Perhaps the more helpful question to the problematic, “What is art?” is “How is art...?”
One important function of art is that of memorial. Contemporary artists such as Jeremy Deller (below left), Mark Wallinger (below right) and Luc Tuymans (above) incorporate an element of memorial in their work citing events such as the minors strike of the 1980s, the gas chambers of WWII or the disestablishment of the Berlin wall respectably.
Of course, the preservation of important memories is not a new idea to the arts by any means. We could also cite Poussin, Claude, Rembrandt, Rubens and Stanley Spencer to name just a few who have all catalogued the horrors of war.
We might say that the idea of using art to remember first came from God. Think of the rainbow as a symbol of God’s promise to Noah never to destroy the earth again. Think of the Israelites who, time and again would forget what God had done for them in bringing them out of slavery in Egypt to the promised land of freedom. God instructed them to make art as a visual memorial in the form of stone pyres and monuments. In a similar way think of the bread and wine which serve as a memorial of Christ’s sacrifice when we meet together for communion.
Art can serve as a permanent reminder of historic events we should never forgot. It can help us come to terms with difficult memories and learn from the mistakes of our past. It’s important that we remember.