What is art

What is art
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  What is art? The question of what is art is one of the most basic question in the philosophy of aesthetics and has been a matter of debate among philosophers for centuries. What this question really means is  –   “How do we determine what is defined as art?” A lot of theorists and philosophers, both in western and eastern sphere, have put forth their ideas on what art is. We shall put them against one another, and as is written in Matthew 7:16 in New Testament  : “ By their fruits ye shall know them. ”   In Western Context Up to the time when Morris Weitz formulated in academic philosophy, the “de - definition” of art;  definitions of art fell broadly into three types, namely  –  representation, expression and form. Representation: The dominance of representation as a central concept in art lasted from before Plato’s time to around the end of the eighteenth century, and helped to assign value to a work of art. Art that was more successful in replicating its subject was a stronger piece of art. As Plato has the distinction of being the first western philosopher whose work has survived intact and is also among the very first westerners who has given thoughts on this topic in an organised way, we shall begin our probing from him. Mimesis (Art as an imitation of an imitation) Plato first fo rmulated the representative idea by stating that art is ‘mimesis’, which, in Greek, means copying or imitation, thus making representation or replication of something that is beautiful or meaningful, the primary definition of art. In the modern period, many philosophers followed this theory. For instance, Bateaux in the eighteenth century followed him, saying: “Poetry exists only by imitation. It is the same thing with painting, dance and music; nothing is real in their works, everything is imagined, painted, copied or artificial. It is what makes their essential character as opposed to nature. ”    Plato, as most of us know, had little respect for art or poetry. According to him, art can never truly represent reality, for life itself, of which art is merely a copy, does not represent reality. Our world “… as we experience it, is an illusion, a collec tion of mere appearances like reflections in a mirror or shadows on a wall.”    For Plato, the only true reality is the unchanging world of the forms, created by God, for example, the perfect Form of the cat, the bird, the table, the chair, etc. There is just one perfect copy of each of these Forms. He asks us to accept the concept that even apparently man-made objects like beds and chairs have an srcinal form belonging to a changeless, eternal world of Forms created by God, leading to his conclusion that life, and art itself, is not a reality. Allegory of the Cave   Plato’s Cave Allegory concerns people chained up and facing the blank wall of a cave. The people see only shadows of forms on the wall, projected from a fire burning behind them. According to him, this is the closest the people can come to perceiving reality. The philosopher, however, is like a person freed from the cave, who perceives that the shadows are not reality. The philosopher sees the true reality rather than the shadows.  Therefore, for Plato, artistic representation is at best a third remove from reality (The removes counted inclusively by the Greek method). Plato argues that art can only be a reflection that reflects the good, and an illusion in respect of evil. The argument against the representation of the bad in the arts rests on the following: (i)   It is a falsehood. (ii)   It is wicked or sinful because it is about serious matters, and (iii)   It corrupts the young. However, the last point is an inconsistency in Plato’s argument, since it suggests that cor rupting material might possibly approach truth in life, and naturally, it would follow, in artistic representation. Plato’s main argument that art can only be a reflection that resembles the good, and an illusion in respect of evil, is one that, for most modern readers, would represent a false reality in a world artistically represented as containing both good and evil. According to Rosalind Hursthouse, Plato seems to be saying that art cannot represent reality because it is only a mirror, reflecting what is not, in any case, reality. We can strive towards enlightenment through seeking truth by depicting in artistic representation what is good and is, therefore, a reflection of beauty and moral truth. Only in this way, are we to achieve enlightenment, “… an d see, in the light of the sun and the fire, the real objects, the Forms, face-to-face and gain true knowledge for the first time.”   However, there are several problems with this ideology. Art is always unique, as it is something which did not exist earlier. According to H.W. Janson, author of the classic art textbook, the History of Art  , “It would seem… that we cannot escape viewing works of art in the context of time and circumstance, whether past or present. How indeed could it be otherwise, so long as art is still being created all around us, opening our eyes almost daily to new experiences and thus forcing us to adjust our sights?”   