MonoRealism Philosophy Site

Arts and Minds

Part D: Variations & Theme

Art Classes

Although all forms of art share certain qualities, the actual forms are so diverse that obviously there are different emphases, and their full appreciation requires an understanding of each particular form. Such understanding is vital for the artist who wants to create life-affirming art, and for anyone who wants to get the most out of art – and as we've seen, good art has a lot to offer.

The principles that apply to each individual form of art derive from the essential nature of that form. This gives it its strengths and weaknesses, defines what it does best and what it is inappropriate for. Let us briefly examine how this principle might be applied to the various forms of art.


As the most utilitarian of the arts, architecture is most influenced by external factors. All buildings have a function and are built on a particular site out of particular materials. Thus the basic principle of good architecture is that form should follow function, site and material: function being primary, with the site and materials at least partly determined with reference to function.

The design of the building should allow the most efficient and pleasant accomplishment of its function by the people who use it – after all, buildings are for people, not vice versa. Its form should reflect its function, both in order to achieve its utilitarian purpose and for aesthetic reasons: the use of space and the interpenetration of space and structure, light, the lines of the structure and its ornamentation, all contribute to the emotional sum felt by the people entering it, and that emotional sum should be appropriate to life in general and the building's purpose (be it temple, museum, office or home) in particular.

The building should match its site. One does not put the same structure on a cliff overlooking the sea as on a bend in a river or on a flat plain. The building should complement and complete its site: not ignore it or clash with it.

Finally, buildings are made of something, and they should be made accordingly. That is, the particular qualities of the materials should determine structure: one does not build the same structure out of steel, concrete and glass as one builds out of stone or wood.

Like all art, architecture should have integrity. Good architecture has a unifying theme based on the interplay between its function, site and materials, which is unique for each building. All the details of the building should serve and reinforce this theme.


As the only three-dimensional form other than architecture, thus the only one that is both three-dimensional and unconstrained by functional needs, sculpture should take advantage of its dimensionality and solidity. The form, from all angles and while moving around it; the sense of movement, aspiration or other implied elements imparted by the way the structure makes the eye follow its lines; its structure in relation to space; the play of light on its surface and the feel of that surface (ideally, sculpture should be a tactile as well as a visual experience); and how effectively and appropriately it uses the qualities of its materials; are all important elements.

Sometimes colour can be used to good effect: either different materials, or even painted elements. However, in general I think the best sculpture restricts itself mainly to three-dimensional effects, using texture more than colour, and only subtle colour differences for accentuation where that truly enhances its effectiveness. That is, a sculpture normally should stand on its own without needing further surface decoration.


Painting is primarily visual and two-dimensional. As such, both the basic elements of composition, colour, texture, shape and overall structure, and derived elements such as the sense of light or darkness and dramatic themes, are central to its effectiveness. Integrity of art in a painting unites all these elements to serve the theme of the painting, whether that is an imaginary or historical scene of human actions, a portrait, a landscape, a still life, or whatever other reality or idea the artist wishes to express.

Substantially more freedom of expression is possible in painting than in sculpture, as complex scenes are obviously more feasible to paint with a few brushstrokes than to actually construct out of solid materials. One can easily generate effects in painting that are impossible in sculpture. Thus painting is capable of greater detail, scope and subtlety, and should exploit this.

As a two-dimensional visual object, painting is seen all at once, and thus is the most immediately apprehendable form of art. As Alexandra York has written ("Art as Spiritual Experience", ART Ideas 1998), "The visual arts ... may be the most accessible of all art forms because (unlike music or fiction, for example, which are "played out" over a period of time) they deliver the sum of their aesthetics and their content all at once, which has the power to elicit an immediate reaction on the part of the viewer." Yet a good painting will also have levels of detail that reward closer inspection as well.


Of all the arts, prose (short stories and novels) offers the greatest scope for showing what could and ought to be. Nothing else can match the breadth and subtlety of meaning enabled by language, and unlike poetry and drama, the use of language in prose is unconstrained by special structural requirements.

Whereas architecture is limited by function, and painting and sculpture can show only snapshots, a whole world can be created in words, a world of effectively unlimited breadth and sweep, that can span worlds in space and centuries in time. Clearly, the scope of that vision depends on the form: a short story can do much less than a full novel.

