Art Essays

The meaning of art as viewed by various philosophers:


Leo Tolstoy on What is Art?

In his essay on art, Tolstoy (1828 -1910) asks the question, “What is Art?”.He goes on to say that many people hold the subjective view that art is beauty, and we call beauty that which gives us a particular kind of pleasure. In the objective sense, we call beauty something absolutely perfect, and we acknowledge it to be so only because we receive, from this perfection, a certain kind of pleasure; so the objective definition is the same as the subjective. The kind of pleasure we receive from beauty is that which pleases us without evoking desire in us. We might try to be scientific about it, and try to find a definition of art based on beauty, which we could apply to all art productions to see if they belonged to the realm of art or not. But all attempts to define absolute beauty have failed.There is no objective definition of beauty. All definitions amount to the same thing; that art is that which makes beauty manifest, and beauty is that which pleases without exciting desire. But there is and can be no explanation of why one thing pleases one man and displeases another, so scientists cannot work out the laws of art.

Aetheticians have attempted to work backwards by first listing acknowledged works of art, and then trying to find a theory to fit them all. So now, no matter what insanities appear in art, once they find acceptance among the upper classes of society, a theory is quickly invented to explain and sanction them, just as if there had never appeared in history people who produced false and deformed art, which was afterwards discarded and forgotten. And one may see now in the art of our circle, to what lengths the insanity and deformity of art may go.

So that theory of art is nothing but the setting up as good whatever pleases us, that is, pleases a certain class of people. In order define any human activity, it is necessary to understand its sense and importance; to do that one must examine the activity itself, and its causes and effects, not merely in relation to the pleasure we get out of it. If we say that the aim of any activity is merely pleasure, and is defined by that pleasure, our definition will be false. If we compare it to the food question, nobody would affirm that the importance of food consists in the pleasure we get from eating it. We know that the satisfaction of the taste buds is no infallible guide to the best food from a health point of view, in the same way the pleasure we get from a painting is no indication of its worth. People who consider the meaning of art to be pleasure cannot realise its true meaning, in fact, people will come to understand the meaning of art only when they cease to consider that the aim of art is pleasure.

So then – what is art?

The latest definitions are:

I. Art is an activity arising even in the animal kingdom, springing from sexual desire and the propensity to play (Schiller, Darwin Spencer) and accompanied by a pleasurable excitement of the nervous system. (Grant Allen);
2. Art is an external manifestation by means of lines, colours, movements, sounds,or words, of emotions felt by man. (Veron);
3. Art is the production of some permanent object or passing action, which is fitted not only to supply an active enjoyment to the producer, but to convey a pleasurable impression to a number of spectators or listeners, quite apart from any personal advantage to be derived from it. (Sully)

The first definition is inexact, because instead of speaking of the human activity itself, it only speaks of the derivation of it The second definition is inexact because a man may express his emotions by means of lines colours etc, and yet may not act on others by his expression so the result is not art. The third definition is inexact, because  in the production of objects or actions affording pleasure,  conjuring tricks or gymnastic exercises may be included, which are not art. Furthermore, the production of a play which does not afford pleasure to the producer or audience, may yet be a work of art. The inaccuracy of all these definitions arises from the fact that, in them all, the object considered is the pleasure art may give, and not the purpose it may serve in the life of man and of humanity.

In order to define art correctly, it is necessary to cease to consider it as a means to pleasure, and to consider it as one of the conditions of life. Viewed in this way, we see that art is one of the means of communication between man and man.

Every work of art causes the receiver to enter into a certain kind of relationship, both with the artist and all who receive the same impression. Just as words transmit thoughts, so art transmits feelings. The activity of art is based on the fact that when we witness a man experiencing an emotion, we to some extent share it. To evoke in oneself a feeling that one has once experienced, and to transmit that feeling to others through forms and colours, sounds or movements.

That is art. Art is not pleasure, but a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for life and progress towards well-being of individuals and of humanity. Thanks to his capacity to express thoughts by words, every man may know the debt he owes to the past, and be able to hand on what he has acheived to future generations. If humans lacked this capacity, we would be like wild beasts, and if people lacked this capacity for being infected by art, people might be more savage still, and more separated from one another.

All human life is filled with art, from cradle songs to fashion in clothes, but by the word ‘art’, we mean that part of artistic activity which we select as having special importance. This special importance has always been given to that part of art which transmits feelings flowing from religious perception. This was how Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle looked on art, and how all the great religious teachers understood it. Plato was so convinced of the power of art, that he suggested that artists should be banned from his ideal republic. Yet that is a less harmful attitude than the attitude in our European society today, where art is regarded as a good thing only if it affords pleasure.

