Updated: May 6
“Art is expression, and I believe that expression is the truest form of beauty.” - Ben Holman.
I can guarantee you that art is a much deeper topic than what most people have considered it to be, that is: painting, drawing, music and poetry. Primarily, discussing Art is a philosophical topic, and there have been lives dedicated to this very question; What is art? To take that a little further, why does this phenomenon of ‘good art’ and ‘bad art’ differ from person to person? I am inexplicably excited to be joined by Ben Holman for this article (and forthcoming podcast), in an effort to try and come to some sort of conclusion for these questions. Before we begin, the following are simply just our views, they aren’t fact, and the deeper we discuss the questions, the more people we involve, the more our views seem to change.
Thomas Merton states that "Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time” . There are three points in this one statement: art helps us to look out; art helps us to look in; and art helps us to do both of these simultaneously. To begin interpreting the statement (which can be seen differently with every pair of eyes), Ben takes it to be saying “that art can nourish both our connection to the soul, and our connection to the world around us.” On the first point, Ben mentions that to lose ourselves inwardly, due to art, depends on the “mindset with which you approach” the piece, and what you’re searching for within it. Going deeper again; “one could be staring at a painting, purely for its subject matter and lose themselves in that way, whether they are enchanted by a particular figure or just admiring the depiction of nature - in that moment they forget themselves and their attention is purely outwardly.”
Still on Merton’s statement, Ben provides an insight to the second point; “On the other hand, someone could approach that same painting, and in it they might find an image of themselves, hidden in a dying flower or on a forlorn face.” Furthering his insights once more; whether art draws us into ourselves, or helps us to embark on an adventure with the world, possibly depends on whether we are “low in ourselves” or “positive in ourselves”. Having done his own research, Ben brings up one of the most famous painters known to us today, “Vincent Van Gogh is a good example of someone who explored his artwork on a deeply personal level. His paintings were full of expression. In that way he was finding himself through the only way he knew how – painting.”
So, how can we define art? Believe it or not, a firm definition is almost impossible to find, it seems to change with the centuries. Once again, I found a suggested definition with Wikipedia, “Art is a diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory or performing artifacts (artworks), expressing the author's imaginative, conceptual ideas, or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power.” Heading all of the way back to the Renaissance and continuing through to the Classical Era, art was mainly considered to be one of three branches – painting, sculpture and architecture.
Upon the birth of the Romantic Era (and the Enlightenment, where “The goals of rational humanity were considered to be knowledge, freedom, and happiness.” ) in the 19th Century, “art referred to any skill or mastery and was not differentiated from crafts or sciences.” A definition which I am more familiar with, “Art can be defined as an act of expressing feelings, thoughts, and observations” . To take this further, even mathematics and science were considered an art in those times (because they are fundamentally a form of craft), and it still is – we just don’t really see them that way anymore .
Today, art refers to almost anything, including Music, Film, Dance, Performance, Literature, Media and even Technology; “The idea of originality in art persists, leading to ever more genres and manifestations of art, such as digital art, performance art, conceptual art, environmental art, electronic art, etc. - 20th and 21st century genres” . In relation to performance, Ben mentions "An actor would be the perfect example of someone losing themselves through their art. An actor HAS to lose themselves to some extent, in order to be as truthful to their character as they can."
In early times, to define ‘good art’ and ‘bad art’ was relatively simple. A good piece of art, was a piece that best represented the world around us – good art was a realistic portrait of the garden, for example. “We could say artwork was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ dependent on whether the painting accurately represented the spray of the ocean, the reflection of the trees in water, the emotion of the figures and characters” . The image below was painted by one of the first ‘Impressionist’ painters, Claude Monet. This painting was largely considered poor. Yet, to me, it’s one of the most beautiful paintings I’ve laid my eyes on (seconded by Ben Holman, as it seemed to have had a similar effect on him). The reason it was seen as an example of ‘bad art’ was because it’s not a perfect portrait of what Monet actually saw.
As times have passed, art developed drastically, to become much more subjective, original and creative . Art has since adopted a theme of beauty. A good piece of artwork is aesthetically pleasing, and almost (or quite literally) addicting. But something aesthetically moving to me, might be foul and repulsive to someone else. Where do we draw the line – what is beautiful, and what is not? More importantly, can we draw a line? In Ben’s opinion, “I really don't think that a line can be drawn, because the world will never be in total agreement on what beauty is. As well as that, art is constantly evolving (or devolving depending on personal opinion) so it's boundaries and definitions are quite fluid.”
