As the quote from Hamlet makes it apparent, Shakespeare knew quite well that the world around us, just like the one residing in our head, is simply too vast and rich for an artist, any artist, to ever hope to describe it in its entirety.
This might seem like a terrible limitation on our ability to create art. It also seems to undermine the role of art in society. Instead, I believe this apparent inability, this sort of limitation, is one of the strong points of art.
Arts and maps
In fact, just like Borges points out in his On Exactitude in Science, maps that are so rich and detailed as the territory they are meant to describe are quintessentially useless.
The reason is simple. Maps are by definition representations of a limited number of features of a territory. In a way, they are products of simplification as defined in the Oxford Dictionary: the process of making something simpler or easier to do or understand.
And indeed, allowing us to focus only on such a limited number of aspects, stripping the territory of all the features not pertinent to the task at hand, they help us to make sense of a reality that otherwise might prove too complex and overwhelming to manage.
For example if I need to go from point a to point b by car, a map showing only roads and highways is more than adequate. A map showing only elevations not so much.
Similarly, for a tourist in a given city, a map showing all the attractions of that city would be a perfect choice. Instead, a map showing the attractions of another city would be useless, even if thematically connected.
Role of art in society
Like maps, I believe art acquires significance when it focuses with laser-like precision on a limited number of aspects of the reality we live in.
For example, a sunset can be of breathtaking beauty. But behind it there isn’t any project, any intended meaning. It’s just a natural event that happens to look pleasant to some people.
Conversely, a painting of a sunset, even if it is a pale reproduction of the original (if an original ever existed) can acquire meanings that its naturalistic counterpart doesn’t possess.
Of course, these meanings are linked to our human condition. Not in general terms but in personal ones.
For example, for some people, in the painting below, the dead tree at the center of the painting might hint at death and the general indifference of the world toward suffering and death.
For others, the delicate colors and dreamlike atmosphere could instead hint at the fact that death is as natural as the alternating of night and day.
Interpretations (so to speak, our maps to make sense of the world) can vary wildly.
Another possible interpretation might have to do with our tendency to focus on moments of change, the ones potentially more dangerous for us like a species.
Art and exploration
Irrespective of the single interpretations, the role of art in society should be that of offering everybody the opportunity to make new connections. Connections about what it means to be humans, about what it means taking certain paths and not others.
I mean, art should offer us a way to enter the lives of many different people and see the world with their own eyes, in this way bringing about a better understanding of different traditions and cultures.
The role of art in society should be about making mental maps that even if on the surface seem to have nothing to do with our everyday reality, they are linked to it in deep and unexpected ways. Just think of Asimov’s robots and how those apparently far fetched scenarios are no longer so.
The role of art in society should have nothing to do with educating, with teaching. It should have to do with showing what life is like when we look at it using different mind maps. The desire to learn and discover should come afterward, as a natural non compulsory progression.
Art, the highest form of it at least, helps us to be ready for change. Because change is inherent to life.
What matters is to make sure we steer such a change as much as it is possible toward proficuous directions. Because even the most subversive art needs some plan.