Function and Purpose

In the Comparative Study,

one of the assessed criteria, Criterion B. Interpreting Function and Purpose may be new or confusing for some students. This page interprets function and purpose and offers some practical teaching activities.

Can you sit on it?

Function and purpose is a way of understnading the artists intentions or another way of saying, what is it made for?

Some art works have a very clear purpose: a designed object, such as a chair or a vessel has a practical function as well as a decorative function. You have probably seen many examples of art with a religious purpose, or a narrative purpose (telling a story, as in history painting), and art that has a mainly personal, expressive function. Some art functions as a status symbol, conferring power or wealth to the owner, and there is work that is created with the intent to shock or disturb.

Function and Purpose may be more relevant when discussing certain artworks, i.e. religious, ceremonial, commemorative, propaganda, other works may simply have a personal expressive function.

ToK and Art Questions

Does all art have a social function?

Does all art have an expressive function?

Does all art have a function?

Some different functions that art can have

(remember, a single artwork can have more than one!)

  • Expressive function – expresses the artists’ feelings
  • Descriptive function – records the likeness of a place or person or other subject.
  • Conceptual function –the idea or concept behind the work is more important than the object
  • Practical function-has a practical use, such as clothing, vessels, furniture, a building
  • Religious function – tells a religious story or is an object of devotion.
  • Historical narrative function- tells a story of an event in history
  • Commemorative function – made to honour someone (like a statue of a famous person)
  • Political function- serves a political purpose, such as propaganda.
  • Symbolic function – symbolizes certain beliefs or ideas without representing them.
  • Decorative Function- used to adorn the body, a room, a building etc.
  • Ritual function – used as part of a ritual or ceremony, or has magical powers.
  • Shock function – intended to shock or upset the viewer
  • can you think of more?

Teaching Activity

Discuss the function and purpose of the images in the slideshow. In the visual journal discuss 5 more examples of artworks with different functions. You can refer to the list above or come up with new ones.


 Look at each image and discuss the possibile function and purpose for each artwork. I have used a range of images to address different functions but there may be more than one. You can also read the caption and see if that changes the initial response. Apologies if image quality and size varies. Image list with captions

Function and purpose slides

1.Artist: Agnolo Bronzino

Completion Date: 1542 Style: Mannerism (Late Renaissance) Genre: portrait Technique: tempera Material: panel Dimensions: 48 x 63 cm Gallery: Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy

2. Chinese Zhou ritual vessel (gui)

A gui was a ritual vessel for food offerings, used in the Shang and throughout the Zhou period in China. This ritual vessel was used for offering food to ancestors. This example is decorated with large tusked animal heads swallowing birds. Sacrifices to ancestors ensured the survival and success of those who performed them. Respect for ancestors has been a central part of Chinese life for thousands of years.

3.John Baldessari

"Prima Facie: Unpleasant / Disgusted," 2005

Archival digital print on ultrasmooth fine art paper mounted on museum board, 55 1/2 x 42 1/4 inches

© John Baldessari Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery, New York

"It seemed to me that a word could be an image or an image could be a word. They could be interchangeable. And I couldn’t prioritize one over the other."

-John Baldessari

4.Francisco Goya, The Third of May, 1808 in Madrid, 1808, 1814-15, oil on canvas, 8' 9" x 13' 4" (Museo del Prado, Madrid)

5.The cosmic Buddha Vairochana, approx. 1275–1350. Tibet, Sakya Monestary.

6.Louise Bourgeois (1911 - 2010) UNTITLED 2004, Fabric, 20 1/2 x 8 1/2 x 10 inches,

7. Portrait of Marcus Aurelius

Sculpture, 161-180 AD, Marble, cm 102

8.Carved wooden headdress decorated with seeds, Afo, 20th century AD
From northern Nigeria

9.Wreath design by William Morris, 1876. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London



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