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The eternal question
What is art?
From an article by Philosophy Now, A magazine of Ideas
What is Art? and/or What is Beauty?
The following answers to this artful question each win a random book.
Art is something we do, a verb. Art is an expression of our thoughts, emotions, intuitions, and desires, but it is even more personal than that: it’s about sharing the way we experience the world, which for many is an extension of personality. It is the communication of intimate concepts that cannot be faithfully portrayed by words alone. And because words alone are not enough, we must find some other vehicle to carry our intent. But the content that we instill on or in our chosen media is not in itself the art. Art is to be found in how the media is used, the way in which the content is expressed.
What then is beauty? Beauty is much more than cosmetic: it is not about prettiness. There are plenty of pretty pictures available at the neighborhood home furnishing store; but these we might not refer to as beautiful; and it is not difficult to find works of artistic expression that we might agree are beautiful that are not necessarily pretty. Beauty is rather a measure of affect, a measure of emotion. In the context of art, beauty is the gauge of successful communication between participants – the conveyance of a concept between the artist and the perceiver. Beautiful art is successful in portraying the artist’s most profound intended emotions, the desired concepts, whether they be pretty and bright, or dark and sinister. But neither the artist nor the observer can be certain of successful communication in the end. So beauty in art is eternally subjective.
Wm. Joseph Nieters, Lake Ozark, Missouri
Works of art may elicit a sense of wonder or cynicism, hope or despair, adoration or spite; the work of art may be direct or complex, subtle or explicit, intelligible or obscure; and the subjects and approaches to the creation of art are bounded only by the imagination of the artist. Consequently, I believe that defining art based upon its content is a doomed enterprise.
Now a theme in aesthetics, the study of art, is the claim that there is a detachment or distance between works of art and the flow of everyday life. Thus, works of art rise like islands from a current of more pragmatic concerns. When you step out of a river and onto an island, you’ve reached your destination. Similarly, the aesthetic attitude requires you to treat artistic experience as an end-in-itself: art asks us to arrive empty of preconceptions and attend to the way in which we experience the work of art. And although a person can have an ‘aesthetic experience’ of a natural scene, flavor or texture, art is different in that it is produced. Therefore, art is the intentional communication of an experience as an end-in-itself. The content of that experience in its cultural context may determine whether the artwork is popular or ridiculed, significant or trivial, but it is art either way.
One of the initial reactions to this approach may be that it seems overly broad. An older brother who sneaks up behind his younger sibling and shouts “Booo!” can be said to be creating art. But isn’t the difference between this and a Freddy Krueger movie just one of degree? On the other hand, my definition would exclude graphics used in advertising or political propaganda, as they are created as a means to an end and not for their own sakes. Furthermore, ‘communication’ is not the best word for what I have in mind because it implies an unwarranted intention about the content represented. Aesthetic responses are often underdetermined by the artist’s intentions.
Mike Mallory, Everett, WA
The fundamental difference between art and beauty is that art is about who has produced it, whereas beauty depends on who’s looking.
Of course there are standards of beauty – that which is seen as ‘traditionally’ beautiful. The game changers – the square pegs, so to speak – are those who saw traditional standards of beauty and decided specifically to go against them, perhaps just to prove a point. Take Picasso, Munch, Schoenberg, to name just three. They have made a stand against these norms in their art. Otherwise their art is like all other art: its only function is to be experienced, appraised, and understood (or not).
Art is a means to state an opinion or a feeling, or else to create a different view of the world, whether it be inspired by the work of other people or something invented that’s entirely new. Beauty is whatever aspect of that or anything else that makes an individual feel positive or grateful. Beauty alone is not art, but art can be made of, about or for beautiful things. Beauty can be found in a snowy mountain scene: art is the photograph of it shown to family, the oil interpretation of it hung in a gallery, or the music score recreating the scene in crotchets and quavers.
However, art is not necessarily positive: it can be deliberately hurtful or displeasing: it can make you think about or consider things that you would rather not. But if it evokes an emotion in you, then it is art.
