Art doesn’t have to be pleasing to serve its purpose

Does an artwork have to be pretty to be effective?
Does an artwork have to be pretty to be effective?
Image: Creative Commons/Nick D/CC BY-SA 3.0
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Whales, as you no doubt know, don’t fly. They do not, according to nature, belong in the sky. That’s one reason why the Skywhale—a massive hot-air balloon created in 2013 by artist Patricia Piccinini, and preparing for flight again—has been widely derided in the place of its creation, Australia.

Another reason, surely, is that the Skywhale is weird and challenging. It in no way resembles any living or historical sea creature known to humanity. It’s curvy with a turtle face and 10 udders, plus claws, and when it was introduced, Australians hated it. But the Skywhale found love floating above Brazil, Ireland, and Japan, and has fans so devoted they’ve tattooed the weird creature on their body. So, as the New York Times reports (paywall), the work has become more a symbol of Australia’s attachment to the conventional and rejection of non-conformity than an indictment of the artist’s abilities.

Soon, on Nov. 22, it will fly again its native land. And Piccinini tells the Times that the Skywhale presents viewers with a challenge. It asks, “Why can’t we just love the imperfect?”

It’s one of art’s perennial questions. While some works are admired for their beauty, others are created to challenge our aesthetic notions. For example kintsugi (金継ぎ), an ancient Japanese practice of beautifying broken pottery by enhancing the lines made by time and rough use, questioned traditional conceptions of value.

Still others are meant to provoke, to elicit emotions we might prefer to avoid but which, when confronted, prompt realizations or changes. Take for example Banksy’s recent glorious-but-failed stunt, where the artist’s sweet, simple piece depicting a girl with a red heart balloon was partially shredded upon sale at auction. For many of the auction attendees and those who saw the video of the piece’s partial destruction later, the emotions the prank gave rise to—whether fear, anger, disappointment, or amusement—prompted thought. The shredding exercise forced people to confront traditional perceptions about value, art, beauty, and our attachments. And in fact, the piece is worth twice the price it sold for.

Piccinini’s Skywhale does something similar. It forces us to face our discomfort and expectations. Those who dislike it have mocked the work’s many udders in particular, but the artist says it’s a creation in the long tradition of art about fecundity, femininity, and motherhood. Indeed, one of the world’s oldest known artworks, the Venus of Willendorf, a small statue of a very curvy woman found in 1908 in Austria, has been dated back to the paleolithic age, about 25,000 BC, and is believed to be a fertility totem or a kind of goddess of motherhood. Piccinini’s work may not represent any real female creature but it is a symbol of gender, she says.

The British abstract artist Brian Rice, writing in Thought Co. last year, explained art’s purpose. It’s not simply to decorate walls but to call attention to ideas and prompt responses. He writes:

Art causes people to look a little closer. To look closer at the social issues, at other people and their emotions, at the environment that surround them, and the everyday objects and life forms around them. It helps them see what is there but not easily perceived. The artist brings out that which cannot be seen or felt easily.

Similarly, American street artist Shepard Fairey recently explained, in a trailer promoting his own virtual reality art show, “I think that the power of art is that it can impact people emotionally and lead them to addressing things intellectually that otherwise they would just ignore.”

The provocative, invented form of the Skywhale prompts us to reconsider many things we might normally neglect: are our ideas of what beauty is, what art should look like, and what form creations should take, whether living or constructed.

Piccinini says the Skywhale presents viewers with a chance to reflect on learning to appreciate the imperfect. But it might be more correct to say that the Skywhale poses questions about expectation and rejection, not imperfection per se. It forces us to ask ourselves why we want to see what we already know and have seen before, why we reject the unusual instead of delighting in the occasional surprise. The more you reject the balloon, the more you are forced to confront yourself and what you expected. In that sense then, the work is perfect.