This goes on to imply that art is a new experience, something that did not exist earlier and therefore unique. It is a physical manifestation of how the artist perceives the world. For instance, take a photograph. It may be considered as the imitation of the scene unfolding before the photographer. But it actually is the attempt of photographer to make the viewer what he felt. And no matter what one does, a photograph would never provide, neither visually nor aesthetically, the same experience as actually being in the scene. And then comes the matter of fiction. Fiction is fiction. It is, by definition, new and unique. Something which does not exist. Therefore it cannot be a copy of anything. It is new and unique and therefore does not fit into Plato’s definition. The concept of representation has been very thoroughly examined since the professionalization of Philosophy in twentieth century. If representation could be understood simply in terms of copying, that would require “the innocent eye”, that is, one which did not incorporate any interpretation. E.H. Gombrich was the first to point out that modes of representation are, by contrast, conventional, and therefore have a cultural, socio-historical base. For instance, a photograph of tall buildings which is taken from the ground would seem to make them incline inwards at the top. This will not adhere to “representation as only being copying”.  Henry Nelson Goodman, too, recognized that depiction was conventional. He also gave a more conclusive argument against copying being the basis of representation. For that would make resemblance a type of representation, whereas if ‘a’ resembles ‘b’, then ‘b’ resembles ‘a’ –  according  to this, if a picture of a dog represents the dog itself, the dog too, must represent the picture. But, we are clearly aware that this is not the case. Goodman says that resemblance implies a symmetric relationship, but representation does not. Representation is not a craft but an art: we create pictures of things, achieving a view of those things by representing them as this or as that. As a result, while one sees the objects depicted, the artist’s thought about that object may also be discerned. Therefore it could be said that, in a painting, the paint is “seen as” an object, but there are also things in the painting which are “seen in” in the painting, such as the thoughts of the artist, and this is where the uniqueness of the art lies. There are three broad categories of objects which might be represented: individuals that exist, like Swami Vivekanand; types of things that exist, like cats; and things which do not exist, like superman and dragons. Goodman’s acc ount of representation easily allowed for the first two categories, since if depictions are like names, the first two categories of art compare, respectively, with the relations between proper name “Swami Vivekanand” and the person Swami Vivekanand, and th e common name “cat” and various cats. Some philosophers are of the opinion that the third category was as easily accommodated, but Goodman, being an empiricist, was only prepared to countenance existent objects. So for him pictures of fictions did not denote or represent anything; instead, they were just pattern of various sorts. Pictures of Dragons were just shapes, for Goodman, which meant that he saw the description “picture of a dragon ”  as unarticulated into parts. What he preferred to call a “dragon -pi cture” was merely a design with certain named shapes within it. By contrast with Goodman, Sir Roger Vernon Scruton is one philosopher who is happier with this kind of construal. It is a construal generally more congenial to idealists, and to realists of various persuasions, than to empiricists. Therefore Plato’s conjecture, that art is an imitation of an imitation does not fit here as it does not allow scope for fiction and therefore, representative theory is not able to define art in its entirety. 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 on these lines: “  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. ” Even around Plato’s time, his pupil Aristot le preferred an expression theory: art as catharsis of the emotions. Francis Hutcheson, David Hume and Edmund Burke also promoted the idea that what was crucial in art were audience responses: pleasure in Art was a matter of taste and sentiment. Art as a medium of expressing the truth What an artist is personally expressing is the focus of self-expression theories of art, but more universal themes are often expressed by individuals, and art-historical theories see the artist as merely the channel for broader social concerns. 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. Art therefore, is capable of revealing someone else’s world and producing shared understanding. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel thought art expresses the spirit of particular cultures, as well as that of  individual artists and the general human spirit. He saw an artistic expression as a kind of a climax of the history of 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 ca n a work of art produce the truth? While Plato thought it cannot, Hegel and some other thinkers thought differently. They were of the opinion that 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.” Robin George Collingwood, in the 1930s took art to be a matter of self-expression: “ by creating for ourselves an imaginary experience or activity, we express our emotions; and this is what we call art  .”   And the noteworthy feature of Marx’s theory of art, in the nineteenth century, and those of the many different Marxists who followed him into the twentieth century, was that they were expressio n theories in the “art - historical” sense. The arts were taken, by people of this persuasion, to be part of the superstructure of society, whose forms were determined by the economic base, and so art came to be seen as expressing those material conditions. 