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What is Art According to Famous Thinkers Through History

  • A visitor in the Louvre Museum
June 13, 2016
A philosophy graduate interested in theory, politics and art. Alias of Jelena Martinović.

What is art? The question that has been troubling the humanity for centuries. The nature of art has been described by philosopher Richard Wollheim as ‘one of the most elusive of the traditional problems of human culture’. The definition of art is open, subjective and debatable. Throughout the history of art, artists themselves have been pushing the boundaries of each definition and challenging our preconceptions. As the concept of art has been changing through centuries, its purpose has been defined as to represent reality, communicate emotions or ideas, create a sense of beauty, explore the nature of perception, explore formal elements for their own sake, or simply being nonexistent. The role of art has been changing over time, acquiring more of an aesthetic component here and a socio-educational function there. There is no agreement between philosophers, art historians and artists, and thus, we are left with so many definitions.

Since the rise of the avant-garde, Western tradition has been evolving to the point where anything can be presented as an art object, and where the role of the artist is subject to multiple interpretations. In 1981, the German-born American art historian Peter Selz wrote: ‘If one general statement can be made about the art of our times, it is that one by one the old criteria of what a work of art ought to be have been discarded in favor of a dynamic approach in which everything is possible’.

what is art
Plato and Aristotle, via ecrhumanitas.net

Art As Mimesis

The idea of art as an imitation, that dominated throughout centuries of art history, dates back to ancient Greece. Plato didn’t look too fondly on art. Regarding all art forms as instances of ‘mimesis’ or imitation, he criticized them for failing to depict the eternal ideal realities that he referred to as ‘forms’ or ‘ideas’. Since life itself was just a mere and poor copy of perfect ideal forms, the art as a copy of a copy was simply a third removal from the reality and truth. Similarly, Aristotle traces art back to the love of imitation and recognizing likenesses which characterizes humans. But for him, art was not mere copying. As a realization in the external form of a true idea, art idealizes nature and completes its faults seeking to grasp the universal type in the individual phenomenon. ‘The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance’, Aristotle wrote. The theory of art as an imitation of beauty or nature was persistent throughout the history of art. In Lives of the Painters Renaissance painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari wrote ‘painting is just the imitation of all the living things of nature with their colors and designs just as they are in nature’. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 19th century and the rise of Romanticism that this idea started to fade away and much greater emphasis was placed on the expression of the artist’s emotions.

what is art
Model of Jackson Pollock in his studio, by Joe Fig, via theredlist.com

Art As a Form of Expression

Born out of Romanticism, the expression theory of art defined it as the means of portraying the unique and individual emotions of artists. Tolstoy’s definition of art in his piece What Is Art? was very much out of this mould: ‘Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one person consciously, by certain external signs, conveys to others feelings he has experienced, and other people are affected by these feelings and live them over in themselves’. Argued that expression theory restricts artists to the expression of feelings and emotions, later theorists emphasized that art can express not only feelings and emotion but also ideas. In ‘Sentences of Conceptual Art’ in Art and Its Significance, American artist Sol Le Witt stated: ‘Ideas alone can be works of art….All ideas need not be made physical.…A work of art may be understood as a conductor from the artist’s mind to the viewer’s. But it may never reach the viewer, or it may never leave the artist’s mind’.

As a way of expressing emotions and ideas, art is also a powerful means of communication. Making an impact on the sensory perceptions of others, a work of art should arguably communicate artist’s emotions or feeling. Centuries before the expression theory, Leonardo da Vinci stated that ‘art is the Queen of all sciences communicating knowledge to all generations of the world’. In the above-mentioned piece, Tolstoy wrote: ‘To evoke in oneself a feeling one has experienced, and…then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling—this is the activity of art’.

what is art
Picasso in his studio, via anthonylawlor.wordpress.com

Art and The Truth

Thinkers influenced by Martin Heidegger have interpreted art as the means by which a community develops for itself a medium for self-expression and interpretation. For Heidegger, art either manifests, articulates or reconfigures the style of a culture from within the world of that culture. In this sense, art is capable of revealing someone else’s world and producing a shared understanding. Much before Heidegger, Hegel thought art expresses the spirit of particular cultures, as well as that of individual artists and the general human spirit. Putting an emphasis on the historical development of ideas and of consciousness, he saw an artistic expression as a kind of a climax of the history of the human spirit that reveals the truth in an intuitive way.

Art often revolves around the search for truth and meaning in one’s life. But can a work of art produce the truth? While Plato thought it cannot, Hegel and some other thinkers thought differently. The notion of truth in art is not a matter of accurate representation in an empirical way, but art can express a deeper sense of reality and convey certain knowledge. In Fire and Ice: The Art and Thoughts of Robert Frost, the American poet Robert Frost wrote: To me the thing that art does for life is to clean it – to strip it to form’. Similarly, Pablo Picasso thought that ‘art is a lie that makes us realize the truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand’. Since artists and their audience share the material world in which they live, art can contribute to the change of that world and the general sensibilities and attitudes. As Paul Klee wrote in The Inward Vision, ‘art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible’.

what is art
Theodor Adorno, via rtmk.ch

Art Shaping The World

Speaking in Marxist terms, art can be understood as a part of the superstructure or as part of the material basis. Or in other words, it can be understood as an ideology or as technology. Art as an ideology contributes to the reproduction of the current social conditions, while the art in the material basis seeks to change them. Encouraging individuals to think outside the limits to which their thoughts are regulated by the systems of power, art serves to eradicate the ‘demystification’ present in capitalist society. The writings of Marx and Engels on art were both limited and significant, but other Marxist theorists continued to develop the Marxist theory of art. For Adorno, politically engaged art is a partial corrective to the bankrupt aestheticism of the majority of mainstream art. As he wrote, ‘all art is an uncommitted crime’, meaning that art challenges the status quo by its very nature and engages with an already existing ideology and dominant discourse. Thus, art should be critical and should interrogate the world, rather than seek to explain it, or as Brecht wrote: ‘Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it’.

what is art
Oscar Wilde

So, What Is Art?

Whatever art is, it is inherent to human existence. Dostoevsky wrote: ‘Art is as much a need for humanity as eating and drinking. The need for beauty and for creations that embody it is inseparable from humanity and without it man perhaps might not want to live on earth. Man thirsts for beauty, finds and accepts beauty without any conditions but just as it is, simply because it is beauty; and he bows down before it with reverence without asking what use it is and what one can buy with it’. For Nietzsche, ‘art is essentially the affirmation, the blessing, and the deification of existence’. Art is a means of coping with the world we live in, our own existence and making sense of it all. American novelist Saul Bellow wrote that ‘art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos’. On the other hand, for Oscar Wilde, ‘art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known’. Art is also an attempt at immortality, or as French novelist Andre Malraux wrote, ‘art is a revolt, a protest against extinction’. Art is all those things and so many others. Transcending a solipsistic view of life, art has the power to relate to the world and each other with more integrity, more curiosity, more wholeheartedness. And by doing so, it makes our lives infinitely rich.