This question was one of many good ones asked by author Francine Prose during her address at the 3rd International Humanities Medal event at Wash U tonight. Here are a few more of her remarks that really got me thinking ...
"It's neither the responsibility, nor the purpose, of art to make us better people." That responsibility, Prose said, is "each one of ours," as human beings.
"[Art] can help us understand better what it is to be a human being," and there is "something humanizing about the intimacy" between artist and viewer/reader.
Art can protect us -- it is "the driftwood that humans cling to, as we always have, when we worry that we are drowning."
She referenced Emily Dickinson more than once, particularly in regard to what we mean when we say that something is beautiful or true. I got a copy of Prose's Reading Like a Writer: A guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them. Can't wait to read her.