Ian Ritchie Architects

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Does Art have a purpose in Architecture? 2018

Published Winter 2018 Intelligent Glass Solutions magazine and August 2020 online ‘editor’s choice’

Why do we spend so much time and effort creating what we call ‘art’? The behaviour is without obvious survival value – utterly dispensable – yet seems completely essential to human existence: the arts have been an inseparable part of the human journey for more than 70,000 years – evolving as we evolve, driven by and driving our cultures.

Is it art itself or the creation of art that fulfils a need in human beings? Or is it both? In any case, art seems to be woven into our DNA. Perhaps it is art that defines us as human: Homo Artifex – man, the artist, instead of Homo Faber – man the tool maker?

Art certainly belongs to the metaphysical side of human activities, so assigning a quantifiable task or value to the arts may not be the point. Nevertheless, an attempt to articulate a purpose for art in the 21st century might be worthwhile, if only so that arts funding and education may not automatically be among the first cut when a government needs to tighten its belt.

We live in a thin age, distracted and numbed by the rivers of information and persuasive visual images with hidden agendas vying for our attention. Some of us retreat into isolated intellectual silos and ever smaller filter bubbles created for us by algorithms which favour confirmation bias, with a polarising effect. Materialist systems have redefined citizens as consumers, blurring the distinction between value and worth so there is no longer anything so precious as to be beyond price. Humanity is bound, Laocoön-like, with ropes of commerce. The return to religion and militant nationalism everywhere is partly a protest against the heartlessness and degrading effect of such commodification. Instinctively we know, at a deep, unconscious level, that some things simply can’t be quantified.

Pertinently and unfortunately, as Aristotle recognised, a society of ideological extremes “lacks the spirit of friendship” required to function. “Community depends on friendship and when there is enmity instead of friendship, men will not even share the same path”.

Luckily, the human imagination and creativity have great difficulty in living strictly within the confines of a materialist philosophy – or within any confines, for that matter. The arts are intrinsically disobedient! They are the human spirit’s last refuge and represent perhaps the only place of real freedom.

The arts are Trojan horses: transformative and liberating. They break the grip of our obsessions, anxieties, fears and resentments and stir us to the effort of seeing anew, to imagine centres of reality which are remote from ourselves.

The arts can transcend cultural and temporal boundaries because art brings something new and tangible into existence which can be re-experienced. And by engaging with and experiencing the arts – any of the arts – people create a community by virtue of agreeing that it is worth engaging with, even if that community is sharing and experiencing the work online, and even if the individuals within it see the world very differently.