question of the month
The following answers to this clever question 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 is 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 represented with words alone. and because words alone are not enough, we must find some other vehicle to carry out our intention. but the content we instill in our chosen media is not itself art. the art is in how the media is used, the way the content is expressed.
what then is beauty? beauty is much more than cosmetic: it is not about beauty. Lots of pretty pictures are available at your neighborhood home furnishings store; but these we could not refer to as beautiful; and it is not difficult to find works of artistic expression that we could agree are beautiful and that are not necessarily beautiful. beauty is rather a measure of affection, a measure of emotion. in the context of art, beauty is the indicator of a successful communication between the participants: the transmission of a concept between the artist and the perceiver. fine art manages to portray the deepest emotions of the artist, the desired concepts, whether they are beautiful and bright, or dark and sinister. but neither the artist nor the observer can be sure of a successful communication in the end. so beauty in art is eternally subjective.
wm. joseph nieters, lake ozark, missouri
works of art can provoke a sense of wonder or cynicism, hope or despair, adoration or despair; the work of art can be direct or complex, subtle or explicit, intelligible or obscure; and the themes and approaches to creating art are limited only by the imagination of the artist. Consequently, I believe that defining art in terms of its content is doomed to fail.
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 emerge as islands from a stream of more pragmatic concerns. when you leave a river and reach an island, you have reached your destination. Similarly, the aesthetic attitude requires that you treat the artistic experience as an end in itself: art asks us to arrive empty of preconceived ideas and to pay attention to how we experience the artwork. and while a person may have an “aesthetic experience” of a natural scene, taste, or texture, art is different in the way 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 nonetheless.
One of the initial reactions to this approach may be that it seems too broad. an older brother who sneaks up behind his younger brother and yells “boo!” it can be said that he is creating art. but the difference between this and a freddy krueger movie is not 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 sake. 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 not determined 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, while beauty is about who is looking.
Of course, there are standards of beauty: what is considered “traditionally” beautiful. The game changers, square pegs if you will, are those who saw traditional beauty standards and specifically decided to go against them, perhaps just to prove a point. take picasso, munch, schoenberg, to name just three. they have opposed these norms in their art. otherwise, his art is like any other art: its only function is to be experienced, evaluated and understood (or not).
art is a means to express an opinion or a feeling, or to create a different vision of the world, whether it is inspired by the work of other people or something invented that is completely new. beauty is any aspect of that or anything else that makes an individual feel positive or grateful. beauty by itself 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 shown to the family, the oil painting of it hanging in a gallery, or the musical score that recreates the scene in crotchets and eighth notes. /p>
however, art is not necessarily positive: it can be deliberately hurtful or unpleasant: it can make you think or consider things you would rather not do. but if it evokes an emotion in you, then it’s art.
chiara leonardi, reading, berks
Art is a way of capturing the world. not merely the physical world, which is what science tries to do; but the whole world, and specifically, the human world, the world of society and spiritual experience.
Art emerged about 50,000 years ago, long before cities and civilization, but in ways we can still directly relate to. the mural paintings in the lascaux caves, which so astonished picasso, have been carbon dated to be around 17,000 years old. Now, after the invention of photography and Duchamp’s devastating attack on the self-styled art establishment [see Brief Lives in this issue], art cannot be defined simply on the basis of concrete evidence such as ‘representation fidelity’ or vague abstract concepts. as ‘beauty’. So how can we define art in terms applicable to both cave dwellers and modern city sophisticates? to do this we need to ask ourselves: what does art do? and the answer is surely that it provokes an emotional response, rather than simply a cognitive one. So one way to approach the problem of defining art might be to say: art consists of shareable ideas that have shareable emotional impact. art does not need to produce beautiful objects or events, as a great work of art might arouse emotions other than beauty, such as terror, anxiety, or laughter. however, deriving 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: robert salomon’s book the passions (1993) is off to an excellent start, and it seems to me that this is the way to go.
