Purpose In Art

In my opinion, there are quite a bunch of delusions surrounding arts, that modern human society wallows in. I tried to express my view on the subject of Talent a while back, but now comes the turn of art being too subjective to judge.

Considering art subjective is the norm nowadays, since a lot of people seem to be brought up this way. The reasons for it trace back to the rise of “modern” art in 20th century, when paintings became completely abstract with a lengthy sophisticated description and reviews from the art establishment communicating their meaning. I dare say the modern art killed in people the desire to judge the works of art, elevating it “above” the level of an average Joe, who, out of fear of sounding simple-minded, will just say that he doesn't know much about art, so it's not for him to judge. And it seems that many people carry this mentality on into their artistic endeavors.

So it is very common, for beginning artists, to retort any kind of criticism with the subject following their unique and personal vision that surprisingly no one understands.

This notion carries on into professional world as well, where it creates all sorts of complicated situations. When your artists cannot satisfy your lead, because the lead is incapable of clearly communicating why does he request certain fixes all the time, while artists are incapable of clearly communicating their problems and outsourcing just makes you want to stick a couple of pencils in your nose and whack your head against the table.

Unfortunately, people living with a firm belief that art could be uncriticizeably subjective miss out on an opportunity to logically understand it more. And it makes them weaker artists then they could've been. It's like trying to compose music by ear without ever trying to grasp the musical theory. You can live without it, but knowing it would make you that much better.

The notion of art being too subjective to judge could actually be proven inconsistent by logic alone in 99% of cases.

In order for that logic to hold up the artwork needs to possess just one attribute that hardly anything in the universe exists without: “A Purpose”. If you think about it, everything in the world is defined by its purpose and can truly be judged only in regards to it. You know that subconsciously: you'd never advise someone painting a fruit still life to paint a spaceship in the foreground. But being conscious about this logic allows you to apply it to every little detail, solving problems and finding answers in the places you've never thought of before.

To criticize an art piece (or anything else for that matter) firstly and most importantly, you have to establish its purpose. And then you try to see which features of the object obstruct the realization of the purpose or could accentuate it more productively.

That is the surest way to continuously make your work better and to give objective and productive feedback. If you are dedicated to producing the best artwork possible every single piece of you work should reinforce your purpose and if it doesn't, then it could be redundant. From colors and composition to the smallest of details.

Sometimes artistic choice could be a torture and here's an uncanny example from my personal experience how “the purpose” of your work could help you answer the most unexpected of questions: I was making a desert environment, that was about discovering an ancient location and I had to decide on the kind of dunes that were there and the wind direction in the establishing shot. Being inclined to reinforce the purpose I decided that the wind should be blowing right to left in screen space because in semantics of left-to-right-writing cultures the movement from right to left subconsciously means “going back” or “to the past” which seemed to “fit”. A meaningless detail became meaningful and since wind direction greatly affects the formation of sand dunes I got a lot of questions answered for me just by trying to reinforce my purpose. It's the sort of thing when the puzzle pieces just start magically fitting together.

But there's also one very important thing to know. And that is that every artistical question has a variety of correct answers.
If I have an empty space in my concept and you advise me to put a space ship or a chunk of flying rock there - whichever I choose, they both serve the purpose of balancing out the composition objectively well. Unless, of course, there are other purposes that would require a more specific choice.

Also sometimes smaller decisions are just a matter of personal preference and don't make any real difference. It's important to be able to identify those, especially in a production environment. Years ago, I practiced it as an “art of letting go”. With every little thing I wanted to fix in a model I asked myself whether it was a mistake or just a matter of taste. If it was the latter I forced myself to simply let go. This kind of approach eliminates overwork and actually makes you more tolerant to preferences of other people. And this is especially crucial for someone in a lead position, because you never want to be the guy, who demands this pixel green, since it just creates progressively more overwork and irritates your subordinates. In fact, if you have subordinates, it is your responsibility before them to be as logical and transparent about your demands and criticism as possible. I've always thought that if a person is smart enough to be in a lead position, he should have no trouble clearly explaining reasons behind his decisions. And if not, he's could be wasting your time and the companys' money.

But here's an important question: How do you tell a personal preference from a legitimate fix? Pretty easy, actually. If you can't objectively formulate how your suggestion helps reinforce the purpose of the object than it almost certainly is just your personal preference. And it, being done, will please some people a bit, but then it'll just displease others, who have a different preference, so following with those fixes seems pretty moot.

Important to note, that I am in no way stating that art is not subjective at all, I just think that personal taste shows through mostly in defining the purposes. Because later on pretty much everyone can hop in and work in the framework you create. As it actually happens with art directors and concept artists in real games or movies. Even your junior artist, for example, can come up with something within this framework that is objectively better(relatively to the purpose) then what the art director originally planned, and not following with this idea would actually hurt the project.

So in case you're not spreading apple pie on canvas to show your imaginary friend, you almost certainly gonna have a purpose to your art, which means it can be objectively criticized according to it. Even coming back to abstract art examples, if their purpose is to be chaotic, calm or even blank, there's still plenty of advice to be heard. And if someone gives you “wrong” feedback you don't tell them that it doesn't “fit your vision”, but try to communicate your purpose instead. And see it as a point in itself: If a lot of people give you “wrong” feedback then your art fails to communicate your purpose at all, which is the first major problem to tackle.

As with talent, a lot of people try to use subjectivity in art as a form a social defense mechanism, looking for an excuse for a job poorly done. And it's also quite easily identified, by the lack of clear purpose by the author himself. If you are that kind of person, hopefully, after reading this, you'll understand that art needs no excuses, but appreciates a thoughtful and friendly advice, instead.


All text and artwork (c) Andrew Maximov unless stated otherwise.