The tools of the writer are words, and with words he or she can express anything that can be known: as all that we know is known via concepts, and words are what express concepts. The theme and plot of written fiction is both the skeleton and soul of the work: the skeleton, as they are what hold it together and give it structure; the soul, as they are its meaning and purpose. All the rest of the power of language for description, characterisation, mood and even the poetry of its sound and rhythm, serve these.


Being word-based, drama has much of the power of prose noted above, but is limited in length and scope by what gives it its own special power: that it is acted out. Modernised forms of drama such as cinematography have much greater ability to use scenery and action as an integral part of the work, but the essential power of drama is in the power of the actors to bring the words to life, to demonstrate what is being shown in the most powerful way there is: the visible actions of other people with whom you can identify, who you can love or hate, admire or despise. For example, a movie such as The Last of the Mohicans might have arresting scenery and dramatic action, but it is the character of its protagonists, the souls and interactions of its heroes and villains, which drives it. Hence, characterisation is probably the most important thing in drama: the character of the protagonists and their interrelationships. Of course, as in prose, the power of language is also a critical factor in the emotive power of the scenes.


While the sound of language can be used in prose to make it more beautiful and in drama to enhance its emotive force, this is distilled in poetry to be its central and defining essence. Hence poetry is far more structured, and uses devices such as rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, metre and syllabic structure. "Poetry" that is merely prose divided into lines is just an attempt to copy the appearance of poetry on the written page without having to bother to actually create a poem: much like a cargo cult hoping that an imitation of the external form of something will somehow invoke its true substance.


As noted in the earlier discussion of instrumental music and abstract art, the defining quality of music is the use of sequences of sound to speak directly to our emotions: in which it is unique among the arts. Its devices for achieving this include such things as the melody, which is the spine of the structure; use of harmony and discord; key and changes of key; and thematic development.

Vocal music is interesting as it is a combination of music, poetry and even elements of drama (in the performance of the singer). As such it can be an extremely powerful and effective art form, combining the direct power of music with the beauty and lyrical power of well-chosen words and the emotive power of non-verbal communication. Even an atheist can feel inspired by Handel's Hallelujah Chorus!


Dance spans a whole spectrum of forms, from the simple pleasure of motion in social dancing, to technical virtuosity in such forms as tap dancing, to dramatic dance such as ballet. Of course,the best dances can combine all these elements.

For showing things as they can and ought to be, I'd say that dramatic dance is the most powerful form of dance, combining the drama of human action with the direct emotional power of music. A good example of the power of dance can be seen in some of the performances (both tap and ballet) in the movie White Nights, especially from the ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Heart and Soul

The role of art is to show the world and people as they could and ought to be. To do that, its method is selectivity – choosing the elements that the artist wants to show or stress; its heart is integrity – by which those choices are made according to the artist's own value-judgments and own soul, speaking not what the artist thinks other people want to hear, but what the artist wants to say; and its purpose is life – the expression of the best in life, and the promoting of human life and happiness by its emotional effect on the audience (including the artist himself): emotions in response to a depiction of values worth reaching.

Art has to be judged by its technical merit, and different art forms have different means of expression determined by their special natures. But the primary importance of art, and the fundamental moral criterion by which to judge it, is whether it promotes life. "Materialists" often scoff at art, as at any "spiritual" pursuit. But their error is fundamentally the same as that of those who believe in subjectivism in art, who believe that there are no objective criteria in art. That error is to ignore Duality, to forget that we are beings both of matter and consciousness: neither hunks of meat without mind nor spirits unconstrained by reality. That we are integrated beings of mind and body, that we need nourishment of the spirit as well as the body, is what makes art necessary. And what it is necessary for is this:

Romantic art is the fuel and the spark plug of a man's soul; its task is to set a soul on fire and never let it go out. (Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto)

Further Reading

This has been just a brief overview and sampler of the philosophy of art. For those interested in greater depth, the best place to start is The Romantic Manifesto by Ayn Rand. As both a great philosopher and a great artist, her thoughts on the subject should not be ignored by any serious student of Aesthetics.


Web sites for viewing and/or purchasing life-affirming art can be found via the Links page.

© 1999 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.