It won’t be easy. poor richard rorty jumped from a great height when all he said was that literature, poetry, patriotism, love and such were philosophically important. art is vitally important to maintain broad standards in civilization. his pedigree long predates philosophy, which is only 3,000 years old, and science, which is only 500 years old. art deserves much more attention from philosophers.
alistair macfarlane, gwynedd
A few years ago I went looking for art. to start my trip I went to an art gallery. At that time, art for me was what I found in an art gallery. I found paintings, mostly, and since they were in the gallery I recognized them as art. One particular painting by Rothko was one color and large. I noticed another piece that didn’t have an obvious label. it was also one color, white, and gigantic large, taking up a whole wall of the very tall and spacious room and standing on little spinning wheels. on closer inspection I saw that it was a moveable wall, not a work of art. Why could one work be considered ‘art’ and the other not?
The answer to the question could perhaps be found in Berys Gaut’s criterion for deciding whether an artifact is, in fact, art: that works of art function only as works of art, as their creators intended .
but were they beautiful? Did they provoke an emotional response in me? beauty is often associated with art. Sometimes there is an expectation of finding a “beautiful” object when going to see a work of art, be it a painting, sculpture, book, or performance. Of course, that expectation changes rapidly as the range of facilities encountered expands. The classic example is the Duchamp Fountain (1917), a rather ugly urinal.
can we define beauty? let me try it by suggesting that beauty is the ability of an artifact to evoke a pleasurable emotional response. this could be classified as the “like” response.
I definitely didn’t like the font at the initial level of appreciation. there was skill, of course, in its construction. but what was the skill in its presentation as art?
Thus I began to arrive at a definition of art. a work of art is that which asks a question that a non-artistic object such as a wall does not: what am I? what am I communicating? the responses, both from the creative artist and the receiving public, vary, but invariably imply a judgment, a response to the invitation to respond. the answer also goes to decipher that deeper question: the “who am I?”, which goes to define humanity.
neil hallinan, maynooth, co. kildare
‘art’ is where we create meaning beyond language. art is the creation of meaning through intelligent agency, eliciting an aesthetic response. it is a means of communication where language is not enough to explain or describe its content. art can make visible and known what was previously not said. because what art expresses and evokes is partly ineffable, it is difficult for us to define and delineate it. it is known through the experience of the audience as well as the intention and expression of the artist. meaning is created by all participants, so it can never be fully known. It is multiple and continuous. even a disagreement is a tension that itself is an expression of something.
art drives the development of a civilization, both supporting the establishment and preventing subversive messages from being silenced: art leads, reflects and reveals change in politics and morality. art plays a central role in the creation of culture, and is an outpouring of thought and ideas from it, so it cannot be fully understood in isolation from its context. however, paradoxically, art can communicate beyond language and time, appealing to our common humanity and linking disparate communities. perhaps if a wider audience were to engage with a greater variety of the world’s art traditions, it could lead to greater tolerance and mutual respect.
Another inescapable facet of art is that it is a commodity. this fact feeds the creative process, either motivating the artist to form an item of monetary value, or avoiding creating it, or artistically commodifying 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 given time, making thoughts about art culturally dependent. however, this commodification and consequent closely guarded role of the art critic also gives rise to a counterculture within art culture, often expressed through the creation of art that cannot be sold. the stratification of art by value and the resulting tension also adds to its meaning, and to the meaning of art for society.
catherine bosley, soham monk, suffolk
first of all we must recognize the obvious. ‘art’ is a word, and words and concepts are organic and change their meaning over time. so in the old days, art meant craft. it was something he could excel at through practice and hard work. you learned to paint or sculpt, and you learned the special symbolism of your time. Through romanticism and the birth of individualism, art came to mean originality. doing something new and unprecedented defined the artist. his personality became essentially as important as the work of art itself. During the era of modernism, the quest for originality led artists to reassess art. what could art do? what could it represent? could you paint movement (cubism, futurism)? could you paint the immaterial (abstract expressionism)? fundamentally: can anything be considered as art? One way to try to solve this problem was to look beyond the work itself and focus on the art world: art was what the art institution – artists, critics, art historians, etc. – was willing to consider as art, and that was made public through the institution, p. galleries. that’s institutionalism, made famous through the ready-mades of marcel Duchamp.