He goes on to make a very relevant point, again showing the extent of his research; “Marcel Duchampt, a French painter/sculptor, is a really interesting person to look at, when discussing the line between what is art and what is not art. I bring him up because he famously challenged this 'line', with one of his sculptures entitled "Fountain." Now this 'sculpture' was literally just an old urinal - Duchamp slapped the pseudonym signature (r.mutt) on it, claimed it as his own and in doing so questioned the entire meaning of the word 'art'.”
One suggestion is that the answer is down to Cultural Conditioning (another source I read, which I’m not elaborating on in this article, suggested that an individual’s interpretation of beauty might also be down to genetics!). To my understanding, humans and other species of animals, like and are drawn to what we’re familiar with. Therefore, something beautiful is based on whether or not we have previously seen, experienced, read, heard, thought, or felt something similar. In the same way, most of us like particular types of people, books, food, exercise, and so on. Art serves as a representation of something. Art communicates an idea, and if you have come across something similar to this idea in your lifetime, you are more likely to consider that artwork beautiful.
On this idea, Ben completely agrees and goes on to say “Even just looking at the history of art and the way it has evolved throughout different cultures is proof. Take oriental art for example, it tends to be totally flat (such as the Japanese wood block prints), and more concerned with depicting things beautifully, rather than realistically. Whereas in European art, perspective is massively important, and the focus tends to be on making the art look as true to life as possible - they strive for replicas. I do think that it depends a lot on what you are exposed to, with regards to your environment, and yes, your culture.”
He goes onto add a relevant point in relation to Cultural Conditioning, with music as a form of art; “in rural Ireland, where farming is a huge part of their culture, you might find people listening to music about farm machinery (e.g. "I've got a brand new combine harvester" or however it goes!) Whereas, if you go to poorer African American communities in urban areas, for example (i.e. 'the ghetto') I highly doubt you'll hear people listening to songs about Massey Fergusons! You're more likely to hear songs about gang violence (e.g. "black rap made me do it") because that is just the culture that's there.”
This then, conjures another question: if a piece of work is considered to be aesthetically pleasing to just one person, is it therefore considered to be beautiful? Or must it be two people, or the majority of people? How can we define an art work as beautiful today, despite human opinion? To say whether or not a piece of art is beautiful despite opinion, is impossible, because then we have to take humans out of the equation, which we can’t do because art only exists as a form of human creation.
To help you understand what I’m getting at, I’ll give you another example. Think of a hammer. A hammer is useful to a builder (and Thor, obviously) but not to a baker. So is that hammer useful, yes or no? To answer the question, we might have to remove humans and their professions/objectives. Once we’ve done that, the hammer then becomes purposeless, because only humans use hammers. Therefore it becomes neither useful nor useless.
Where do we begin? I don’t know.
These are the circles that we begin to run around, and the deeper we go, the more circles we run. This is why art still remains such a tricky philosophical question.
In one sentence, Ben concludes our debate saying that “Art is expression, and I believe that expression is the truest form of beauty.”
Personally, I would consider a beautiful piece of art to have balance, rhythm, harmony, and importantly – unity. That means, I’m generally drawn to the more simplistic and down-to-earth artwork, as appose to the more abstract and other-worldly forms of art.
However, we have both come to conclude, that we can’t tell you what makes for ‘good art’, but we can tell you what makes for powerful art: which is something that has the power to allow us to communicate to other people, in ways that we cannot do so otherwise, and therefore has the power to establish a better relationship with someone we have never met before, than with someone we have known all of our lives. A true artist can understand this concept.
I want to say a massive thank you to our article contributor, Ben Holman, and a second thank you to him for suggesting and requesting this truly fascinating and thought provoking topic. The level of insight he has provided is uncanny, and I truly look forward to working with him again in future articles.
If you have an idea, question or topic you would like me to research, review and write about, I would truly love to. Please don’t hesitate to reach out and ask me – it would be my pleasure. If anyone would like to contribute to an article on any particular topic please let me know, I would love to work with you.
Jack, in collaboration with Ben Holman, at Interconnected.
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