How has our society come down to this? It is because the estimation of the value of art (that is, the feeling it transmits) depends on man’s perception of the meaning of life. Humanity unceasingly moves forward from a lower, more partial view of life to a higher and broader view. Religions are the exponents of the highest comprehension of life accessible to the best and foremost people at a given time. Later the rest of society follows their lead. Therefore religions have always served as bases for the valuation of human semtiments. If feelings bring men nearer the ideal their religion indicates, they are good, if they oppose it, they are bad.

Thus in the case of the Greeks, if the religion places the meaning of life in earthly happiness, in beauty and strength, then art transmitting the joy and energy of life would be considered good, but art transmitting despondency would be bad. If the meaning of life is seen in the well-being of one’s nation, or in honouring one’s ancestors, as in the case of the Romans and Chinese, then art transmitting joy in self sacrifice for one’s country or exalting one’s ancestors would be good, and the contrary, bad. If the meaning of life is seen in freeing oneself from the yoke of animalism, as in Buddhism, then art which elevates the soul and humbles the flesh is good, whereas art exalting bodily passions would be bad. But art in our society has been so perverted that not only has bad art come to be considered good, but even the very perception of what art really is, has been lost.

In order to find out why, we must distinguish art from counterfeit art. Real art must be infectious – the receiver of a true artistic impression is so united to the artist that he feels as though the work were his own – as if what it expresses was what he had been longing to express. A real work of art destroys the separation between himself and the artist, and even between himself and all those others who also appreciate this art. In this freeing of our personality from its isolation, and uniting it with others, lies the great attractive force of art. Not only is infection a sure sign of art, but the degree of infectiousness is the sole measure of excellence in art.

This depends on three things:
1. The individuality of the feeling transmitted.
2. Its clarity.
3. The sincerity of the artist – ie, the the degree of force with which the artist feels the emotion he transmits.

If the viewer feels that the artist works for himself, he is affected, but if he feels that the artist is not infected, but is trying to influence him, the viewer feels a resistance, and is repelled instead. All can be summed up in a word – sincerity. The artist should be impelled by an inner need to express his feeling. Now, just as the evolution of knowledge proceeds by truer and more necessary knowledge displacing previous knowledge, so the evolution of feeling proceeds through art – feelings more kind and needful to humanity replace the older feelings. That is the purpose of art. In every age there exists an understanding of the meaning of life which represents the highest level which has been attained.

If it appears that in our Society there is no religious perception, this is not because there is none, but because we do not want to see it. And often this is because it exposes the fact that our life is inconsistent with that religious perception. In our times religion is regarded as a superstition which humanity has outgrown, and yet if humanity is to progress there must be a guide to the direction of that movement. Religions have always furnished that guide throughout history. So there must be some form of religious perception today – and in its widest and most practical application, it is the consciousness that or well-being – materially and spiritually – lies in the growth of brotherhood among men – in their loving harmony with one another.

The chief mistake made by the people of the upper classes at the time of the Renaissance was that they set up in place of religious art, an art which aimed only at giving pleasure. It is said that the great evil is not that we do not know God, but that we make a god of something lower. Instead of art which feeds the spirit, an empty and often vicious art is set up, which hides from us our need for true art. And true art for our time would demand the union of all people without exception – above all virtues it sets brotherly love to all men.

G.W.F.Hegel (1770 -1831) on the Philosophy of Fine Art

Art can serve many puposes, and even be a pastime, but we want to examine the kind of art that is free in its aim and means. This is the only true art. Its highest function is only served when it has established itself in a sphere which it shares with religion and philosophy, becoming thereby a mode and form through which the Divine, the profoundest interests of mankind, and spiritual truths of the widest range, are brought home to consciousness and expressed. It is in works of art that nations have deposited the richest ideas they possess, and often art serves as a key of interpretation to the wisdom and understanding of peoples. Philosophy and religion also do this, but art appeals to the senses and is nearer to Nature and to our sensitive and emotional life.

Art is the primary bond of mediation between the external world of the senses and the medium of pure thought and understanding. It could be objected that art was unworthy, being of the world of appearances and its deceptions.

But in the world of Nature appearance is essential to reality.There could be no such thing as truth if it did not actually appear for some person. And appearance in Nature itself is deceptive. It is only beyond the appearance of everyday life that we shall discover reality in any true sense. At least art does not pretend to be reality, whereas Nature, pretending to be the only reality,is more deceptive.

