviously include fertility symbols (in any culture), but there are many ways humans adorn their bodies with art in order to be attractive to others and eventually mate.

Determining the Function of Art

The functions of art apply not only to the artist that created a piece but to you as the viewer. Your whole experience and understanding of a piece should contribute to the function you assign it, as well as everything you know about its context. Next time you are trying to understand a piece of art, try to remember these four points: (1) context and (2) personal, (3) social, and (4) physical functions. Remember that some art serves only one function and some all three (perhaps even more).