Chiara Leonardi, Reading, Berks
Art is a way of grasping the world. Not merely the physical world, which is what science attempts to do; but the whole world, and specifically, the human world, the world of society and spiritual experience.
Art emerged around 50,000 years ago, long before cities and civilisation, yet in forms to which we can still directly relate. The wall paintings in the Lascaux caves, which so startled Picasso, have been carbon-dated at around 17,000 years old. Now, following the invention of photography and the devastating attack made by Duchamp on the self-appointed Art Establishment [see Brief Lives this issue], art cannot be simply defined on the basis of concrete tests like ‘fidelity of representation’ or vague abstract concepts like ‘beauty’. So how can we define art in terms applying to both cave-dwellers and modern city sophisticates? To do this we need to ask: What does art do? And the answer is surely that it provokes an emotional, rather than a simply cognitive response. One way of approaching the problem of defining art, then, could be to say: Art consists of shareable ideas that have a shareable emotional impact. Art need not produce beautiful objects or events, since a great piece of art could validly arouse emotions other than those aroused by beauty, such as terror, anxiety, or laughter. Yet to derive an acceptable philosophical theory of art from this understanding means tackling the concept of ‘emotion’ head on, and philosophers have been notoriously reluctant to do this. But not all of them: Robert Solomon’s book The Passions (1993) has made an excellent start, and this seems to me to be the way to go.
It won’t be easy. Poor old Richard Rorty was jumped on from a very great height when all he said was that literature, poetry, patriotism, love and stuff like that were philosophically important. Art is vitally important to maintaining broad standards in civilisation. Its pedigree long predates philosophy, which is only 3,000 years old, and science, which is a mere 500 years old. Art deserves much more attention from philosophers.
Alistair MacFarlane, Gwynedd
Some years ago I went looking for art. To begin my journey I went to an art gallery. At that stage art to me was whatever I found in an art gallery. I found paintings, mostly, and because they were in the gallery I recognised them as art. A particular Rothko painting was one colour and large. I observed a further piece that did not have an obvious label. It was also of one colour – white – and gigantically large, occupying one complete wall of the very high and spacious room and standing on small roller wheels. On closer inspection I saw that it was a moveable wall, not a piece of art. Why could one piece of work be considered ‘art’ and the other not?
The answer to the question could, perhaps, be found in the criteria of Berys Gaut to decide if some artefact is, indeed, art – that art pieces function only as pieces of art, just as their creators intended.
But were they beautiful? Did they evoke an emotional response in me? Beauty is frequently associated with art. There is sometimes an expectation of encountering a ‘beautiful’ object when going to see a work of art, be it painting, sculpture, book or performance. Of course, that expectation quickly changes as one widens the range of installations encountered. The classic example is Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), a rather un-beautiful urinal.
Can we define beauty? Let me try by suggesting that beauty is the capacity of an artefact to evoke a pleasurable emotional response. This might be categorised as the ‘like’ response.
I definitely did not like Fountain at the initial level of appreciation. There was skill, of course, in its construction. But what was the skill in its presentation as art?
So I began to reach a definition of art. A work of art is that which asks a question which a non-art object such as a wall does not: What am I? What am I communicating? The responses, both of the creator artist and of the recipient audience, vary, but they invariably involve a judgement, a response to the invitation to answer. The answer, too, goes towards deciphering that deeper question – the ‘Who am I?’ which goes towards defining humanity.
Neil Hallinan, Maynooth, Co. Kildare
‘Art’ is where we make meaning beyond language. Art consists in the making of meaning through intelligent agency, eliciting an aesthetic response. It’s a means of communication where language is not sufficient to explain or describe its content. Art can render visible and known what was previously unspoken. Because what art expresses and evokes is in part ineffable, we find it difficult to define and delineate it. It is known through the experience of the audience as well as the intention and expression of the artist. The meaning is made by all the participants, and so can never be fully known. It is multifarious and on-going. Even a disagreement is a tension which is itself an expression of something.