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 material basis contributes to the reproduction of current social conditions, while the art as an ideology, seeks to change it. 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 . Theodor W. Adorno wrote “  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 Bertolt Brecht wrote: “  Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it. ”  Art as a medium of communication 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 emotion or feeling. Centuries before the expression theory, Leornado da Vinci stated that “ art is the Queen of all sciences communicating knowledge to all generations of the world. ” Tolstoy too, in his aforementioned piece What is Art? wrote: “ To evoke in oneself a feeling one has experienced, and …. then, by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that  feeling –   this is the activity of art ”  Therefore, the strengths of the Expressive theory of art are particularly in its commitment to the communication of the artist’s   feelings and emotions to others and it’s benchmark that good art depends on successful communication so that the recipient is similarly affected by the same emotion or feeling. Regarding weaknesses of the theory, Cynthia Freeland in But is it Art?   notes that the Expression theory works well for Abstract Expressionism but less well for other kinds of art and that, in its srcinal form, it suffers from the weakness of restricting artists to expression of feelings and emotions. But, as mentioned above, on analysing the later proponents of Expression theory like Benedetto Croce, R. G. Collingwood and Suzanne Langer, it comes to view that art can express not only feelings and emotions but also ideas.  However, there are limitations to this theory. There is very little scope for free interpretation. There is always a chance that the idea or feeling or emotion that the artist want to express or convey, might not reach the viewer or audience in the same manner he/she intends to convey it. It depends on the perception of the viewer or audience. This nullifies the entire concept of perfect communication or expression. Just like representation theory, expression theory too is unable to completely or perfectly define art as it leaves no scope for flexibility of interpretation. Form: Coming into the twentieth century, the main focus shifted towards abstraction and the appreciation of form. The aesthetic and the arts and crafts movements, in the latter part of the nineteenth century drew people towards the appropriate qualities. Apart from the pure aesthetic qualities like, ‘graceful’, ‘elegant’, ‘exquisite’, ‘glorious’, etc.; formalist theory also focuses on formalist qualities, such as ‘organisation’, ‘unity’, ‘ harmony ’ , etc. as well as variety and complexity. In his famou s “  Aesthetic Hypothesis ”, Clive Bell says: “ What quality is shared by all objects that  provoke our aesthetic emotions? Only one answer seems possible –   significant form. In each, lines and colours combined in a particular way; certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions. These relations and combinations of lines and colours, these aesthetically moving forms, I call ‘Significant Form’; and ‘Significant Form’ is the one  common quality to all works of visual art. ”  Clement Greenberg, in the years of abstract formalism, from the 1940s to the 1970s, was also a supporter of formalism. He says: It has been in the search of the absolute that the avant-garde has arrived at ‘abstract’ or ‘  non-objective ’ art –    and poetry, too… Content is to be di  ssolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself”. Regarding painting, he says: The creative force and the expressiveness of  painting reside materially in the colour and texture of pigment, in the possibilities of form invention and organization, and in the flat plane on which these elements are brought to play. The artist is concerned solely with linking these absolute qualities directly to his wit, imagination and experience, without the go-betweens of a 'subject.' Working on a single plane as the instantaneous visualizing  factor, he realizes his mind motives and physical sensations in a permanent and universal language of colour, texture, and form organization. He uncovers the pure plane of expression that has so long been hidden by the glazings of nature imitation, anecdote and other popular subjects. Accordingly the artist's work is to be measured by the vitality, the invention, and the definiteness and conviction of purpose within his own medium. The most serious problem regarding formalism is that Form is never absolute. For instance, take a painting of a rose. Beautiful form. Or any abstract piece of art. Splendidly drawn forms. Now imagine for a second that you are viewing it with a telescope. Will the form remain the same? Imagine a person who suffers from colour-blindness. Will the colours of the painting remain the same for him as they were for the artist? Pondering on the subject would lead to the conclusion that form of any object, art included, depends on the perception of viewer. Therefore, rather than bringing us closer to the absolute, as Greenberg points out, dependence on form alone takes us further away from the absolute, as the form we are experiencing is just a falsehood created by our senses. The De-Definition of Art


Feb 13, 2018


Feb 13, 2018
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