MonoRealism Philosophy Site

Arts and Minds

Philosophical Reflections XXI

Part A: Essences

So far we have looked at four of the major branches of philosophy: metaphysics – the nature of reality; epistemology – how knowledge is acquired; ethics – how people should live; and politics – how living together in society should be organised. That brings us to the fifth and final major branch, Aesthetics: the nature and purpose of art.

Art's Foundation

Life is the link between what is and what ought to be: between reality and ethics, fact and value. Your life is your fundamental value, from which all other values derive: thus what is good for the life of human beings is the standard by which everything must be evaluated.

It follows that the proper general purpose of art, as of all human endeavours, is the benefit of human life.

But what unites the diverse array of activities that comprise art – painting, sculpture, architecture, music, dance, drama, poetry, fiction writing – and distinguishes them from other human activities such as history, science, engineering or farming?

Art exists for its own sake: not for any utilitarian purpose, not (fundamentally) to discover new knowledge or to get food to eat, but for some intrinsic value in art itself. Architecture is a partial exception, but an instructive one. Although architecture is utilitarian in the obvious sense of creating buildings in which we live and work, it is also art because "architecture", as opposed to plain building, has always had that extra dimension which is the province of art. All that a building really "requires" is four walls with appropriate holes, a roof and a floor; optionally with certain other amenities depending on its function. But great architecture is more than that. The soaring lines of a Gothic cathedral were not required for any strictly functional reason; indeed, they added hugely to the complexity and expense of building. Their reason was purely their emotional effect and spiritual significance: they were not for the sake of the building, but for the sake of what its builders held sacred.

That points to the defining quality of art. Art is an activity whose primary purpose is to engage human emotions, to inspire, to show a view of life, to celebrate the important and essential. Aristotle said that poetry is superior to history, because history merely tells us what has been, whereas poetry shows us what could and ought to be. And that is its essence. That is also what distinguishes art from procedurally related activities such as crafts and decoration: it is not done just to look pretty or to make some useful object look nice, but to engage deeper emotions by touching profound values. You might choose household items for their aesthetically pleasing designs, but nobody I know spends much time in contemplation on the spiritual significance of their wallpaper.

Could & Ought

Art is concerned with what could and ought to be by the nature of the artistic process. Unlike utilitarian activities like growing wheat or building bridges, a work of art is not primarily constrained by external reality.

Art obviously uses certain "raw materials" which are part of external reality. These include the physical materials used, whose qualities determine many things – from what is physically possible to various aspects of the final appearance (such as the different appearances of oils and watercolours, or the types of sound different musical instruments produce); personal skill, which determines the final quality of what you do – and what you can attempt to do at all; and personal style and aesthetics, which determine numerous details of the type of work and its final appearance. By personal style and aesthetics, I mean things like the kind of brushstrokes a painter uses, the choice of subjects (e.g., landscapes, still lives or action scenes), the preferred treatment of the subject matter (e.g., photo-realistic, distorted, murky, luminous or dramatic), and such things as the artist's sense of balance and what they consider to be beautiful or ugly.

Note that all of those are at least somewhat under the artist's control. He or she chooses which materials to use. Skill especially is partially under your control over the long term (I have included it under "external reality" as it is all you have to work with at any particular time on any particular work). And personal style and aesthetics are to at least some degree formed and informed by conscious knowledge, attitudes and decisions (but again, they are what you have to work with at the time).

These things are the base in which art is rooted, but beyond them are no limits imposed by external reality. Beyond them, art is constrained solely by the imagination and aims of the artist.

But a work of art can't show the whole world in all its infinite details: it is limited to a small subset of particulars. Thus, the artist is continually faced with choices of what to stress, include or ignore, all the way from the basic theme of the work to the smallest detail of plot, background, mood or texture. Therefore, the artist must be highly selective. Thus, he or she must have criteria for selection.

Like all other voluntary choices, those criteria are the artist's philosophy of life, whether it is explicit or just an implicit sense of life (your sense of life is the sum of your basic subconscious assessments of reality and yourself). But because in art those criteria are practically the sole criteria, they are not merely a backdrop to something else, but are its heart and soul. (While the artist's personal style and aesthetics are important, they and how they are used are themselves at least partly determined by the artist's philosophy.)

So when an artist creates a work of art, what he or she is saying is "Look! This is what is important! Here is the essence of man, of nature, or of the world. Ignoring all the myriad unessential details, this is what the world and/or man is, or could be, or should (or shouldn't) be."

Even when an artist is not explicitly illustrating his view of what should be, he is focussing on the important in what is. And that focus implies a could and an ought: to identify something as important, is to identify it as a thing worth pursuing, an aspect of reality worth contemplating, or a state worth reaching. That is, to identify the important is to identify the important to you, which is to identify values. And even if he is showing his view of nature with no explicit view of man, it is not nature that can see and respond to art: so again, he is focussing on what human beings should value in the world, because it is human beings to whom he displays his art and in whom he seeks a response.

This principle is true even of "random" art: art that is a meaningless jumble of noises, splashes or slashes, leading nowhere and conveying nothing. For whatever the artist chooses to show, be it a beautiful world, human heroism, pretty but meaningless patterns and colours, random ugliness, or anything else: the fact that he has chosen to show it implies a reason for his choice. What lies in a mind that makes art that is ugly and pointless, or that shows man as ugly and depraved, or which exploits the lowest common denominator to get a quick dollar, you can deduce for yourself.

As examples of artistic focus, Michelangelo's David shows a view of Man as a purposeful, able and beautiful being, which is how the Renaissance in general viewed humanity; the Impressionist painters saw the world as a play of light, beautiful but a show of evanescent sensations rather than a world of discrete objects; the Surrealists celebrated the subjective, the dreamlike, the irrational and the mad – yet their most talented members such as Dali could create out of this a bizarre beauty; paintings such as Pollock's Blue Poles care for nothing except the meaningless and the random. One occasionally hears an art critic raving about the wondrous variety of types of splatter in Pollock's work, but when all is said and done, a splatter is a splatter is a splatter.

Or compare the views of Man and his relation to the world in literature. Victor Hugo's heroes tend to be towering figures who fight great odds with power and passion to achieve their values, briefly succeed despite all, yet in the end fail due to their own nobility and the corruption of the world. In the contemporary fantasy and science fiction novels of Stephen Donaldson, we tend to see heroes engaged in epic battles, who more or less win against vast hostile forces despite being crippled by their own weakness, the piecemeal selling of their souls, or the evil corrupting their character. While in the novels of Ayn Rand, we have man as a heroic being living in a world where success is possible, who can, if he so chooses, be rational, moral, efficacious and happy. All three produce works of gripping drama and passion – while serving different philosophies of life and showing different images of man and the world he lives in.