David Brooks: “Does consuming art, music, literature and the rest of what we call culture make you a better person?” Answer:

  1. No. Consuming art can’t make anyone better.
  2. But experiencing art certainly can make you a better person.
  3. So can experiencing anything else. It depends on you. 

But, okay, there’s more to say. Anything we experience may, depending on the circumstances, help to make us better people, but we have to be disposed to change, willing to change for the better. And maybe one thing art can do is to shape our dispositions, put us in a frame of mind or heart to live differently. (That’s what happened to Maggie Tulliver when she read The Imitation of Christ, which is not a work of art exactly but is a book artfully shaped.) 

I still think one of the most useful approaches to this whole set of questions is Nick Wolterstorff’s early book Art in Action. Here’s a quote: 

What then is art for? What purpose underlies this human universal?

One of my fundamental theses is that this question, so often posed, must be rejected rather than answered. The question assumes that there is such a thing as the purpose of art. That assumption is false. There is no purpose which art serves, nor any which it is intended to serve. Art plays and is meant to play an enormous diversity of roles in human life. Works of art are instruments by which we perform such diverse actions as praising our great men and expressing our grief, evoking emotion and communicating knowledge. Works of art are objects of such actions as contemplation for the sake of delight. Works of art are accompaniments for such actions as hoeing cotton and rocking infants. Works of art are background for such actions as eating meals and walking through airports.

Works of art equip us for action. And the range of actions for which they equip us is very nearly as broad as the range of human action itself. The purposes of art are the purposes of life. 

I think these statements provide a great entry into the conversation about what art does and is, because they make the notion of “becoming a better person” less abstract. A mother whose lullaby soothes her baby and also calms herself is, perhaps, making herself a better person in that context, at that moment.