WHAT IS ART? A Perspective you didn't know...
Art - no other topic seems so vague and undefined. Architecture is for buildings, economy is for goods and services, medicine is for health, science is for research and technology... But what is art for? Why can’t people come up with a clear idea about this topic? Well, I thought this through for you and here’s my own take on art.
Definition of art
A good start to define art is by establishing what I do not mean by it. This is important as much confusion can easily arise about this topic. When I speak about art, I don’t mean design. I don’t mean graphics, and I don’t mean creative techniques nor skills, although they are a basis for art. When speaking about art, I also don’t mean ornamentation. All those things are surely related to creativity and can sometimes be called artistry too, but they are not necessarily art.
However, what is usually meant by art, is FINE ART which is all the creative activities that have nothing to do with functionality, with zero practicability in the physical world, but only with cultural or aesthetic values. Design and graphics communicate ideas through form which is frequently utilised in advertising. It’s functionally applied creativity, so it’s not fine art. Creative techniques, craftsmanship and skills lead to the creation of fine art, but are not an artistic end in itself. And finally, ornamentation is totally functional as decoration through repetitive patterns, so it is not fine art either.
fine art & beauty
Now that I defined what art is not, let me define what it truly is. Fine art has to do with aesthetics, not with functionality or usefulness, but with some aesthetic value. So what is aesthetics? Simply put, aesthetics is the concept of... BEAUTY.
It is a set of principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty and there’s even an entire branch of philosophy which deals with questions of beauty and artistic taste. Yes, you heard it! There’s an entire domain of human thinking which asks why we find certain things beautiful. We might argue about the exact definitions of beauty, but we all understand that we need beauty in our lives and that it’s about… you know… making things look pretty.
art has objective standards
You might know the phrase: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It’s supposed to mean that anything can be considered beautiful by anyone, because tastes are very subjective and therefore, who’s there to say that one thing is beautiful and another one isn’t? Well, we’re at the core of an issue here, because... actually, for the most part of human history great artists did assume that there are objective criteria for defining beauty. That’s why there have been classic standards of creative quality for centuries among artists.
You can trace it back all the way to the ancient Greeks, most likely even further than that. All the statues and also the Parthenon are a classical example of beauty and these works heavily utilised geometry to achieve the looks we are so familiar with from museums and pictures. And what you geometrize, you can also mathematically define as objective standards.
So you have this aspect in art that is based on objective standards and gives clear rules and principles about how things should be created to look beautiful. Beauty would be from this point of view a harmony of proportions which you can observe and calculate for yourself to come up with harmonious proportions that would be perceived as beautiful by the beholder.
That’s why you also have the heavy explorations of spatial relations in the renaissance paintings. The artists were trying to discover the proportions and create the correct standards for the harmony within the spatial relations in a composition. Here we have it again: it’s all very geometrical, and analytical.
art as Harmony of proportions
But we still haven’t defined why artists would be doing this. Why having objective criteria for making things look pretty through the right proportions? It’s because of such questions that we have philosophers to think and write about it. But to put it into a nutshell - it seems that we humans have an inborn sense for harmonious proportions. Take an example from music: some musical chords can be perceived by our ears and the brain as harmonious and others just aren’t. That’s how our brain perceives sounds. In the same way certain visual forms are perceived by our brain through eyes as more beautiful than others.
The appreciation of beauty just seems to be hardwired in the brain somehow. We have an instinct for visual harmony from early on and this instinct can be cultivated and developed further throughout our lives, so that we can say, someone has a developed taste for art, which would be true. Such a taste needs to be developed and cultivated indeed, otherwise you won’t have any appreciation for beautiful things. It just won’t be important to you.
art ennobles reality
Anyone who deals with human perception knows that there’s a vast number of ways how you can perceive a thing. It’s the same with beauty. A real artist can make even ugly things look beautiful in their artwork. The phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” now gets a quite different meaning. It’s the artist’s eye that strives for the perfection of form to achieve harmony, so that even ugly things can be made look much prettier that they are in reality.
Here’s the essence of true art: to render the perfect mental vision of an idea as a physical and thus flawed manifestation in an artwork. As an artist you try to express that which is perfect and generic in a thing through its specific, imperfect manifestation in concrete reality (form). Just think about it, and I hope this realisation will become a bit more clear.
To sum it up: we’ve got many things that come together to form the concept of art. We have the aesthetic sense that seems to be innate to us people, we have beauty as the objective standard for visual harmony, we’ve got the perfect forms that can be expressed in imperfect forms of physical reality, and we’ve got the artist who is the seeker for beautiful things. Ultimately, to behold beauty means to experience an elevating feeling of harmony and peace. True art ennobles our conscious experience, it makes us better human beings and help us cope with our emotions, feelings and mental states. That’s the subjective aspect of art that comes into play here.
subjectivity & Contemplation in art
Regardless of any objective standards, a work of art establishes a personal relationship between the beholder and the artwork. What a work of art means to your own private, conscious experience will be different from what it means to someone else. So there’s definitely a subjective, private, intimate aspect to art. You will find your own meaning as a result of experiencing the beautiful forms in a painting or sculpture. And the more refined and developed your personality is, the more meaning and subtlety you will discover in a work of art.
To experience that elevating feeling of beauty you need to look at the image and keep it in your mind for a while. You need to take a moment and soak in the impressions that come from the painting. You don’t just pass by, think 'okay', and move on. Let the mental image change you from the inside. Contemplate the image. Yes, experiencing fine art has to do with still contemplation! Take your time to behold all those big and small things that come together to create an image and you decide what it means to you.
It’s unfortunate that in times of social media and cellphones we lost that ability to contemplate one single image for a while. We shift our focus from one Instagram image to another one, without really letting the image sink in. Also, because the screens are so small, there’s no way to experience the grandiosity and splendour of an image. You really lose that elevating, subtle connection with the work of art, if you don’t take your time to let it.
art in a nutshell
As you can see, art is a combination of many things, of many aspects of human experience. There’s not one single thing that defines art. It’s the combination of all those things like beauty, craftsmanship, personal level of development, subjective experience, feelings, objective criteria, mental analysis and contemplation that come together to create the concept of art. You won’t nail down the concept of art in one word or even sentence, although the words beauty and aesthetics come pretty much close to that.
There’s still a few more things that I could say about art, like e.g. the artist’s personal freedom and individualism as a condition for creativity. Art is a result of personal creation and should not yield to sanctions of public opinion. Whatever the artist has to say, they shall express it, no matter the cost. In fact, many artists have lived, suffered and died for their art.
Now, if you consider all that I wrote about the essence of art, do you think that modern art reflects beauty, or do you think that we as society have removed ourselves from the right conception of art and lost something very important on the way. I personally say definitely yes. But what do you think? Do you understand modern art? Do you find it beautiful or ugly? Let me know in the comments.
If you want me to make another post about art and especially how modern art relates to this classic definition of art, feel free to let me know. I love sharing my thoughts about creativity, human nature, mindset and personal development. See you in the next one.