What is Art? Definition & Explanation

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      To begin with, we may define Art as an attempt to create, through some medium, an illusion of reality. A painter paints the picture of a sunset. We seem to see a real sunset; but it is only a picture that we are seeing. A poet may describe the same sunset in words; we see it again in our mind’s eye. But it is no more the real thing than the painter’s picture is. They are both illusions. They are renderings of the real sunset in terms of colors and words. But for the time that we are observing the picture or reading the poetic description, we take them to be real. It is because the painter and the poet have for their part tried to produce a suspension of disbelief and we for our own part are willing to take the illusion for the reality, unless some falsity in either breaks that spell of belief.

      But why do we need such an illusion of life to be created and contemplated, when we have life itself to live?

      The reasons are various: For one thing, amid the ever-changing forms of nature, man wants to seize the fleeting visitations of the beautiful and give memorable expression to them, so that they are, for him, gathered into ‘the artifice of eternity’ (as the scenes painted on the Grecian Urn in Keats’s Ode have become). For another, man would add ‘a gleam that never was on sea or land’ (Wordsworth) to existing forms of beauty, and thereby create more beautiful forms than belong to earth in a wish, to make the’ much loved earth more lovely’. Or yet he may seek to supply the deficiencies of nature by molding reality after his own heart (Bacon) so that the poet’s creation becomes an idealization of reality, or, alternatively, an escape world, a sweet anodyne for the ills of life. There may again be this factor involved: that when things are singled out and painted as in a picture, they are more vivid and have greater power to affect us than they might do in real life (Browning). Maybe, we see into the heart of things because the poet’s pen and the painter’s brush have helped to tear ‘the film of familiarity’ from off our eyes (Shelley). And so the forms of things presented by the artist strike us as more real than living things. At the root of all these motivations may lurk yet another impulse, which is to see life or reality as a pattern, as an order, a harmony of pre portions. So Art is life seen as unity and it is by virtue of this unity or coherent structure - ‘Form’ - that a work of art pleases us or gives us aesthetic delight. The forms that the Artist creates may not all be necessarily beautiful in the ordinary sense, yet they may be seen to have ‘Form’. They all obey this law of organic unity And it is the perception of form, more than any of the usual ingredients of beauty, that yields us this higher and more enduring pleasure which belongs to a work of art.

      So any definition of Art which aims at being comprehensive or broad-based, must take account of all these concepts —the concepts of the more or less faithful representation (Illusionism) of idealization, of order-imposition, and of Symbolism.

      The oldest definition we have of Art, dating from Plato’s and Aristotle’s time, is that all art is imitation Mimesis. Now the word ‘imitation’, as Aristotle pointed out, admits of a broader interpretation than the one which Plato gave it. It is to be taken in the sense, not of a carbon copy or a mere reproduction, but of an imaginative representation of reality. If it were a servile copy of reality (which is reality at one remove already, according to Plato the idealist), it would be pointless and futile, which however, it is not. Art is at once something more and something less than reality. It can only be a symbolic treatment of the facts of life. That is at once the constraint and the advantage of Art. By means of a few selected particulars, the Artist suggests the universal. Life and the World, in their manifold forms of circumstance and truth, offer inexhaustible material for literature or the arts. However, Art could never vie with nature in respect of particulars. It is neither possible nor desirable (though a latter-day school - the ‘slice-of-life’ school - believed in doing so, of course, in a limited way). For fidelity to objective truth, we had better go to photography, not Art. (There is, however, a sense in which even photography is Art. In so far as the cameraman seeks characteristic effects, and by his selection of particular angles and moments, hits the mood of his subject or suggests an unusual aspect of things, he becomes an Artist. For his work, then, is not entirely a product of the machine, but a very personal thing.) Art is not mechanical. It is subjective to any degree, this subjectivity varying with different art forms and artists. To be truly great, a work of art must bear unmistakably the signature of the artist, the stamp of his genius.

      Art, then, is not a mechanical reproduction but an imaginative rendering of reality. It is reality as sensuously and intuitively apprehended by the artist. It is form informed with sensibility. It is ‘life seen through a temperament’ (Zola). It represents the artist’s idea of a thing and not the thing as it is in itself. It is his vision of reality, his glimpse of the truth, his interpretation, his criticism, of life.

      Now this truth of an artistic work differs markedly from the scientist’s assessment of things or his statement of the truth. But objective faith (that a tree’s green color is due to chlorophyll) is not the only kind of truth we are concerned with, nor is it, in life’s many contexts, a very important truth. We may read with interest an abstract treatment of love as one of the human passions, in a textbook of Psychology. But we do not live through the experience. To know (or to remind ourselves) what madness it is (‘It works in me like madness, dear’) or what bondage it means (Of Human Bondage-Maugham), or how the very depths of our being are stirred when the waters of love go over us, we go to the poet, not the psychologist. The artist’s sanction, then, is that “the heart hath its reasons” which the Reason cannot understand; or that — what the imagination seizes as truth must be so (Keats). In short, it is truth to human nature and the human heart that we look for in poetry or the other arts. (Factual errors like a horse throwing out both his off-legs at once may even be overlooked as long as the imagination is not offended—Aristotle). This is what we mean by poetic truth. So ‘imitation’ no longer means servile copying but an imaginative transfiguration of reality. Such transfiguration may consist in ‘illumination’ (bringing out the luminous essence of the thing), heightening, amplification, ‘embellishment’ — all of which processes were not incompatible with the Renaissance doctrine of holding the mirror up to nature’ (which is what they construed by imitation). To a later age (the 18th-century Classicists) Art came to mean nature methodized, which was not basically a different concept but one earned out in a less inspired and more reasoned manner. The Romantics did not speak of Art in terms of imitation; for them, it was ‘an expression of the imagination’ (Shelley). Coming nearer to our own times, Art has tended to become more and more abstract, shorn of the idea of beautiful creation or yet the illusionist principle; it has also become more and more expressive, symbolic and ideational A latter-day definition, that of Clive Bell, is that Art is Significant Form. In the direction of symbolism or expressionism, it has become an attempt to express the inexpressible by means of symbols, or an attempt to find an ‘objective correlative’ for a subjective experience or emotional complex (Eliot). But in any definition, we must find room for the representational as well as the ideational / expressionist / symbolic. They are two ends of the scale between which art has moved through the ages. Art is neither mere self-expression nor yet a reflection of life as it is. It is a representation of life that is imaginative or expressive to any degree. It is an expression of the artist’s experience as well as of his conception of life. The focal points of Art must be sought both in life and in the personality of the artist.

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