Art (Philosophy)

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There is no simple yet comprehensive definition of art; the word has in fact many meanings. The Greek and Latin equivalents (τέχνη, ars ) can broadly include everything customarily grouped under the label of fine art as well as servile and liberal arts. Even when narrowed to fine art, the word retains ambiguity in at least two important respects. First, whatever community of meaning the various fine arts share, distinctive differences among them prevent the name's remaining exactly the same in meaning; poetry and painting, for example, are not art in a wholly identical sense. Current usage tends to limit the meaning of art to painting and sculpturing. Second, within the context of fine art, art may signify the product of art, the creative process itself, or the experience of appreciating a work of art, sometimes referred to as the aesthetic experience.

This article deals with art from a broad, philosophical point of view, considering its definition and division, the notion of fine art and problems associated with the latter's finality.

Notion of Art

In the Western tradition, the original meaning of art is skill in making; the word was used by the ancient Greeks to refer, first of all, to the crafts that satisfy basic human needs. Throughout the dialogues of plato and the writings of aristotle, this meaning of art is the basic one employed to explain all other skills, whether physical or mental. Art was also early on recognized as a sign of a certain excellence, testifying to man's progress beyond what nature can provide. Aristotle accordingly points out that he who invented any art was naturally admired by men as being wise and superior to the rest. "But as more arts were invented, and some were directed to the needs of life, others to recreation, the inventors of the latter were naturally always regarded as wiser than those of the former, because their branches of knowledge did not aim at mere utility" (Meta. 981b 1619). Art as "the capacity to make, according to sound reason" (Eth. Nic. 1140a 20) was accordingly extended to what we now call liberal and fine art. The history of the meaning of art is the history of man's progress from making products immediately necessary for living to making things ordered to knowledge or enjoyment. This Greek conception of art dominated the Middle Ages and persists in modern times.


Craftsmanship enabled man to attain a grasp of the operations of nature, for he soon noted strong resemblances between the way he produces something and the way in which nature works. Much of Plato's Timaeus seeks to render the pattern of the universe intelligible by comparison with man's own making, while still viewing nature as a work of divine art. In the Physics, Aristotle appeals to the making of a statue or a bed to help understand how natural change takes place. It is in this context of making as resembling natural processes that Aristotle's often misunderstood dictum, "art imitates nature," should first be grasped before it is applied to fine art. In another area, medicine, the understanding of nature in terms of art has been fruitfully pursued, as the writings of Galen and Harvey show. Nevertheless, however much art and nature resemble each other, and however much the understanding of one leads to an understanding of the other, they remain quite distinct. The likeness of the work of art exists first in the mind of the maker; the form of a living natural object, existing independently of the human mind, preexists in some other natural object. A chair comes from a man's mind, but the man himself comes from another man, from nature.


The common notion of art as skill also distinguishes art from science, even though both arise from the human mind. Both art and science are knowledge, but art is ordered to something apart from knowledge itself, namely, the work produced. In art, therefore, knowing is for the sake of producing. In science, we seek to understand that something is so or why it is so. This distinction does not prevent some disciplines from being both art and science. For example, figures are constructed in mathematics, and thus there is both knowledge and production; at the same time what is produced is a subject of demonstration, and thus pertains to a science.


Art also differs from prudence or practical wisdom, for although both involve reason, they are concerned with distinct kinds of activity: work and behavior. Art uses knowledge to produce a work; prudence uses knowledge to deliberate well and to arrive at decisions regarding what is to be done to ensure right behavior. Prudence therefore involves the moral order in a way that art does not; consequently, prudence is a moral as well as an intellectual quality in man.


The narrowing of the meaning of art to fine art and the corresponding resolution of a theory of art to aesthetics is a relatively modern contribution. The development of art in the Renaissance undoubtedly accelerated this tendency. Alexander Baumgarten, in the middle of the 18th century, is generally regarded as the first to try to construct a systematic aesthetics in the modern sense. True enough, Plato and Aristotle in ancient times, and various writers in the Middle Ages, made major contributions to what is now regarded as a philosophy of fine art. But in the last 200 years the fine arts have been approached in a quite different spirit, emphasizing an association of art with beauty and stressing the autonomy of fine art. In such a view, there is a distinct world of fine art and aesthetic experience; a special creative imagination and sensibility are thus required to appreciate the distinctive values found in such works.

Kinds of Art

Art has been traditionally divided into liberal and servile arts. This division is basic, referring as it does to a difference in the work to be made. The most obvious type of makeable object is one that exists in external physical matter, for such matter is susceptible to receiving an artificial form; wood, for example, readily lends itself to being shaped into a table, a chair or a bed. It is equally evident that such making, initially at least, is the result of bodily effort on the part of the maker and this feature characterizes such art as servile. Further, the action involved in such making is transitive, that is, an activity which though originating in an agent, terminates outside the agent in some product that comes to exist in physical matter. These characteristics of servile art indicate, as suggested earlier, that the name "art" refers primarily to servile art; this priority is in the order of naming, not a priority of perfection.


