The Artist’s Task

The artist’s task is to save the soul of mankind; and anything less is a dithering while Rome burns. Because if the artists, who are self-selected for being able to journey into the Other, if the artists cannot find the way, then the way cannot be found.

– Terrence McKenna

I am a professional illustrator. I studied fine art and philosophy for two years at university before the philosophy department rescued me from my fine art torturers. I then spent the next two years studying philosophy and aesthetics and beginning my career. I got my first commissions in fourth year.

As far as I know I am the only student from my class that is now working as an artist. The one who dropped out.

The main criticisms that were levelled at students at the art school I went to were ‘it’s too functional’, ‘it’s too crafty’, ‘it’s too detailed’ and  my personal favourite ‘it’s too much like an illustration’. I was, in fact, told at one point ‘you are not an artist, you are an illustrator’; I would ask for someone to explain this and get no reply. We were at the same time being told ‘art is anything’ this was, of course, bullshit.

So here’s an evil question for you. What is art?

For me art is about opening the doors of perception, becoming as capable as you can of perceiving the world and then creating works of art to share that vision, to inspire, to heal and create a better world. I believe individual creativity has the power to shape and change the world. You can see it around you now, you can see it out on the street; almost everything, almost every artefact around you was shaped by the human imagination. Even ourselves. We are living art.

My tutors at art school disagreed with me about that, and pretty much everything, and generally seemed to want to crush the creativity out of their students, by insisting “art is anything” while also insisting we were all “doing it wrong”. So I would keep asking, “if we’re doing it wrong, what is it? And who the fuck are you to tell us anyway?” They didn’t like that.

Fine art is knowledge made visible.

– Gustave Courbet

It turned out I would learn more about art by studying philosophy and actually doing it for clients than from any amount of time in art school or in the fine art scene. That question, “what is art”, has been asked for hundreds of years and there are as many answers as there are people. Art is inherently subjective, it is about our own personal taste and sense of beauty. And what is beauty? We’ve been asking that one since at least ancient Greece, where Plato equated the Beautiful with the Good, for example.

In any given time and place we will find a general consensus about what art is and what is beautiful heavily defined and defining the culture at large. So in our western contemporary culture we find that ‘Art’ has been broadly defined as either ‘Fine’ or ‘Applied’. A distinction that was invented in the 18th century or possibly earlier during the Renaissance. The point being it is an invention.

Basically, cutting it down to the bare bones, applied art is art that serves a function or has utility: jewellery, clothes, furniture, buildings, art that is useful. Fine art is art that does not aim to serve any practical function; think pretty much anything by Damien Hirst – what does one do with a giant pickled shark? Fine art is art that is useless. So what my art tutors should have been saying, if they had actually had any idea what they were talking about, is that art in our culture is anything that has no use. My tutors were art, apparently.

Art is anything you can get away with.

– Marshall McLuhan

We have ended up in an absurd situation in which the art displayed to the public in galleries and taught by art institutions as Fine Art in general aims be useless in order to be considered art at all. Any art that seeks to serve an explicit function is considered as somehow inferior, or simply not art. A piece of Fine Art by its own current definitions seeks only to ‘ask questions’, never to offer any answers, it attempts to ‘explore’, ‘challenge’ or ‘investigate’, never to offer anything concrete. It does not aim to be creative or to generate new ideas; it does not even aim to be beautiful.

In other words Modern Fine Art is deliberately nonsensical, evasive and meaningless. This is the criteria it has set itself. This means that anything that is useless can be art, provided it is contextualised as such. So if someone calling themselves an artist does it, its art, and if it’s in a gallery its art. If Tracy Emin took a shit on a plinth and displayed it in the Tate Modern, not only would there be people willing to view this as art, someone would buy it. Yet the paintings of the Sistine Chapel are not in a gallery and serve the purpose of illustrating and beautifying religious stories and ideas. So technically speaking, according to the current prevailing definitions of art in Britain today, the paintings of the Sistine Chapel are not art; the work of the great masters in general would not be considered art by today’s standards, or art with any merit or anything to really say.

A cursory glance through the history of art will tell you that art has always been functional. It is only in relatively recent times that this distinction was made in our culture and then more recently heavily applied – by the early Modernists in opposition to the Arts and Crafts Movement, 1880 – in order to keep the creativity of the masses from being considered worthwhile at all and keep art exclusive, esoteric and elitist, for the wealthy few.

In our culture the prevailing images we are exposed to everyday are directly influenced by a contemporary art scene that has become a rich man’s playground of sterile snobbery, that would have us believe that, as Oscar Wilde said, “all art is quite useless”. That art is a series of banal functionless objects to be traded like commodities and never understood by or of use to the general public.

