What Are the Four Traditional Roles of Art?

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In his book “A World of Art,” Henry M. Sayre explores the four basic roles of art in society. Sayre writes that the roles of art include keeping a historical record, giving form to intangibles, revealing the hidden, and showing the world in a new way. This structure gives viewers of art a framework with which to begin understanding the artist's message.

Keeping a Historical Record

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History can be recorded visually. In fact, much of ancient art was created when a most of the population were illiterate. Painting, oral history, music, sculpture and handmade objects can all serve as a record of those times. In societies where art played a central role, the population better understood visual symbolism than words. For example, the tympanum of a medieval cathedral (the arch above the main entrance) often portrayed a sculptural representation of the joys of heaven and the torments of hell.

Giving Form to Intangibles

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Emotions such as fear and love are familiar to everyone, but can't be seen. Art makes these experiences visible. In the curve of a Rodin hand or the scream of a Francis Bacon head, the viewer can see human experience.

Revealing the Hidden

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Picasso once said that “art is a lie that reveals the truth.” A skilled artist can bring out hidden or obscure truths. Picasso's Guernica is a powerful example of this role. It is not a literal portrayal of the 1937 massacre at Guernica, but something much more powerful: an image that reveals the suffering of the victims, Picasso's interpretation of their inner experience.

Showing the World in a New Way

Vincent Van Gogh painting
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An artist sees the same things as others but interprets them in an innovative way. The vision of the artist can be a gift and an inspiration to others whose perception has become clouded. Seeing the world through the eyes of the artist can help peoplesee the world in new ways.