What is art? Defining art and judging the quality of art have been the preoccupations of human beings for millennia. The New Webster’s Dictionary defines art as “the use of the imagination to make things of aesthetic significance.” Wikipedia probes further and tells us art is the “process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions.” This leads to the question of establishing objective criteria for defining art. Is art a process or a result? Does an inherent connection exist between art and beauty? Is art anything we say it is? Is it intended to be appreciated or enjoyed? Should it have a function beyond its appreciation?
Richard Wollheim, a British philosopher known for his work on mind and emotion relating to visual arts, defined art relative to three approaches: the Realist approach, establishing aesthetic qualities as absolute while independent of human view; the Objectivist approach, which defines aesthetic qualities as absolute but dependent upon human view; and, a Relativist position which asserts that art is not absolute but incorporates the human experience.
Applying this information to my personal beliefs, I can accept aspects of Wollheim’s three classifications of art. I struggle most with the Realist perspective. I can accept the aesthetic beauty of the universe and nature as absolute while remaining independent of human view, but I struggle to accept anything man-made as intentionally Realist. Michelangelo’s “David” meets the strict criteria of a Realist approach—its aesthetic qualities are absolute and timeless. However, this magnificent statue was certainly created to evoke a human experience. Vincent Van Gogh’s melancholy “Crows over the Wheat Field,” for example, swallows the viewers in its intensity, intentionally or not. The idea of art independent of human view puzzles me on some levels and leads to the question of what is achieved through the act of creating a drawing or painting? I have been baffled by artists who claim they create only to satisfy a physical need. Physical experience as the only goal excuses the creator from meeting any type of artistic standard. I was scolded at a lecture I attended as an art student when I suggested to the visiting artist that if his only purpose in painting was for a physical experience, he should try push-ups instead. His lengthy lecture and slide show revealed that his art existed for other reasons; he desired it be seen, or he wanted admiration or notoriety. Perhaps he wished to be paid for his work. If his sole purpose was to work up a sweat, there was never a need for his paintings to see the light of day.
I remain convinced that art serves a higher purpose than physical gratification, and that purpose is connected with the viewer and subsequently embraces an Objectivist perspective. The purpose seemingly involves a form of language—a means to create shared meaning. A second goal might be to create beauty; a third would involve earning money. These reasons and many others are all valid and dependent on the viewer’s experience. The utilitarian design of objects for use or consumption, such as a chair or article of clothing, would seem to reflect a Relativist approach—its creative success is inexorably connected with the human experience.
Are these purposes valid? While I scoff at many of the justifications painters use for their art to be as it is, there are certainly reasons I accept. Art as a product created without pretentiousness or cosmic rationales in exchange for money makes perfect sense to me. Artists might not create to make money, but being paid for their efforts becomes a valid reason to create. Why put a price tag on a piece hanging from a gallery wall or offer students a scholarship to encourage continuation of their work? It is an incentive to create.
Creating beauty is another acceptable rationale if the beauty is genuine. My appreciation for so-called “calendar art” is based on the realization that it is nice to look at and is often quite beautiful. Being pleasing to the eye is its reason to exist, and the labor of painting serves the end result, not the other way around. This rationale can be obscured by subjective definitions of beauty, but hearing “I know what I like when I see it” from patrons typically encompasses an appreciation of beauty that stems from shared meaning.