There are three factors determining a work of art:

1. A work of art is not produced by Nature; it is brought into being by the agency of man. 2. It is created essentially for man, and it is addressed to his senses 3. It contains an end bound up with it
With regard to the first factor; a work of art cannot be imitated by mere dexterity, art is an activity of the soul, constrained to work out of its own wealth, and to bring before the mind’s eye a wholly other and far richer content; a unique creation.

The essential point to maintain is that although talent and genius imply natural power, yet it is indispensable that

(a) this power be thoughtfully cultivated (b) reflection should be brought to bear on the particular way it is exercised (c)  it should be kept alive with use and practice in actual work.

A work of art possesses a purely technical side – that of craft. This is most obvious in architecture and sculpture, less so in painting and music, least in poetry.

Added to this the more exalted the rank of the artist the more profoundly he ought to portray depths of soul and mind. Study is the means by which the artist brings to consciousness such a content.

Is art inferior to Nature? Art originates in the human spirit, it has received the baptism of the human mind and soul of man. The spiritual values are seized in the work of art and emphasized with greater purity and clarity than is possible in ordinary reality, therefore the work of art is greater.

What is the human need that stimulates art production?

Man is a thinking consciousness; he makes explicit to himself all that exists. He has a need to bring himself in his own inner life to consciousness. He needs to assert himself in that which is presented him in immediacy, external to himself, and by doing so at the same time to recognize himself therein. This purpose he achieves by the alteration he effects in external objects, upon which he imprints the seal of his inner life. He does this in order that he may divest the world of its alienation from himself.

A boy throws stones into a stream, and then looks with wonder at the circles which follow in the water, seeing there something of hs own doing. This need runs through everything up to the level of art.
Man satisfies his spirit by making explicit to his inner life all that exists, as well as further giving a realized external embodiment to the self thus made explicit. And by this reduplication of what is his own he places before the vision and within the cognition of himself and others what is within him.

The second factor; art is addressed to man’s senses. Writers have asked what feelings art ought to excite. But feelings are subjective and passing, although powerful at the time, which is why people are so proud of having emotions. The trouble is that they do not attempt to study their emotions, which would help by creating thereby a distance from them. Art can give this distance, because by depicting emotions, it helps the onlooker towards the study of his own emotions.

Is art there to excite a feeling for beauty? To appreciate beauty people have cultivated taste, but taste is superficial, and cannot grasp the real profoundity of art. Art scholarship is too often concerned only with externals. Art therefore is not just for the senses. The mind is intended to be affected as well and to receive some kind of satisfaction in it. The creative imagination of a true artist is the imagination of a great mind and a big heart, it grasps the profoundest and most embracing human interests in the wholly definite presentation of imagery borrowed from objective experience.

The third factor: What is the end or aim of art?

Art is not meant to be a mere imitation of Nature – if it attempts a mere copy it will always lag a long way behind. Nevertheless the artist must learn the laws of Nature; of colour and chiaroscuro; of line and form. So what is the true content of art, and what is its aim? One opinion is that it is the the task of art to bring before us everything that the spirit of man can concieve. Is it the task of art to enflame man’s passions and set them staggering about in a Bacchantic riot?

Sensual desire is more brutal and domineering the more it appropriates the entire man, so that he does not retain the power to separate himself, and loses touch with his universal capacity.  Sometimes art showing such passions can awaken man to the horror of his condition, he can see them outside himself, they come before him as objects rather than part of himself – he begins to be free from them as aliens.

In the same way, wailing women were hired at funerals, to create an external expression of grief, so that the sufferer can see his sorrow in an objective form and in reflecting on it, his sorrow is made lighter. So art, while still remaining in the sphere of the senses, faces man from the might of his sensitive experience by means of its representations.

It has been said that art’s aim is the purification of passions, that it is its duty to instruct. Is this true? We have seen how art instructs by revealing to man the contents of his nature, but if art tries to bluntly teach, it becomes merely a maxim, with the art added on as bait. Thereby the very nature of art is abused. For a work of art ought not to bring before the creative imagination a content in its universality as such, but rather this universality under the mode of individual concreteness and distinctive sensuous particularity.

