In thinking about the nature of art, I have come to believe that the art is a fundamentally social phenomenon; art exists primarily for social purposes. While there are many, many ways to “define” and understand the nature of art, and this certainly overlaps with some of them, I haven’t seen it stated in this way before. (If you have, I’d be interested in hearing about it. Update: here’s one response to this request, in the domain of music.)

There is more to art than its social functions; there are many social activities that are not art. But no art form exists apart from our social relationships.

I have mainly found this idea useful for thinking about new technologies for art: whether computers can create art, and trying to understand the apparently-bizarre notion of CryptoArt. I’ve also found it useful for understading the contemporary art world as a specific community. Hence, I suspect that this view could be useful for understanding other new phenomena as well.

Here’s what I mean.

Why Do We Have Art?

Why do we make, share, and collect art? The functions of art are primarily social, meaning that we ultimately make and buy art to affect our relationships to other people. We make art so that other people can see it, to communicate ideas and feelings, and to demonstrate our skills, hoping to gain wealth or status. We appreciate art to see the work of another human, to experience the thing they made, and, often, to try to peer into their experiences. We buy art to preserve these experiences, and to display personality, taste, and wealth.

Why is a painting of a mountain art, but the mountain itself is not art? Because someone made the painting, and they made it to share as art.

An artist creates an experience for a viewer. We often judge the artwork by how powerful that experience is. But, my goal here is to explain—at least, in part—why artists care about creating these experiences for other people, and why we care about these experiences and distinguish them from other experiences we might have.

In this view, I am very inspired by the evolutionary theory of art as put forth by Denis Dutton in The Art Instinct. He lists these roles of art, and provides a rationale that art played all these same functions for our Pleistocene ancestors. I find his argument quite persuasive for reasons I won’t attempt to summarize here. While he points to the social nature of many of these functions, I don’t believe he goes the final step of saying that social relationships are fundamental to art. In part this may because he identifies other functions of art, such as in storytelling (which communicates information and experiences). A related claim I would make is we are evolved to create and share art because of our social relationships.

Many artforms are byproducts of more practical skills. For example, we speak to communicate information; we tell stories to share experience. We build objects as tools. We might have drawn pictures first as diagrams or maps. But each of these skills has evolved secondary social and artistic forms that then developed a life of its own. Each of these functions manifests in the ways we use art, just as they did for our Pleistocene ancestors’ artwork.

I suspect that many of our judgements about a work of art—whether it is “good,” or beautiful, or instructive—may ultimately boil down to how well it fulfills social goals, though the connection may be extremely indirect. For example, the effort and practised skill that went into a work contributes to its scarcity, and owning rare things is a way to demonstrate wealth and social status. Conversely, creating an artwork as a gift may demonstrate feelings toward a friend or romantic partner, and the more personal investment and sincerity demonstrated in the work, the better.

Moreover, art itself constitutes participation in a social group. Modern and contemporary art are defined by the tastes and interests of a particular group—whether your work is appreciated by the contemporary art world is a function of how much you contribute to the conversation there. Signifiers of membership in the group—e.g., having gone to the right art school or being represented by the right galleries—help too.

In general, what we value in art is also largely a social choice, something that changes in different eras and different communities. One era or one group might value highly realistic painting, while another might value political messaging.

A few times when I have spoken about this, someone in the audience has said “When I draw, I make art only for myself,” and then asked if this disproves my theory. I do not think so, for two reasons. First and foremost, I am claiming that art is a product of social evolution, and that its main functions are social, not that all art-making must be social. We might talk to ourselves, or sing in the shower, despite of the fact that speech is evolved for communication with other people. Second, I would wonder if someone that creates art but keeps it to themselves really would like to share it, but are just too discouraged. The “outsider artist” Henry Darger, was a lonely janitor from an orphaned childhood, who created a massive artwork during his life, but kept it to himself; it was only discovered after his death, when it was shown in major museums. Would he have like to have shown it to people? Did he dream of it?

All artforms have social functions, but having a social function isn’t enough for something to be an artform; this is not a complete “definition of art.” Nonetheless, most of the functions of art can be understood as social functions.

Implications for Computers and Art

So far, I’ve found this viewpoint useful in two different emerging domains of art intersecting with technology.

First, there’s the question of whether we will ever consider computers to be artists, to say that computers alone made art. I spent a lot of time thinking about academic and lay definitions of art, and trying to figure out what was important about them that would apply to this question, which is how I came upon the idea that art is fundamentally social. If it is true that art is fundamentally a social act, then computers can only be artists if we view them as social beings that we have social relationships with—we care about their feelings, their social status as it relates to us, and so on.

In fact, this may explain why computer art has always struggled for mainstream acceptance, since mainstream viewers typically think that “the computer did everything.”. Computer art seems to be more appreciated by people who have experience with computer programming—people who can, at least a little, conceptualize what it is the artist did. When confronted with a skillful painting, we can imagine the person who painted those strokes, even if we cannot understand the skills involved. Similarly, appreciating many kinds of computer art seems to be aided by some understanding of what it’s like to write code, so that you can imagine the person doing it. One unusual way to see what’s involved is to watch an Inigo Quilez live-coding session, which is an amazing sort of performance in its own right. Anthropomorphizing robots changes viewers’ perception of computer art, though I would argue, in misleading ways.

Second, when trying to understand CryptoArt and NFTs, I found it helpful to think about art as social. For many people, so much of our social lives occur online, between social media, and online video games, and so on. Some commenter pointed out that appreciating CryptoArt seems to be somewhat generational, and it makes sense that younger generations are spending more time online, living much more of their social lives online. If you’ve played video games that involve a large economy, like buying hats in Team Fortress 2, as well as badges and achievements that you can compete with your friends for. This process accellerated even more during Covid, which was also the time when CryptoArt went mainstream. If so many of your interactions are online, then having a physical artwork could be seen as more of a nuisance than a benefit, since so many of the people you interact with will never see the physical object.

Perhaps this social view of art will be helpful for understand other future developments as well.