Art drives the development of a civilisation, both supporting the establishment and also preventing subversive messages from being silenced – art leads, mirrors and reveals change in politics and morality. Art plays a central part in the creation of culture, and is an outpouring of thought and ideas from it, and so it cannot be fully understood in isolation from its context. Paradoxically, however, art can communicate beyond language and time, appealing to our common humanity and linking disparate communities. Perhaps if wider audiences engaged with a greater variety of the world’s artistic traditions it could engender increased tolerance and mutual respect.
Another inescapable facet of art is that it is a commodity. This fact feeds the creative process, whether motivating the artist to form an item of monetary value, or to avoid creating one, or to artistically commodify the aesthetic experience. The commodification of art also affects who is considered qualified to create art, comment on it, and even define it, as those who benefit most strive to keep the value of ‘art objects’ high. These influences must feed into a culture’s understanding of what art is at any time, making thoughts about art culturally dependent. However, this commodification and the consequent closely-guarded role of the art critic also gives rise to a counter culture within art culture, often expressed through the creation of art that cannot be sold. The stratification of art by value and the resultant tension also adds to its meaning, and the meaning of art to society.
Catherine Bosley, Monk Soham, Suffolk
First of all we must recognize the obvious. ‘Art’ is a word, and words and concepts are organic and change their meaning through time. So in the olden days, art meant craft. It was something you could excel at through practise and hard work. You learnt how to paint or sculpt, and you learnt the special symbolism of your era. Through Romanticism and the birth of individualism, art came to mean originality. To do something new and never-heard-of defined the artist. His or her personality became essentially as important as the artwork itself. During the era of Modernism, the search for originality led artists to reevaluate art. What could art do? What could it represent? Could you paint movement (Cubism, Futurism)? Could you paint the non-material (Abstract Expressionism)? Fundamentally: could anything be regarded as art? A way of trying to solve this problem was to look beyond the work itself, and focus on the art world: art was that which the institution of art – artists, critics, art historians, etc – was prepared to regard as art, and which was made public through the institution, e.g. galleries. That’s Institutionalism – made famous through Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades.
Institutionalism has been the prevailing notion through the later part of the twentieth century, at least in academia, and I would say it still holds a firm grip on our conceptions. One example is the Swedish artist Anna Odell. Her film sequence Unknown woman 2009-349701, for which she faked psychosis to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital, was widely debated, and by many was not regarded as art. But because it was debated by the art world, it succeeded in breaking into the art world, and is today regarded as art, and Odell is regarded an artist.
Of course there are those who try and break out of this hegemony, for example by refusing to play by the art world’s unwritten rules. Andy Warhol with his Factory was one, even though he is today totally embraced by the art world. Another example is Damien Hirst, who, much like Warhol, pays people to create the physical manifestations of his ideas. He doesn’t use galleries and other art world-approved arenas to advertise, and instead sells his objects directly to private individuals. This liberal approach to capitalism is one way of attacking the hegemony of the art world.
What does all this teach us about art? Probably that art is a fleeting and chimeric concept. We will always have art, but for the most part we will only really learn in retrospect what the art of our era was.
Tommy Törnsten, Linköping, Sweden
Art periods such as Classical, Byzantine, neo-Classical, Romantic, Modern and post-Modern reflect the changing nature of art in social and cultural contexts; and shifting values are evident in varying content, forms and styles. These changes are encompassed, more or less in sequence, by Imitationalist, Emotionalist, Expressivist, Formalist and Institutionalist theories of art. In The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (1981), Arthur Danto claims a distinctiveness for art that inextricably links its instances with acts of observation, without which all that could exist are ‘material counterparts’ or ‘mere real things’ rather than artworks. Notwithstanding the competing theories, works of art can be seen to possess ‘family resemblances’ or ‘strands of resemblance’ linking very different instances as art. Identifying instances of art is relatively straightforward, but a definition of art that includes all possible cases is elusive. Consequently, art has been claimed to be an ‘open’ concept.