An external morality would limit the subject matter of art, but art, unlike history and the sciences, which have their subject matter determined, has a  free choice in the selection of its subjects. So when we ask what is the end of art, we must be careful that we are not saying in effect, what is the use of art, as if art had to have a reason for existing  other than for itself.  On the other hand we must maintain that it is art’s function to reveal

Truth under the mode of art’s sensuous or material configuration, to display reconciled differences and therefore prove that it possesses its final aim in itself. For other ends such as instruction, purification, improvement, riches, fame and honour have nothing to do with a work of art as such, still less with the concept of art.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951)

Wittgenstein has said that in his opinion the subject of aesthetics is very big and entirely misunderstood. The use of the word “beautiful” is even more apt to be misunderstood. He would like a book on philosophy to contain chapters on words, and confusions that come up with them. He compares language to a tool chest; words are used together in a family of ways – yet the tools could be very different.

As to the word “beautiful”, a child hears the word mainly as an interjection. It is remarkable that in real life adjectives such as “beautiful”, “lovely” etc. play hardly any role at all. The words used are more like “right” or “correct”.

For example, take the question, “How should poetry be read?” For example you might discuss in reading blank verse, how to stress the rhythm correctly. A man says: “It ought to be read this way!” and reads it out, and you say, “Oh yes! Now it makes sense!”

What does a man ordering a suit at the tailor’s say? “That’s the right length. That’s too short!”.

In the case of the word “correct” you have a variety of related cases. In one case you learn the rules. A tailor learns how to measure and cut the coat. A customer comes in and says “This coat is too short!” but the tailor disagrees because he says “I made it according to the rules!”

So judgement is needed as well as rules.

Nevertheless we need the rules. In art, if someone hasn’t learned the rules he wouldn’t be able to make an aesthetic judgement. In learning the rules, you get a more and more refined judgement; in fact learning the rules actually changes your judgement.

The rules of harmony in music came about because they expressed the way most people wanted the chords to follow – their wishes crytallized in these rules. All the greatest composers wrote in accordance with these rules, and yet you can say that every composer changed the rules, but the variation was very slight, not all the rules were changed.

In the Arts, a person who has judgment also changes and develops. We can distinguish between a person who knows what he is talking about and one who does not.

A word we can discuss is the word “appreciate”. What is appreciation? If a man at the tailor’s looks at a great many patterns and says, “This is too dark” or “This is a little too loud’, he is what we call an appreciator of material. Similarly in music he might say, “Does this harmonize? No, the bass is not quite loud enough.”

Although we can see when someone appreciates something, it is impossible to describe. To do this we would have to describe the whole environment. On the subject of correctness, a good tailor won’t use any words except words like “Too long” or “All right”. But when we talk of a symphony by Beethoven we don’t talk of correctness. Entirely different things enter. One wouldn’t even talk of appreciating the really tremendous things in art. In a style of architecture a door may be correct, and you appreciate it, but in the case of a Gothic Cathedral, we do not just find it correct – it has a different role to play in our lives. It is as different as if we were talking about a man and said on the one hand “He behaves well.” and on the other “He made a great impression on me.”

To describe what you mean by a cultured taste, you have to describe a culture. What we describe as a cultured taste perhaps didn’t exist in the Middle Ages. An entirely different game is played in different ages. In order to become clear about aesthetic words you have to describe ways of living.
A landlady might love a sentimental painting, you might want to throw it in the fire …. alright! That’s that..

Jacques Maritain b. 1882

Art and poetry come from a deeper part of the intellect – not the reasoning part alone.

There is an interpenetration of art and nature – so that a place comes alive because of its history.

Oriental artists try to forget themselves, and meditate on the subject of nature, rendering it as truly as they can, becoming one with things but leaving their egos out.

In the West, artists evolved from studying things, to the portrayal of the Divine after the Christian Church was established. Man passed from a sense of the human self as object, to the sacred art which depicted Christ’s self as man, to a sense of human self as subject, and then became absorbed in his own inward development. Later artists such as Cezanne became intent on revealing the buried significance of the visible world. Man’s longing for order and harmony emerges from the brute universe of the eye in the act of seeing and brings forth a quality of emotion which finds an echo in other human beings. Three rules on art.

First: the very idea of rules in the fine arts changes and becomes transfigured through the impact of beauty on the activity of art. So the rules must be continually reborn, and the artist is forever exploring the unknown.

Second: the work to be made is unique, and an end in itself. Each time, and for every single work, there is for the artist a new and unique way to strive after the making of his art.

Third: because the work is an end in itself, and a unique participation in beauty, reason alone is not enough for the artist. Because in art as in contemplation, intellectuality at its peak goes beyond concepts and reason, and is achieved through union with the subject, which love alone can bring about.