What is Art For?

I don’t agree with the underlying assumption of Alain de Botton’s recent work that art’s value lies in what it is for, the purposes it serves. As an expression of human capacities, art is valuable in itself regardless of whether it can be used for some purpose.

But that doesn’t mean that art doesn’t sometimes serve a purpose. So I quite like this animated video by de Botton which lays out 5 purposes that art serves.


The first one is especially noteworthy because it is often ignored. Art encourages hope.

As Botton points out “it is an obvious but striking fact that the most popular works of art in the world show pretty things—happy people, flowers in spring, blue skies.”.He goes on to argue that without the “pretty things” depicted in art we are in danger of slipping into despair. Prettiness is an “emblem of hope” he asserts.

My fellow academics along with many people in the art world simply laugh at such sentiments. They would argue that prettiness has nothing to do with genuine art that must, if it is honest, represent all that is painful and troubling in human life as well and have meaning that runs deeper than its surface appearance. And of course much art is not pretty. But still Botton has a point that the art that the public seems to crave, that survives the centuries in the public imagination, is pretty. The popularity of impressionism is evidence for the thesis.

Thus, it would seem that for most people, who are not art experts, perhaps art is an emblem of hope.

This perspective is important in the question about whether food can be art. Food must be delicious in order to qualify, and I take it “delicious” is an analogue of “pretty”—its sensory surface is pleasurable.

Good food is also an “emblem of hope”.




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