The importance of knowing ‘why’

To make art and to keep making art, there’s a question you need to know the answer to.


Trying to make art without knowing why is a bit like wandering around an unfamiliar city without a map. It’s pleasant, you’ll experience new things and you’ll probably enjoy it, but you don’t know where you’re going and it’s easy to get lost and waste time in empty dead ends.

The ‘why’ of art is easy to push aside because it can be difficult to get a grip on – it’s often an abstract concept or an emotion, and it can be uncomfortable. You might not even really know what it is. But the ‘why’ is critical, because it drives everything else.

There’s always been a ‘why’

In the history of art, the ‘why’ has always come first. In fact, much of what we consider art was probably not intended as ‘Art’ in the sense that we understand the word. For most of it, the ‘why’ was functional – communication, symbolism, decoration, or – for probably the vast majority of art created throughout history – facilitation of worship.

“Other people, in other times and places, had some robust institutions to shore them up – witness the Church, the clan, ritual, tradition. It’s easy to imagine that artists doubted their calling less when working in the service of God…”

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear

As you come closer to the modern day, the ‘why’ of art becomes less functional and more conceptual. But it’s still there. The Impressionists and Cubists explored how aspects of the world – light and form, for example – can be represented on the canvas. The surrealists expressed ideas about the world using strange juxtapositions and dream-like images. Pop art was a commentary on changing culture. The artworks themselves have no practical function in the sense that a cave painting or alter piece had – their only function is to convey ideas that were personal to the artist.

This process of development has led to ‘Art’ now being considered a form of self-expression and to an apparent requirement for it to be philosophical or insightful if it is to qualify as ‘proper art’. Another way of thinking of this is that the ‘why’ used to be largely external but now mostly comes from within the artist.

Ignore the societal criteria

The current view equating art with self-expression reveals more a contemporary bias in our thinking than an underlying trait of the medium

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear

The need for the ‘why’ to come from within holds true for anyone who practices art non-professionally today. Nowadays, art is largely for pleasure. However, as the incredibly insightful words from Bayles and Orland above make clear, there is no inherent reason that the ‘why’ has to be expression of the artist’s inner turmoil or a personal exploration of philisophical concepts. Society has designated artists with these requirements. And in a self-perpetuating cycle, an artist must fulfil these criteria to be revered as ‘an artist’ by our society.

But for anyone who just wants to make art – revered or otherwise – these arbitrarily designated notions of self-expression and philosophy can be paralysing. In this framework, when you think of embarking on any artwork, the question immediately raises itself of whether it is sufficiently self-expressive or philosophical to qualify as art and, if not, whether there is any point in beginning it at all. For most of us, if you think for too long, the answer almost always becomes no.

You still need a ‘why’. But if you ignore the societal criteria, the paralysis becomes a trick of the mind caused by focusing on whether your ‘why’ meets with society’s expectations of art rather than focusing on the real ‘why’ that comes from within. If you focus on those societal expectations, you will almost certainly either conclude that those expectations are not met, or you will modify your work to meet them. The result is either no artwork at all (because you deem it pointless) or artwork that is not driven by your own ‘why’ and is therefore neither successful in achieving what you intended, nor your own.

Know your ‘why’

The exact nature of the ‘why’ doesn’t really matter. It could be a desire to express complex insights into human nature. But it could equally just be to relax. Or anything in between. Either way, this ‘why’ determines how you go about making that art and what you’re aiming to produce at the end. But no-one can tell you what your ‘why’ is, and one person’s ‘why’ might mean nothing to another. You might even have more than one ‘why’ yourself, it might be different for different pieces of work. It might (probably should) evolve or even change completely over time.

But what matters most in the process of making art is not exactly what the ‘why’ is, but the fact that there is a ‘why’ and that you, the artist, knows exactly what it is.

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