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

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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.


About the Author

Jagg Xaxx has been writing since 1983. His primary areas of writing include surrealism, Buddhist iconography and environmental issues. Xaxx worked as a cabinetmaker for 12 years, as well as building and renovating several houses. Xaxx holds a Doctor of Philosophy in art history from the University of Manchester in the U.K.

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