Liberal art, therefore, is art in a less obvious sense. We are nonetheless familiar with the extension of the name to liberal art; we are also familiar with the traditional division of the liberal arts into the trivium (logic, grammar and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy). Liberal art is less evidently art because the making involved is not a transitive action, but immanent, activity that both originates and terminates within the agent, forming the agent rather than some external physical object. The object of a wholly liberal art, therefore, is immaterial, found primarily in the mind or imagination of the artist. Such an object does not involve making in the original sense, yet proportionally, there is an indetermination in the mind of man requiring that he set in order his means of knowing; for example, order is brought into man's thinking when he establishes what a proposition is or how we reason in a valid way. A syllogism, for example, is something we construct deliberately, in the manner of a mathematical figure and not just spontaneously. Such constructions enjoy existence in the mind and imagination. We thus see the reason for calling such arts liberal, since the subjects and purposes of these arts pertain to the mind of man whereby he is set free from lack of order. We see also that although the name "art" first signifies manual craft, nevertheless, considering the work produced, liberal art is primary. (see liberal arts.)


Though the distinction of servile and liberal is basic, it is not particularly revealing in regard to fine art which, in fact, cuts across that division. Some fine arts are liberal; poetry and music, for example, would fall within the liberal division, for the poet and the composer produce their works primarily by immanent action and their works exist chiefly in the imagination. Other fine arts are servile in the sense that the objects made require external physical matter and labor for their existence; thus the painting is embodied on canvas and paint, the statue in stone and the church in stone or brick. To appreciate the distinctive character of fine art, another division must be considered.

From the standpoint of purpose, art is further divided into useful and fine. The useful arts produce things to be enjoyed not in and for themselves, but for some other good. The servile arts would here be classed as useful. Liberal arts such as logic, grammar and rhetoric could be termed useful in the sense they are not ends in themselves but are sought as indispensable aids for bringing about knowledge, adequate expression or persuasion.

The productions of fine art are contemplated and enjoyed for their own sake (which does not preclude their also being ordered to another extrinsic end). The reason for this division can be shown in a painting, for example, that has a kind of significance inciting enjoyment of a form wholly lacking to a merely useful product, such as a shovel. The painting is viewed primarily for itself; any functional value it might have, such as its location in a particular area, is secondary. There is, moreover, a distinctive and unique type of enjoyment that arises in the viewing or hearing of a work of fine art consequent upon the equally distinctive type of contemplation realized in appreciating the work. Some prefer to make this point by saying that the end sought in the work of fine art is the contemplation and enjoyment of beauty, provided that beauty is taken in a properly aesthetic sense.

It is worth noting that man's preoccupation with beauty, pleasing form, design and so on, carries over into many useful products of art and hence the division into useful and fine should not be understood too rigidly. A shoe is clearly a product of useful art, yet we find it both necessary and desirable that a shoe look good. As human beings, we project our desire for beauty of form into objects around us as much as possible; in fact, very few products of human art, no matter how utilitarian they are, escape our passion for artistic enjoyment. We humanize our environment in precisely this way.

Analysis of fine art. From an Aristotelian point of view, what sets off fine art from either liberal or servile is imitation. We have already noted that in a sense all art imitates nature, sometimes in appearance, sometimes in operation. What is peculiar to fine art is that imitation (and delight in the imitation) is the immediate end sought in fine art, whereas imitation serves only as a means in liberal or servile art.

The word "imitation" is subject to easy misunderstanding ("representation" might serve better for a modern reader). In any event, it is not to be identified with more or less literal copying. The tendency to identify them may originate in the fact that the most evident instances of artistic imitation occur in the visual arts, where imitation is associated too readily with natural or photographic likeness. Artistic imitation by no means rests upon a complete dependence of the image upon some original in nature from which it proceeds. It always involves some degree of abstraction. There is equal, if not more, dependence of the image upon man's creative imagination and understanding. Such imitation should therefore be understood as creative. It is imitative in the sense that a work of art represents something other than itself, being some sort of sign or symbol; it thus has reference to some aspect of reality as we experience it. It is creative as well, for the mind and imagination of the artist is also a source and indeed a more significant one. Hence no artist merely reproduces some aspect of reality; on the other hand, no matter how "abstract" or "nonobjective" the work of art, it cannot wholly escape reference to human experience of reality.

Artistic imitation, therefore, is a broad notion ranging from the one extreme of approaching a somewhat literal representation of reality to the opposite extreme of retaining only a tenuous but still significant representation of some quality detected in reality. The history of painting and sculpturing reflects this movement within these extremes. It is realized also in proportionately different ways in other arts. In the poetic arts the object of imitation is the action and passion of men as reflected variously in the poem, the novel or the drama. One could say that the common object of all fine art is human action and passion; the differences among the fine arts come from the manner and means of imitation. Though music is sometimes regarded as a non-imitative art, the facts of musical history belie this observation. Music, of course, does not represent in a visual manner nor is it imitative in the sense that it copies natural sounds. Music represents the flow of passion, originally expressed in the intonation of the human voice, by means of tonal and properly musical progressions. The use of music to accompany drama or motion pictures obviously manifests this; more serious works, even the most "abstract" forms of musical composition, do so more subtly and with more elaborate technique. Even 20th-century music bears witness to such primal representational principles as tension and release, the expected and the unexpected, arousal and resolution. [see music (philosophy)].

