The Function of Art

Recent fires at the Heidelberg Project in Detroit have destroyed significant portions of the exhibit. I wrote the piece below years ago following a visit. Visit to learn more and donate.

Originally published October 22, 2007

I spent early Saturday afternoon at the Heidelberg Project in Detroit. The weather was unseasonably warm, delightful, brilliant, happy. I was the same. All summer I needed to get back to that mess of expression near Gratiot and McDougal, but somehow summer came and summer went and Heidelberg-less was I.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Heidelberg Project, it is a stretch of perhaps two blocks and change in Detroit where artist Tyree Guyton has assembled over the years a variety of outdoor pieces combining various mediums and forms – mostly shoes, old cars and car parts, vacuum cleaners, shopping carts, stuffed animals, signs and a hodge-podge of painted dots and tires amidst the houses, both abandoned and occupied on Heidelberg Street. It is industrial art. At least some folks call it that. I do not debate that it is art. It is art. Besides, debating whether something is art or not is paramount to debating what is sexy, what is pleasant, what is fun. These are questions with many answers. If you believe art is art, then it is, and vice-versa.

The project is smaller now then it once was. Over the years the city of Detroit has ordered the demoliton of portions of the exhibit, yet it continues to be re-built here and there. Weather damages and destroys portions of it over time. People steal things and light fires. It happens. Outdoor art is subject to many perils. But outdoor art survives, outdoor art evolves. New pieces appear periodically, blended among the standards standing for many years now.

It fascinates me.

As I strolled about, camera in hand, I wondered why it was there, this Heidelberg Project. What purpose does it serve? What purpose does art serve? There it was, my question for the day….what is the function of art?

I understand why people create art. Self-expression, portrayal of emotions in a tangable medium, the recording of history in abstract, imitation of beautiful things, an assignment in a class, boredom, capturing a moment, using paint because paint exists, etc, etc, etc.

I get it.

My question is regarding the function of art. What does it do? Once created, in any and all shapes and forms, what does art accomplish? What does it provide?

What is the function of art?

Albert Camus once wrote

Without Culture, and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle. This is why any authentic creation is a gift to the future.”

Art is what we can’t live without it, even when we think we are. Art is the gateway to discovery, the first step. Art is an opening. Art is a million portals.

Can we survive without art? Sure. The human body does not require art to function. We do not need art to grow food, heal the sick, seek shelter and grow big and strong. We only need milk and veggies and mommys love for all that stuff. Oh, and a privatized health care plan and a social security number and all that government stuff. 

While we can maintain a physical existence without art, I assert that without art we are drones, living robots, creatures of a plain, mechanical venture into the abyss. Through art, in all its’ forms, whether we like it or not, we are challenged to go forward for a reason beyond survival. Art is why the human brain has more dimensions than that of a toad.

The Heidelberg Project. Donate money and they will make more art.

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