According to Raymond Williams’ Keywords (1976), capitalised ‘Art’ appears in general use in the nineteenth century, with ‘Fine Art’; whereas ‘art’ has a history of previous applications, such as in music, poetry, comedy, tragedy and dance; and we should also mention literature, media arts, even gardening, which for David Cooper in A Philosophy of Gardens (2006) can provide “epiphanies of co-dependence”. Art, then, is perhaps “anything presented for our aesthetic contemplation” – a phrase coined by John Davies, former tutor at the School of Art Education, Birmingham, in 1971 – although ‘anything’ may seem too inclusive. Gaining our aesthetic interest is at least a necessary requirement of art. Sufficiency for something to be art requires significance to art appreciators which endures as long as tokens or types of the artwork persist. Paradoxically, such significance is sometimes attributed to objects neither intended as art, nor especially intended to be perceived aesthetically – for instance, votive, devotional, commemorative or utilitarian artefacts. Furthermore, aesthetic interests can be eclipsed by dubious investment practices and social kudos. When combined with celebrity and harmful forms of narcissism, they can egregiously affect artistic authenticity. These interests can be overriding, and spawn products masquerading as art. Then it’s up to discerning observers to spot any Fads, Fakes and Fantasies (Sjoerd Hannema, 1970).
Colin Brookes, Loughborough, Leicestershire
For me art is nothing more and nothing less than the creative ability of individuals to express their understanding of some aspect of private or public life, like love, conflict, fear, or pain. As I read a war poem by Edward Thomas, enjoy a Mozart piano concerto, or contemplate a M.C. Escher drawing, I am often emotionally inspired by the moment and intellectually stimulated by the thought-process that follows. At this moment of discovery I humbly realize my views may be those shared by thousands, even millions across the globe. This is due in large part to the mass media’s ability to control and exploit our emotions. The commercial success of a performance or production becomes the metric by which art is now almost exclusively gauged: quality in art has been sadly reduced to equating great art with sale of books, number of views, or the downloading of recordings. Too bad if personal sensibilities about a particular piece of art are lost in the greater rush for immediate acceptance.
So where does that leave the subjective notion that beauty can still be found in art? If beauty is the outcome of a process by which art gives pleasure to our senses, then it should remain a matter of personal discernment, even if outside forces clamour to take control of it. In other words, nobody, including the art critic, should be able to tell the individual what is beautiful and what is not. The world of art is one of a constant tension between preserving individual tastes and promoting popular acceptance.
Ian Malcomson, Victoria, British Columbia
What we perceive as beautiful does not offend us on any level. It is a personal judgement, a subjective opinion. A memory from once we gazed upon something beautiful, a sight ever so pleasing to the senses or to the eye, oft time stays with us forever. I shall never forget walking into Balzac’s house in France: the scent of lilies was so overwhelming that I had a numinous moment. The intensity of the emotion evoked may not be possible to explain. I don’t feel it’s important to debate why I think a flower, painting, sunset or how the light streaming through a stained-glass window is beautiful. The power of the sights create an emotional reaction in me. I don’t expect or concern myself that others will agree with me or not. Can all agree that an act of kindness is beautiful?
A thing of beauty is a whole; elements coming together making it so. A single brush stroke of a painting does not alone create the impact of beauty, but all together, it becomes beautiful. A perfect flower is beautiful, when all of the petals together form its perfection; a pleasant, intoxicating scent is also part of the beauty.
In thinking about the question, ‘What is beauty?’, I’ve simply come away with the idea that I am the beholder whose eye it is in. Suffice it to say, my private assessment of what strikes me as beautiful is all I need to know.
Cheryl Anderson, Kenilworth, Illinois
Stendhal said, “Beauty is the promise of happiness”, but this didn’t get to the heart of the matter. Whose beauty are we talking about? Whose happiness?
Consider if a snake made art. What would it believe to be beautiful? What would it deign to make? Snakes have poor eyesight and detect the world largely through a chemosensory organ, the Jacobson’s organ, or through heat-sensing pits. Would a movie in its human form even make sense to a snake? So their art, their beauty, would be entirely alien to ours: it would not be visual, and even if they had songs they would be foreign; after all, snakes do not have ears, they sense vibrations. So fine art would be sensed, and songs would be felt, if it is even possible to conceive that idea.
