What role does art play? A historical review – Part 1

This article will introduce you to the many functions attributed to art. It takes you on a 2500 years’ trip from Plato to Bourdieu. The battle is between instrumentalization and autonomy, between utility and freedom of the arts. Both sides are still valid in today’s cultural policy debates. This article provides a shortcut to a better understanding of the opposing positions.

Introducing the battle

Art has had many different ‘functions’ attributed to it. We have heard it many times: it is, on the one hand, an instrument for social improvement, stimulates social inclusion, equality… and so on an so forth. It is often referred to as the true agent for social change. And sure, let’s not forget about its economic super powers and making cities great again thanks to the creative industry. 

It is the instrumental value which bounds it to the achievement of a certain objective – a notion quite unpleasant to artists and cultural professionals… which is understandable: No one wants to be ‘used’ to receive appreciation. We are all striving for unconditional love, aren’t we?

On the other hand, art does not need to serve an external purpose to be valuable. Indeed, it does have an intrinsic value and ‘serves itself’ (yes!). Immanuel Kant once outlined the arts as owning ‘purposiveness without purpose’. Sounds complicated, but it means that art is detached from any external functionality and therefore autonomous – ‘art for art’s sake’.

Value = legitimization

In modern cultural policy across Europe the battle between instrumental and intrinsic value is on. In other words, assessments are still rooted in the ideas of a) what the arts are, b) what impact they have on individuals and c) on society, too of course (the more the merrier). This view is mainly based on Liberal Humanist principles which asks culture to transmit the ‘best’ ideas and values of a particular time (who decides that?). It still is a common argument which legitimises public funding of the arts.

The whole discussion is nothing new. This is exactly why I wanted to know where it all started. What was at the source of the opponent’s reasoning and how did it develop? So I dived deeply into 2500 years of history travelling through 200 pages to find out about it. I accompanied Eleonora Belfiore and Oliver Bennett on a journey from Plato, Aristotle to Kant, Schiller and Bourdieu. The following summary is based on their paper Rethinking the Social Impact of the Arts: a critical-historical review which was published in 2006.

In this first part, I will introduce you to the beginning and the first three (of seven) functionalities attributed to art. Part 2 will reveal the remaining four roles which art has played in society. So stay tuned!

So it began: Plato vs. Aristotle

Plato (around 428-347 BC) was a strong advocate of the negative impacts that the arts can have, undoubtedly because he was very well aware of its powers. Art affects the individual and the collective. So, Plato highlighted the distraction from ‘higher’ thoughts and virtues or the power to convince you of a belief or opinion which was not yours. He used these arguments to reason for censorship of the arts. 

Aristotle (384-322 BC), a student of Plato, came into the picture and questioned his old teacher’s determined antagonism of the arts. As a true rebel, he put forward the opposite rationale about art – as ‘good for you’ – and advocated for its emotional and cognitive potential. His concept of catharsis became extremely influential and resulted in many different interpretations. All of his follower’s arguments have proven popular over time, especially during the Renaissance. 

It was Aristotle who proposed the first super hero cape to the arts. 

The seven functionalities of art

#1: Catharsis

In ancient Greek the verb kathairo meant ‘to cleanse’ or ‘remove impurities’ while katharos described the process of ‘intellectual clarification’. The many interpretations of the cathartic effect following Aristotle embraced both aspects.

The first aspect relates to the rather therapeutic effect of catharsis: the release and purification of undesired emotions (if this doesn’t sound fancy enough for you, try ‘purging’). The experience with the arts – in ancient Greek primarily through poetry and theatre – enables a projection onto plus the identification with the protagonists.

This was to help the readers or spectators to let go and neutralise own emotions. Emotions that were not ‘supposed to be’, like strong desires or frustration concerning an unpleasant situation. It was no one other than Sigmund Freud who attributed a psychological importance to this concept in the 20th century.

The second aspect highlights the didactic effect: the education and personal growth stimulated by catharsis. You learn from the experience of the protagonists.

The artist so organizes his work that the spectator is able to infer, from the individual circumstances pictured before him, the universal law which subsumes them.

Leon Golden

#2: Well-being

This function relates to the pleasure which the aesthetic experience triggers in the individual. On the one hand it is about escaping from an undesirable situation or the domination of the own mind (the will). On the other, it is about the pure state of enjoyment and bliss emerging from it. Enjoyment because artistic activity, both the production and the consumption of art, generates a feeling of fulfilment.

The first is quite successfully used in art therapy. As a result (surprise!), the well-being, mental and emotional health of people are positively affected. This in return improves the quality of life. It is Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) who advocated for the power of pleasure of art (with a ‘slightly’ different arrangement) which we will come back to later.

The arts have been found to have a significant role to play in achieving this delicate equilibrium between the domains of the good physical and mental functioning.

R. L. Staricoff 

#3: (Trans)formation

Now this concept uses the pleasurable experience through art to guide, instruct and form the population. This instrumentalization ‘par excellence’ (thanks, no thanks!) goes back to the Latin poet Horace (65-8 BC). He introduced the idea of the art’s power of ‘delightful instruction’ which works through persuasion and proved to be very effective. This educating and civilising potential attributed to the arts was very influential over the centuries – and still is. 

The man who mingles the useful with the sweet carries the day by charming his reader and at the same time instructing him.


It was during the Renaissance in the 16th century where the Horatian perspective was further developed by the Humanists. During these years, the artist’s instructing power made them become the better teachers of their time – quite to the dislike of the philosophers. They ‘pleasantly and delightfully’ taught ‘the arts of life’.

Later in Germany transitioning from the 18th to the 19th century, the complex theory of Bildung (or Selbstbildung) was established (Now this is really fancy; there is not even a translation for it). Bildung is about the improvement and transformation of one’s self, reaching self-perfection through self-learning. The aim of it was to add more value to your being which had absolutely no spiritual notion but really only meant: more intellectuality. As a consequence, the Bildungsroman helped readers to reach self-perfection through learning from the protagonist’s journey

Art was said to affect the individual for the better.

…to be continued with Part 2

Source: Belfiore, E. & Bennet, O. (2006). Rethinking the Social Impact of the Arts: a critical-historical review. University of Warwick: Centre for Cultural Policy Studies.
– please note that all quotes are retrieved from this research paper –

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