Does Art Have Meaning? (And If So, What Is It?)

In her article, “Beyond the Disciplines: Art without Borders,” author and artist Suzi Gablik mentions the kind of art that has “some worthy agenda outside of itself, and a socially redeeming purpose.”

I love that idea, as opposed to art driven by the “professional recognition,” marketplace competition, and “brisk sales” she also mentions — things that seem more to steal the heart out of art than to develop true art.

As an aspiring writer, I find myself caught in that conflict:

Hoping to write for a purpose, to write something that has meaning …

Yet comparing the popularity of that form of writing against works that fit a popular genre and are therefore automatically popular.

Do you find yourself facing that same struggle?

A Purpose in Art

Photo by Cherry Laithang on

I admit that, more than once, I have found myself irritable toward those whose works are published and popular because the authors are better at marketing than at writing.

At such times, we must assure ourselves that writing from the soul is worth more than a big royalty check. After all, if you are hoping to become a traditionally published writer (or a self-published writer), you are not only writing for yourself, and you must ask:

  • What do I want my readers to experience from my writing?

Do I want them to see me succumbing to popular opinion and pop culture?

Or do I want them to read a rendering of my soul on paper?

When you think of it in those terms, the answer is easier, isn’t it?

Write toward some sort of transformation in the world, no matter how small the ripple.

If you are also a parent, another important question would be this:

  • What do I want my children to learn about me when they read my writings?

Their stories are still untold …

Tales unfolding in the lives of your children.

My boys love to draw; my daughter loves to read and write.

If you are a parent, your child undoubtedly has some form of creative expression.

What will they do with the art and music that is building up inside of them now?

Will they choose to bring hope to others through their art and music and writing?

It doesn’t have to be by joining a world-famous band, or writing a bestselling novel. Maybe it will be supporting a child in a developing nation, where opportunities are far more scarce. Maybe traveling overseas and seeing the world and those in it with new eyes.

Choosing compassion (the emotion and the action) and finding a purpose in art.

Artists and Writers: Integral to Any Community 

Suzi Gablik also observes, “In Western culture, artists aren’t encouraged to be integral to the social, environmental, or spiritual life of the community. They do not train to engage with real-life problems.”

She is right, and such a narrow focus destroys the core of what art truly is, a rendering of the soul on paper or canvas or a sheet of music.

Art, by its very nature, is drawn from some deep spring within us, a spring that brims over and refuses to be quenched, and thereby must be expressed.

But the spring cannot be dammed up and controlled; such an act would staunch the very blood that brings it life.

Gablik mentions the “rigid, dualistic separation” that has been encouraged “between art and life.”

Art stems from life …

… from living …

… from experiences of every kind.

If a complete split were forced between art and life, art would cease to exist, and life as well.

Existence might continue, but not truly living.

We are, in so many ways, brought to life through art.

Gablik notes the widening of interest in a “transdisciplinary approach” to art, a form “in which the individual artist becomes an integral component of a larger social network.”

One aspect of this approach welcomes artists showing an interest and becoming involved in “social and environmental domains.”

To some extent, this has always been the thrust of meaningful and enduring art …

From author Mary Shelley touching on social issues in Frankenstein to Eugene Smith using photography as a form of social activism.

Gablik comments on the need to adopt a multidimensional form of art that “is more in harmony with the interconnected nature of the real world.”

Closing Thoughts: The Revelation of Art

More than anything, art – whether a poem or a painting, a symphony or a sculpture – exposes the interconnection of life and all that is in it.

Art pulls back, for a moment, the blinds that we often keep over our eyes while we walk all too quickly through our days.

Art reveals something of our true selves, or of the harmony of nature, or of our place within that greater rhythm.

It invites us to stop, to reflect, to take in with deep, life-bringing breaths the beauty that surrounds us.

When artists remain true to themselves, true to their souls, true to the world in which they live and the people within that world, they create unique works that promote change for the better in some lasting way.

And that art is infused with purpose.