From this perspective – a view low to the ground – we can see that beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. It may cross our lips to speak of the nature of beauty in billowy language, but we do so entirely with a forked tongue if we do so seriously. The aesthetics of representing beauty ought not to fool us into thinking beauty, as some abstract concept, truly exists. It requires a viewer and a context, and the value we place on certain combinations of colors or sounds over others speaks of nothing more than preference. Our desire for pictures, moving or otherwise, is because our organs developed in such a way. A snake would have no use for the visual world.
I am thankful to have human art over snake art, but I would no doubt be amazed at serpentine art. It would require an intellectual sloughing of many conceptions we take for granted. For that, considering the possibility of this extreme thought is worthwhile: if snakes could write poetry, what would it be?
Derek Halm, Portland, Oregon
[A: Sssibilance and sussssuration – Ed.]
The questions, ‘What is art?’ and ‘What is beauty?’ are different types and shouldn’t be conflated.
With boring predictability, almost all contemporary discussers of art lapse into a ‘relative-off’, whereby they go to annoying lengths to demonstrate how open-minded they are and how ineluctably loose the concept of art is. If art is just whatever you want it to be, can we not just end the conversation there? It’s a done deal. I’ll throw playdough on to a canvas, and we can pretend to display our modern credentials of acceptance and insight. This just doesn’t work, and we all know it. If art is to mean anything, there has to be some working definition of what it is. If art can be anything to anybody at anytime, then there ends the discussion. What makes art special – and worth discussing – is that it stands above or outside everyday things, such as everyday food, paintwork, or sounds. Art comprises special or exceptional dishes, paintings, and music.
So what, then, is my definition of art? Briefly, I believe there must be at least two considerations to label something as ‘art’. The first is that there must be something recognizable in the way of ‘author-to-audience reception’. I mean to say, there must be the recognition that something was made for an audience of some kind to receive, discuss or enjoy. Implicit in this point is the evident recognizability of what the art actually is – in other words, the author doesn’t have to tell you it’s art when you otherwise wouldn’t have any idea. The second point is simply the recognition of skill: some obvious skill has to be involved in making art. This, in my view, would be the minimum requirements – or definition – of art. Even if you disagree with the particulars, some definition is required to make anything at all art. Otherwise, what are we even discussing? I’m breaking the mold and ask for brass tacks.
Brannon McConkey, Tennessee
Author of Student of Life: Why Becoming Engaged in Life, Art, and Philosophy Can Lead to a Happier Existence
Human beings appear to have a compulsion to categorize, to organize and define. We seek to impose order on a welter of sense-impressions and memories, seeing regularities and patterns in repetitions and associations, always on the lookout for correlations, eager to determine cause and effect, so that we might give sense to what might otherwise seem random and inconsequential. However, particularly in the last century, we have also learned to take pleasure in the reflection of unstructured perceptions; our artistic ways of seeing and listening have expanded to encompass disharmony and irregularity. This has meant that culturally, an ever-widening gap has grown between the attitudes and opinions of the majority, who continue to define art in traditional ways, having to do with order, harmony, representation; and the minority, who look for originality, who try to see the world anew, and strive for difference, and whose critical practice is rooted in abstraction. In between there are many who abjure both extremes, and who both find and give pleasure both in defining a personal vision and in practising craftsmanship.
There will always be a challenge to traditional concepts of art from the shock of the new, and tensions around the appropriateness of our understanding. That is how things should be, as innovators push at the boundaries. At the same time, we will continue to take pleasure in the beauty of a mathematical equation, a finely-tuned machine, a successful scientific experiment, the technology of landing a probe on a comet, an accomplished poem, a striking portrait, the sound-world of a symphony. We apportion significance and meaning to what we find of value and wish to share with our fellows. Our art and our definitions of beauty reflect our human nature and the multiplicity of our creative efforts.
In the end, because of our individuality and our varied histories and traditions, our debates will always be inconclusive. If we are wise, we will look and listen with an open spirit, and sometimes with a wry smile, always celebrating the diversity of human imaginings and achievements.
David Howard, Church Stretton, Shropshire