We the public are lead to believe that art is unattainable; we cannot understand it, we cannot create it and we cannot buy it. But we can consume its trash, in the form of a popular culture that fetishises disposable trivial products and valueless vacuous idols, attempting to objectify and isolate us from each other with constant judgement by implausible standards.

Art is making something out of nothing and selling it.

– Frank Zappa

We are shaped into meaningless objects in search of meaningless objects we are told will fill the void where meaning should be. Such unfulfilled lives seem the cornerstone of modern economics and the spiritual crisis of our time. We are deceived into compliance, unable to explore our authentic selves. Such expressions are deemed unimportant and peripheral at best, self-indulgent at worst. Yet those who pursue this – the artists, the weirdoes – radiate meaning and purpose.

Our culture has no grand narratives beyond plundering each other and the Earth to the bitter end. And for what? For things. Shiny things. Things we throw away and replace, or keep locked away.

Only a neurotically decadent society would revere and aim to produce and consume the useless. A deeply spiritually and emotionally sick society. Art has the power to determine and alter the world view and psychology of individuals and entire cultures, having a deep impact on human endeavour because we are driven by our own taste; we are driven by the images and ideas that surround and appeal to us. The aesthetic of the Renaissance reflected, inspired and catalysed the Renaissance. Today we are surrounded by well marketed bullshit, nonsense and wasteful destructive soulless corporate inoffensive blandness, and the art generally displayed as the spirit of our times reflects, inspires and catalyses this. It promotes doing anything for money, self obsession, decadence and a deliberately opaque and ambiguous style of communication; everything that is currently wrong with our society is embedded within its aesthetic.

The display of the useless, the wasteful, the ambiguous and the controversial in the service of greed doesn’t serve us, and never did. A change in this aesthetic is crucial if we are to promote much needed changes in society. Only through artistic expression and creativity can we imagine and build a better world. And this expression will never come from the top. The modern art today that is generally promoted and funded in the mainstream really has nothing to say, with its main aim being to sell itself to the highest bidder. We will find no progressive ideas or ideals or challenges to the status quo or attempts to elevate human consciousness in these works, because the meaningfulness of a piece of art is now in inverse proportion to its price tag.

A fair price is the highest one a collector can be induced to pay.

– Robert Hughes

Ultimately the distinction between fine and applied art would have us believe that the creation of meaning by ordinary people is without value, because some elite beyond us are the gatekeepers of meaning. They decide what is worthwhile. That is a message that needs to be thoroughly rejected. We must create our own meaning. We must stop consuming culture and instead create it. We must stop allowing ourselves to be sculpted by the toxic narratives that surround us and are destroying our world.

It is the artists that must lead in this. We who can peel back the surface of things and see beyond what is presented to us. We who naturally would rather create than consume. Dance, paint, sing sculpt, act, express your authenticity in defiance of a society that attempts to crush it. Be that person people can look to and be inspired to be themselves. Create works that show people the multitude of ways we can perceive the world, the choice we have in it, that we can make it dark, absurd, wonderful – whatever we want. We must show that the world is far from meaningless, it’s full of meaning that we create, that our own meanings are more valuable than anything else and that we all have interesting things to show each other.

Art is far from useless. Let’s use it to inspire a better world.

From a talk given at Hive Dalston, London, Saturday June 13th 2015.


  1. Terrence McKenna would know a thing or two about the transcendent!

    We can say that art has no practical physical function, and “fine art” optimally has no function it serves that is greater than what it itself is. So, for example, various great works of art served to decorate cathedrals, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t succeed beyond that limited, initial justification for their existence. Here, the ostensible purpose does not subordinate the result. A king may hire Velasquez to paint a flattering portrait, but that doesn’t mean that Velasquez only strives to achieve that. Here, it might make more sense to say that “fine art” succeeds irrespective of any physical or practical function. This allows something which has both a practical and physical function to be art if it transcends those more basic purposes.

    You wrote, er, 5 years ago, “For me art is about opening the doors of perception, becoming as capable as you can of perceiving the world and then creating works of art to share that vision, to inspire, to heal and create a better world.”

    I’m quite happy with that description, because it hits my favorite part, which is that imaginative exploration outside of what has previously been imaged. For me, there’s definitely an element of exploring to art-making.

    To keep things short, just imagine how life would suck without music. Art makes everything much richer and more interesting, and that’s a priceless function. Without art, life would be dreary.

    • Yes, art making definitely seems to involve an element of exploration; and yes, life would definitely be dreary without it.

      “Here, it might make more sense to say that “fine art” succeeds irrespective of any physical or practical function. This allows something which has both a practical and physical function to be art if it transcends those more basic purposes.” I like that, and I think for most people art still being art, even if it has a function, makes sense. To say otherwise seems to me more about claiming art created by ordinary people is without value; it’s about the gatekeeping of status, both of art and artists.

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