Art in Western society has served a social purpose as primarily status symbol, decoration and stimulation. However, the nature of the psychological stimulation has changed from the evocation of strong emotions, particularly those emotions present in interpersonal relationships, to the sense that the work is impressive.
Traditionally, figurative paintings took on a societal role of providing emotional stimulus and social training. The representation of a family member or of a religious story served as ‘sentimental education’. As Henry Moore observed, nothing is more capable of emotional expression than the human figure: from love to rage; from empathy to disgust.
Humans developed a narrative of appropriate emotions in response to figurative art, and their learning could be applied practically in the context of their interactions with other humans.
Yet from the time of the Modernists, figures were being replaced with violins, consumer objects and ultimately abstractions. The moderns moved away from 'old fashioned' representations of the human form and advanced to new mental challenges, which reflected the challenges of war, egalitarianism and technological modernity.
Synchronously, society turned to the media for its social and emotional needs. Art which depicted interpersonal relationships and evoked strong emotions was replaced by photography and film. Watching film informed society about salient social rules, styles and status.
The psychological role that art now occupies is an unemotional one. It still serves to impress with intellect and skill, but without conveying any emotion, not because westerners have wholly embraced empiricism or relativism and have a utopian socio-political reality, but because the media now enforces social rules.
Art consistently fulfils its role of impressing others as a decoration and social status, a role also fulfilled or even excelled by media, (for example the impressive stunts in an action film), and in manifest today in what Gombrich calls one of the 'styles that unite [our] age in a supra-individual spirit.'
One still sees art which is attractive and purposive as housewares: a Rothko blank as a wall, the landscape photograph, the simple patterns in lace, etc. Of these things we think 'It would make a relaxing and impressive ornament.' The present popularity gold leaf/diamond/pearl has only aggrandized art as a display of wealth.
The decorative purpose of art remains the same, what has changed is the purely emotional reaction to a human face, which has been replaced by an intellectual reaction to an abstraction: the cleverness one feels and making a discovery or a realization.
Take, for example, the following art pieces: a mitten made of iron, Tracy Emin, a mattress made of sand, or a hacksaw cast in crystal. These display technical skill or intellectual intelligence rather than social and emotional awareness.
Perhaps we don’t have as many faces in our art because we have less of a need to interact with other humans, as we spend more time communicating to them by means of signs and symbols (text).
The amusement we feel is the discovery is of our own stupidity when the artist undermines our tacit understandings about the social and physical situation. The artist has displayed their intellectual superiority, intelligence and wit.
What's more, we feel briefly more intelligent than we actually are, having been 'let in on the joke', we are smug upon realizing how we were at first duped, and have a fleeting sense of belonging to the elite of the intellectually enlightened, while the unsophisticated remain on the other side. Concept explanations and titles which include 'monumentality', 'collective', 'immemorial', serve to enhance our sense of belonging to an educated elite that understands these impressive but empty terms.
Postmodern art has roughly the same psychological impact as the architecture of corporate buildings: it informs us about the technical skill of the architect, impresses us with the quality of the materials and is strategically designed to make us feel inferior.
The role of art has changed and people have changed: they feel mentally outwitted in today's technologically-based and less face-to-face, world. The role of art has adapted people's new needs by becoming less figurative and giving them prosthetic intelligence.