I've wondered about that question for many years -- what's the purpose of art? I got the idea from an early age that art is whatever gets put in a picture frame. Is art supposed to be beautiful? Well, "beauty is in the eyes of the beholder", I learned. And here was a difficult one from my childhood, "Paint a pretty picture."
Then as a college student I spent two years in life drawing classes being encouraged to find my own style, while not being taught about how to draw a picture.
Then, as an adult I grappled with the public subsidies for unbelievably pathetic and perverted art like "Annie Sprinkle", and a crucifix immersed in a jar of urine, among other equally miserable excuses for art.
I changed direction in college, for a number of reasons, and eventually finished my training as a classical dancer. I also was trained in modern techniques, which were most closely related to Graham. My classical training was from the Cecchetti school, which means that someone taught you the traditional Italian technique, and you basically worked your little behind off until someone noticed you and thought you were good enough to put on a stage . And your success was pretty much tied to the person teaching you to dance -- which means if they weren't accomplished performers, they didn't have much to offer.
I was fortunate enough to receive scholarships and study with some wonderful teachers, I was able to travel a bit, and ended up teaching for about 5 years. But likewise in this discipline, I saw the same phenomena in theater. Being a modern dancer might mean that you had not been well trained, and that you were using modern dance to compensate for not knowing what you were doing. How could this be? Well, audiences didn't know what you were doing either, because it was the 60's after all. The collapse of art mirrored the collapse of culture. It just didn't matter. That's how people like John Cage, an embarrassing example of artistic evolution, became popular icons of creativity -- elevated by the new academia and publicly subsidized.
Fast forward after some major transformations in life,and I came to understand that we live in a wondrous universe, one that has been created, one that is magnificently marked by order, purpose, and beauty -- in every nook and cranny. And given that the universe has purpose and order, there is a reality about it that is objective, a reality that exists regardless of our perceptions.
The old masters were aware of a created universe. They studied nature intensely, structuring their art to demonstrate universal order and beauty. Not only have we laid aside techniques that they mastered, but as a viewing public we're largely unaware of their existence. I was stunned when I understood daVinci's quote, "Let him who studies me be a mathematician."
I believe that half of the artist's job is to study nature and develop the skills to reveal the wonder, the order, and the purpose of what is seen. In it's essence, even the most mundane is beautiful. The other half of the artist's job description is to reveal what is in his heart, and that's what makes art personal and dramatic.
Just like dancers from the 60's, modern art often gets abstracted into absurdity. Are contemporary artists using "modern art" to hide a lack of training, skills, and vision? Or to masquerade as "talent"?
At some point I had to stop playing word games. We say to one another that such-and-such an artist is "gifted", or that he's been given a "gift". To me, that begs the questions, "Who's doing the giving? And what is the gift?"
If we believe that God gives gifts (and that's indeed what we all say when we see magnificent art), then God gave something that belonged to Him. God gave the "gifted" artist the skills and vision to lift a corner of the veil and reveal a mere shadow of the sublime.
Creation is not random, nor is it mindless, nor is it purposeless or accidental. And beauty does not languish in the eyes of the beholder. Beauty is in the heart of the one who created the universe.
So "Why Art?" I believe the artist's call is to be true to his gift. His call is to pursue excellence and develop his skills. His call is to use that giftedness to reveal, if possible, the wonder and awe of God's creativity.
"Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world."