Finality of Art

Finality refers to a good or purpose; in art, this refers both to the purpose of the artist and to the work of art itself. The two may coincide, but the artist can also order the work of art to something extrinsic to the work itself. Thus the artist can intend the work for propaganda or some other foreign end. The artist then acts as man rather than as artist and this is one way art and morality may be related. In other words, over and beyond the good of art itself, the artist may be working for a morally good or bad cause; this consideration falls under the scope of prudence.


Art and morality may also be related within the work itself. Any work of art is an idea expressed by an image in the artist's mind and in an appropriate sense medium. The power of art lies in its simultaneous appeal to senses and understanding. What is universal in art is realized in this sense medium; the tragic hero, for example, is a type of man exemplified individually by his action and with whom the spectators can identify themselves. Such a work of art images human nature in its various manifestations and chiefly in its moral character. The artistic image, while not itself of a moral nature, can thus express man in some way acting as a moral agent. This is primarily so in poetic art and proportionately so in other arts.

Consequently, an intrinsic relation between art and morality is evident in the following way. Whenever the work of art creatively represents something of human action and passion, the moral order enters into the work of art as a formal constituent, for human action and passion are voluntary, and voluntary acts are moral acts. Moreover, the moral order contributes to the delight, intelligibility and beauty of much art. For example, the intelligibility and delight we find in a tragedy depend in great measure on grasping some moral grandeur in the action of the hero; the development of a musical composition images in tonal progression the movement of human passion at its finest, whether noble, tragic or joyful. Hence it can be maintained that when a moral dimension enters into the construction of a work of art, the artist, as artist, has an obligation to represent as morally right what is morally right or as morally wrong what is morally wrong. As far as the relation of art and the moral order is concerned, then, what should be excluded from good art is the artist's representing what is morally good as evil and what is morally evil as good; otherwise, he will be unconvincing as an artist and will fail to move us in the manner that is appropriate to art.

At the same time, the intrinsic end of art cannot be overtly moral; art suffers when used merely to propagandize morality. It is one thing for a moral dimension to enter into the artistic representation; it is quite another to make the work of art specifically moral in its aim. We are thus led to recognize a finality of art, which in fact, is twofold. One end is the arousal and release of the emotions wherein lies the great appeal art has for man, for art represents the flow of emotional tension and release more skillfully than our normal experience usually permits. Aristotle's notion of catharsis manifests this point in relation to tragedy. The cathartic end in art is instrumental, however, in that it disposes us for the ulterior end of artistic contemplation and delight. [see poetics (aristotelian)].


Artistic contemplation is a distinct kind of knowing, accompanied by a distinct type of delight, realized proportionately in the different arts. So far as this can be summarized generally, it is a knowledge of what need not be, rather than of what must be, and yet the work has its self-contained inevitability; it is an imaginative reconstruction of some aspect of reality and life we are familiar with; it is more intuitive than discursive; it bears on the singular, but in such a way that something universal is realized in it; it must be both concrete and abstract. It is knowledge especially appropriate to the human mode of knowing: an intimate union of sense and intellect, image and concept, imagination and understanding. Therein lies the source of the special delight that accompanies this contemplation, which is at once an action of sense and intellectual appetite. There is the initial sense delight accompanying the grasp of such qualities as color, tone, line and sound. There is the intellectual delight attendant upon the grasp of the order entering into the rhythmic, melodic and harmonic construction of a musical composition, or of the order of elements in a work of sculpture or a drama. Most of all, however, such delight arises from seeing in a work of creative representation an object that is more expressly formed and more intelligible than the original referent. The action of the play is more intelligible and more significant than human action ordinarily is. The sound of music is better formed and more discerning than the sound of speech as normally expressive of passion.

Artistic contemplation, constantly fluctuating between an image and an original, never exhausts the significance set in motion by the initial experience of the work of art. The unterminating character of this contemplation is the main reason we enjoy the same work over and over again, for new significance and vitality always emerge in enduring works of art, tantalizing the mind with promises of hidden meaning waiting to be uncovered. Such artistic finality, contemplation with its ensuing delight, constitutes the primary worth of art. For in the final analysis, the work of art is simply the worth of man himself as mirrored in his creative representations.

See Also: liberal arts; aesthetics; beauty; symbol; prudence

Bibliography: j. dewey, Art as Experience (New York 1934). e. gill, Art (New York 1950). t. m. greene, The Arts and the Art of Criticism (Princeton 1940). s. k. langer, Philosophy in a New Key (3rd ed. Cambridge, Mass. 1957). j. maritain, Art and Scholasticism and the Frontiers of Poetry, tr. j. w. evans (New York 1962). t. munro, The Arts and Their Interrelations (New York 1949). r. wellek and a. warren, Theory of Literature (New York 1956). h. read, Meaning of Art (new ed. London 1956).

[j. a. oesterle]

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Art (Philosophy)

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