Institutionalism has been the prevailing notion during the latter part of the 20th century, at least in academia, and I would argue that it still holds a firm grip on our conceptions. An example is the Swedish artist Anna Odell. her unknown woman film sequence 2009-349701, in which she feigned psychosis to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital, was widely debated and not considered art by many. but because it was debated by the art world, it managed to break into the art world, and today it is considered art, and odell is considered an artist.
of course, there are those who try to get out of this hegemony, for example, by refusing to follow the unwritten rules of the art world. andy warhol with his factory was one, although today he is totally embraced by the world of art. Another example is Damien Hirst, who, like Warhol, pays people to create the physical manifestations of his ideas. she does not use galleries or other venues recognized by the art world to advertise, and instead sells her objects directly to individuals. this liberal approach to capitalism is a way of attacking the hegemony of the art world.
What does all this teach us about art? probably that art is a fleeting and chimerical concept. we will always have art, but for the most part we will only really learn in hindsight what the art of our era was.
tommy törnsten, linköping, sweden
artistic periods such as classical, Byzantine, neoclassical, romantic, modern and postmodern reflect the changing nature of art in social and cultural contexts; and the changing values are evident in varied content, forms, and styles. these changes are encompassed, more or less in sequence, by imitationist, emotionalist, expressivist, formalist, and institutionalist theories of art. in the transfiguration of the common place (1981), arthur danto claims a distinction for art that indissolubly links its instances with the acts of observation, without which all that could exist are “material counterparts” or “mere real things” instead of of works of art. despite competing theories, works of art can be considered to possess “family resemblances” or “threads of resemblance” that link 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, it has been stated that art is an “open” concept.
according to the keywords of raymond williams (1976), the word “art” with a capital letter appears in general use in the nineteenth century, with “fine arts”; that “art” has a history of earlier applications, 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 codependency”. 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. Winning our aesthetic interest is at least a necessary requirement of art. the sufficiency for something to be art requires a meaning for art appreciators, which lasts as long as the samples or types of the work of art persist. paradoxically, such meaning is sometimes attached to objects that are not intended to be art, nor are they especially intended to be perceived aesthetically, for example votive, devotional, commemorative or utilitarian artifacts. furthermore, aesthetic interests may be overshadowed by dubious investment practices and social prestige. when combined with celebrities and harmful forms of narcissism, they can dramatically affect artistic authenticity. these interests can be overwhelming and produce products disguised as art. then it is up to the most exacting observers to detect fads, fakes and fantasies (sjoerd hannema, 1970).
colin brookes, loughborough, leicestershire
for me art is nothing more and nothing less than the creative capacity of individuals to express their understanding of some aspect of private or public life, such as love, conflict, fear or pain. While reading an Edward Thomas war poem, enjoying a Mozart piano concerto, or watching an M.C. drawing by escher, I am often emotionally inspired by the moment and intellectually stimulated by the thought process that follows. In this moment of discovery, I humbly realize that my views may be shared by thousands, even millions around the world. This is largely due to the 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 measured: quality in art has woefully been reduced to equating great art with book sales, number of views, or download recordings. Too bad personal sensibilities about a particular work of art get lost in the rush for immediate acceptance.
so where does that leave the subjective notion that beauty can still be found in art? if beauty is the result of a process by which art gives pleasure to our senses, then it should remain a matter of personal discernment, even if external forces clamor to take control of it. in other words, no one, including the art critic, should be able to tell the individual what is beautiful and what is not. the art world is one of 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 judgment, a subjective opinion. a memory of a time we gazed upon something beautiful, a sight so pleasing to the senses or to the eye, time often stays with us forever. I will never forget walking into Balzac’s house in France: the scent of the lilies was so overwhelming 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, a painting, a sunset, or how light filtering through a stained glass window is beautiful. the power of the views creates an emotional reaction in me. I don’t expect or care whether others agree with me or not. can everyone agree that an act of kindness is beautiful?
a beautiful thing is a whole; elements that come together doing so. a single stroke of a painting does not by itself create the impact of beauty, but as a whole, it becomes beautiful. a perfect flower is beautiful, when all the petals together form its perfection; a pleasant and intoxicating aroma is also part of the beauty.
thinking about the question “what is beauty?”, I have simply been left with the idea that I am the viewer in whose eye it is. suffice it to say, my private assessment of what I find beautiful. that’s all I need to know.
cheryl anderson, kenilworth, illinois
stendhal said, “beauty is the promise of happiness”, but this did not get to the heart of the matter. what beauty are we talking about? whose happiness?
