In his book of essays entitled Why People Photograph: Selected Essays and Reviews (Aperture, 1994) Robert Adams says that "art is too important to confuse with interior decoration or an investment opportunity. Its real use… is to affirm meaning and thus “to keep intact an affection for life”.
This is a succinct and useful insight can be unpacked by referring back to the idea of the autonomy of art: namely, that art was a distinct modality of making sense of things, and that this way of making sense was sensible: ie., a mode of non-discursive intelligibility, which does not consist in propositions, arguments, and syllogisms.
The Jena Romantics ( eg.,Novalis, August and Frederick Schegel) held that the autonomy of art is meant to connect the aesthetic mode of making sense of things that are deeply important to us with the highest human aspirations for self-understanding and the realization of freedom. They held that this making sense of ourselves through art was more important than the conscious deliberative capacities of individual subjects. Where philosophy ends art begins for unlike philosophy art presents its ideas in sensuous form. Art, on this account, is an ontologically distinct object of experience.
This continental aesthetic tradition, which runs through Schiller, Hegel, Nietzsche, and the Frankfurt School up to the present day, is fundamentally different from the notion of autonomy that has been properly labeled conservative; namely, the l’art pour l’art, or “art for art’s sake” eg.,through 19th century aestheticism (Baudelaire, Pater, Wilde), via the significant form of the Bloomsbury tradition of Roger Fry and Clive Bell, the latter Greenberg and then Hilton Kramer and the New Criterion in the US. In this Anglo-Saxon tradition all art has to do in order to be worthy is to be beautiful. There is no purpose, function, or end served by being beautiful other than being beautiful, and one takes a certain pleasure in the irrelevant nobility of the existence of beautiful things.
In the first essay in his Why People Photograph entitled 'Colleagues' Adams advances one reason for the above difficulty I was encountering. He says that when "photographers get beyond copying the achievements of others, or just repeating their own accidental first successes, they learn that they do not know where in the world they will find pictures. Nobody does.”