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The function of art through history

Today we are used to understanding art as an ontological issue because of Kant’s influence. The ideas of art as the expression of the inner vision of the artist and of art for art’s sake prevail. In Plato’s and Aristotle’s time, however, the tradition was more evaluative than metaphysical.

For Plato, the final evaluation of any work of art has to take into account the aims and values of society as a whole1. And certainly through history, artistic production has mainly had a political, religious and social purpose2. Yet, it cannot be said that art has been used with the aims and values of society as a whole in mind. In general, the production of art has always been in the hands of power and it has been consistently used by the ruling classes as a tool for political propaganda. Its function has been advertising.

In the prehistoric period art was a magical instrument and its value was that of cult and ritual. Further on, during the ancient civilizations, its function expanded. To the ritual, ceremonial and magical function, the propagandistic value was added. Art was used to proclaim and show the power of kings and emperors.

The funerary monuments, palaces and temples, with their painted and sculpted reliefs, were made to convince the people of the divine and absolute origin of the power of the ruling class. The political message was: this system of power emanates from the gods, there is no possibility of change and wishing it is inconceivable.

In Europe, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Industrial Revolution, artistic production was almost exclusively in the hands of the church. The church, like the powers before it, also used art as an instrument of political propaganda. Cathedrals, stained glass windows, altarpieces, crucifixes, etc., were all designed with the same purpose in mind and their power of persuasion and intimidation on a mainly illiterate population was immense. The message was clear: the church represents God’s will, accept the injustices on earth and you will go to heaven, protest and you will burn in hell.

Later, when Europe starts to industrialise itself, the church and the aristocracy lose power in favour of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie takes over the use of art as a tool for propaganda. Artistic production directed by the bourgeoisie was mainly composed of oil paintings, ideal for proclaiming the material wealth and superior morality of the ruling class3. The message of their propaganda was similar to the ones before: our values represent the good, to follow them gets the reward of social and economic success.

With photography the function of art changes. The art for art’s sake proclamation is born. Photography becomes the new way of representing what we understand as reality. Reproduction techniques substituted art for a language of images4. Art loses authority and, even when it claims to deal with what we call reality, becomes increasingly self referential.

The main discipline within the language of images that substitutes old art is advertising. Advertising is the continuation of the art before photography both in its role as the main visual production tool of this culture as in its use by power as a tool for political propaganda.

Today, the bourgeoisie has lost power in favour of big corporations and states. This new power, like all former ones, uses art with political purposes. Again, as before, the message of corporations and states is simple: market economies are the way to happiness and welfare, all other alternatives are doomed to failure and go against human nature.

So what place does what we currently think of as art have today? The art of the past, to save itself, claimed that its only aim was itself, art for art’s sake. This way it found a place in the machinery of the new power, it became the perfect product of capitalism.

Art was never a basic need. When it lost its political function the only way of selling it was to mystify it. To mystify art serves two purposes: on one hand it obscures the propagandistic use of art in the past and on the other it creates a product that is perfect for market speculation.

The market promotes the idea that the price of the art object reflects its spiritual value. But objects do not have spiritual value, but material value. To pretend otherwise is to surround them by a false religiosity5. Because the main purpose of the art object today is to be a product, its emphasis is on its exhibition value, its rarity, and the price it reaches in the market.

The mystification of the visual arts is needed in order to speculate with products that are not of necessity and that reach huge prices. Kant’s philosophy about the intrinsic value of the object independently of the context, is an idea still very present both inside and outside artistic circles, and backs the mystification of the artistic object.

The fact that advertising is the art of the culture that we live in is hidden for two reasons. One is that propaganda depends on its invisibility to work, and so the production of images is used to promote the idea that nothing has changed6. The other is that the perfect product is used by the market to give credibility to the system.

It does not matter that advertising is not recognised as the art of the moment. In prehistory the emphasis of art was placed in its cult value, as a magical instrument. Only later would these objects be recognised as art7. Something similar happens with advertising, which is also a sort of magical instrument and is not considered art either. It can be said that art has always been used as an instrument of magic, it has always contained a promise, which has always been false. The church promised heaven, the bourgeoisie success, corporations promise happiness.

The aura of the object did not disappear, as Benjamin said, with the methods of mechanical reproduction. It was the art object, with aura included, which disappeared from old art to reappear in the new art, advertising, in the concept of a product and its branding.

The function of art in each period feeds from former functions. Thus, the ritual function of prehistory has continued in all following functions, even if to a lesser degree. The same is true of mystification, still present in advertising, even if it is not its main function. To the different functions of art visual languages are also added, these get reinterpreted and give credibility and a sort of lineage to the contemporary visual language. That way advertising uses references to the art before it to suggest cultural authority, some kind of dignity and even wisdom and to place itself over mere material interests8.


  1. Graham, G. (1997) Philosophy of the Arts: An Introduction to Aesthetics. 2nd ed. London: Routledge,, p. 200-201. Graham quotes Beardsley, an American philosopher of art: “the dominant movement of Plato’s thought about art, taking it all in all, is strongly moralistic in a broad sense… it insists that the final evaluation of any work of art … must take into account the all important ends and values of the whole society.”
  2. Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (1999). A World History of Art. London: Laurence King Publishing. p. 25.
  3. Berger, J. (1972). Ways of Seeing. London: BBC and Penguin Books, p. 90.
  4. This idea of a language of images replacing old art is crucial in understanding advertising as the new art. Ibid, p. 33.
  5. Berger, J. (1972). Ways of Seeing. London: BBC and Penguin Books, p. 21.
  6. Ibid, p. 33: “Yet very few people are aware of what has happened because the means of reproduction are used nearly all the time to promote the illusion that nothing has changed except that the masses, thanks to reproductions, can now begin to appreciate art as the cultural minority once did.”
  7. Benjamin, W. (1936). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
  8. Berger, J. (1972). Ways of Seeing. London: BBC and Penguin Books, p. 135: “But a work of art also suggests a cultural authority, a form of dignity, even of wisdom, which is superior to any vulgar material interest”.

The function of art through history is part of The art of commitment, my Research Paper for the MA in Fine Art that I did at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London in 2007.

All the articles in The art of commitment:

  1. Introduction
  2. What is art?
  3. The function of art through history
  4. The current context
  5. How the current context shapes people
  6. The arts world in the current context
  7. The artist
  8. The art of commitment

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