Consider if a snake made art. what would you believe to be beautiful? what would you deign to do? Snakes have poor eyesight and detect the world largely through a chemosensory organ, Jacobson’s organ, or through heat-sensing pits. Would a movie in his human form make sense for a snake? then their art, their beauty, would be entirely alien to ours: it would not be visual, and even if they had songs they would be alien; after all, snakes don’t have ears, they sense vibrations. this is how the fine arts would be intuited and the songs would be felt, if it is possible to conceive that idea.
From this perspective, a ground level view, we can see that beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. we may cross our lips to speak of the nature of beauty in wavy language, but we do it entirely with a forked tongue if we mean it. the aesthetics of representing beauty should not mislead us into thinking that beauty, as an abstract concept, actually exists. it requires a viewer and a context, and the value we place on certain combinations of colors or sounds over others speaks only of preference. our desire for images, moving or otherwise, is because our organs developed that way. a snake would have no use for the visual world.
I’m grateful to have human art over snake art, but I’d certainly be surprised by serpentine art. it would require an intellectual abandonment of many conceptions that we take for granted. So it’s worth considering this extreme thought: 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?” they are different types and should not be confused.
With boring predictability, almost all contemporary art commentators fall into a “relative muted”, going to annoying lengths to demonstrate how open they are and how inevitably lax the concept of art is. If art is what you want it to be, can’t we end the conversation there? it’s a done deal. I’ll throw clay on a canvas and we can pretend to show off our modern credentials of acceptance and insight. this just doesn’t work, and we all know it. if art means anything, there has to be some working definition of what it is. If art can be anything to anyone at any time, that’s where the discussion ends. what makes art special, and worth discussing, is that it stands above or outside of everyday things like food, painting, or everyday sounds. art includes special or exceptional dishes, paintings and music.
so what is my definition of art? Briefly, I think there must be at least two considerations for labeling something as “art”. the first is that there must be something recognizable in the way of “author’s reception to the audience”. I mean, there must be recognition that something was done for an audience of some kind to receive, discuss, or enjoy. Implicit at this point is the obvious recognizability of what art really is; in other words, the author doesn’t have to tell you it’s art when you wouldn’t have a clue otherwise. the second point is simply the recognition of skill: some obvious skill has to be involved in making art. This, in my opinion, would be the minimum requirements -or definition- of art. even if you don’t agree with the details, some definition is required to do anything in art. otherwise, what are we discussing? I’m breaking the mold and asking for brass tacks.
Brannon McConkey, TennesseeStudent Author of Life: Why Engaging in Life, Art, and Philosophy Can Lead to a Happier Existence
Human beings seem to have a compulsion to categorize, organize and define. we seek to impose order on a jumble of sensory impressions and memories, seeing regularities and patterns in repetitions and associations, always searching for correlations, eager to determine cause and effect, so that we can make sense of what might otherwise seem random and inconsequential. however, particularly in the last century, we have also learned to enjoy the reflection of unstructured perceptions; our artistic ways of seeing and hearing have expanded to encompass disharmony and irregularity. This has meant that, culturally, a growing gap has been opened between the attitudes and opinions of the majority, which continue to define art in a traditional way, which has to do with order, harmony, representation; and the minority, who seek originality, who try to see the world anew, and fight for difference, and whose critical practice is rooted in abstraction. In the middle are many who abjure both extremes, finding and enjoying both defining a personal vision and practicing the craft.
There will always be a challenge to traditional concepts of art by the impact of the new and the tensions around the adequacy of our understanding. this is how things should be, as innovators push the limits. at the same time, we will continue to enjoy the beauty of a mathematical equation, a finely tuned machine, a successful scientific experiment, the technology of landing a probe on a comet, a successful poem, a striking portrait, the sound-world of a symphony. we assign importance and meaning to what we find of value and wish to share with our fellow human beings. 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 imaginations and achievements.
david howard, stretton church, shropshire
next question of the month
The next question is: what is more important: freedom, justice, happiness, truth? Please provide and justify your rating in less than 400 words. the prize is a semi-random book from our mountain of books. Subject lines must be marked “question of the month” and must be received by August 11. If you want a chance to get a book, please include your physical address. submission is permission to reproduce your response physically and electronically.