What Is Nonfunctional Art?

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Nonfunctional art is art that serves no utilitarian purpose. It is in direct contrast with functional art, which has both an aesthetic value and a utilitarian purpose.

Sometimes found in unlikely places, functional art could include items such as sofas, books or lighting fixtures. This type of art takes usable objects and incorporates high-minded aesthetic sensibilities.

Nonfunctional art, on the other hand, is everything else. Marchel Duchamp’s readymades serve as functional art’s diametrical opposites: Duchamp took utilitarian objects such as urinals and stripped them of their utility. The readymades became art pieces through conceptual edict rather than innate artistic merit. Though collectors may keep functional art pieces on a display shelf, the works are intended to serve a purpose.

Nonfunctional art also encompasses paintings, sculptures and all manner of fine art. These pieces usually seek to engage with the viewer on an intellectual, emotional or aesthetic level. The exploration of these sensibilities, rather than their utilitarian merits, determines the artworks’ worth.

Functional art objects are also popular collector’s items, even when they have lost their utilitarian value. Objects such as ancient Chinese vases are valued more for their aesthetic merits than their usefulness. The delineation between fine art and functional art began to collapse with the rise of the Bauhaus movement in 1919, and institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art continue to interrogate the division between nonfunctional art and functional art.