The Art of Functional Objects: Finding truth and beauty in artifacts 


The Benton’s current “Souvenirs d’Afrique” exhibit blurs the line between “art” and “artifact,” raising the question, should artifacts be considered art?  Photos by Avery Bikerman/The Daily Campus

The Benton’s current “Souvenirs d’Afrique” exhibit blurs the line between “art” and “artifact,” raising the question, should artifacts be considered art? Photos by Avery Bikerman/The Daily Campus

Exhibits like the Benton’s current “Souvenirs d’Afrique” have often puzzled me because of how the distinction between “art” and “artifact” seems to vanish. Pieces of art can certainly be considered artifacts because of the insights they provide into the time and place in which they were created. Yet, should artifacts be considered art? Many artifacts were created for a specific purpose. Does functionality in an object hinder it from being art? 

My definition of art is tied up in two words: Truth and beauty. To me, art is a manifestation of the human search for and value of truth. Art expresses universal truths about the world and humanity, whether moral truths, historical truths, cultural truths or even truths of existence — the existence of landscapes beyond your corner of the world and the existence of perspectives unfathomable in your own cultural frame of reference. Art also expresses individual truths. Art affirms individual experiences and emotions; art translates the worlds of thought within us all into something that can be examined and valued by others. And on the most fundamental level, art expresses truth about the medium itself.  

Art also challenges us to go further in our own searching for truth. A piece of artwork can demand us to more closely examine all that is within and perhaps even all that may be excluded from the piece of art. In this examination, art challenges us to examine all that is within and all that may be excluded in our own experiences, perspectives, values and even in our own notions of what art itself is. 


“art” or “artifact?”

Art enlarges our worlds in its active pursuit of and value for truth. And it’s done in a way that is beautiful. While the notion of beauty is subjective, many of us seem to demand originality in our identifications of beauty in art. Certainly, originality is an important component of what makes a piece of artwork beautiful. Yet to me, the beauty of art comes from the originality of expression within defined boundaries. A painter is restricted by the dimensions of their canvas, a musician is restricted by notes and their instrument, a writer is restricted by their language. All artists are restricted by themselves, by the physical limitations of being human and by the limited scope of any individual’s experiences. It is the human expression of truth within the boundaries of the medium and the boundaries of self that can make the creation beautiful. 

So mathematics can be art. Perhaps the “boundaries” that limit the mathematician are more complex than that of a painter. Perhaps the “truths” of mathematics seem less valued because the ‘truths’ of mathematics often are simply truths about mathematics itself. Yet just as for a painter, a sculptor, a musician, a film director, a writer or any other artist, the beauty and artistry of a mathematician’s work is derived from the original expressions of truth within defined boundaries. So mathematics, too, even if often valued only for its functionality in other disciplines, can be considered an art form.  

This perspective, then, creates space for an intersection of artifacts and art: If in some beautiful way an artifact expresses some truth about the world or people that affirms or challenges your own perspectives or experiences, if an artifact inspires you to look more closely at something in the world around you or within you or if an artifact surprises you with its existence as a human-made creation, then surely that artifact can be considered art. 

Functionality does not hinder something from being art. This is true even, perhaps especially, if that something is our own lives. Morality is functional. It is a tool which we use to determine how to interact with the world around us and it is a tool we use to reconcile the seeming futility of existence with the fact of existence. Morality sets boundaries —it is the structure of the blank canvas on which we paint. It is how we originally and creatively exist within these boundaries of morality and the limits of our circumstances and the limits of self that makes our lives art.  

Sharon Spaulding is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at

Leave a Reply