This is the tenth and final philosophy post in a series called, "General Education in a Nutshell." Philosophy is the first of ten subjects to overview in this series. These are the subjects a person normally takes in college (or high school) as part of a general education (most of them also make up what is sometimes called the "liberal arts").
The first ten philosophy posts were:
- Philosophy Overview
- Philosophy of Religion
- Critical Thinking
- Philosophy of Science
- Philosophy of the Person
- Social and Political Philosophy
- Philosophy of History
We might therefore say that art is anything that some person considers to be art. Normally, there is an artist involved, someone who believed he or she was creating something that was an expression of something in some sensory medium that can be seen, heard, touched, tasted, or smelled. Sometimes it is the person experiencing that medium who considers something art, an expression or an embodiment of something.
Of course we might ask, what does God consider to be art? Why the whole creation is a work of art by God's hand, a work of beauty! "The heavens are telling the glory of God" (Ps. 19:1).
2. There are those who would say that there are objective criteria for what is beautiful. Symmetry is often considered an objective basis for beauty. What about rounded figures as opposed to jagged or square ones? Some would say there are aspects of the human brain, parts that "light up" with certain visual and auditory stimuli, such that they can actually objectify beauty.
Most of us at this current time would probably say that this approach misses the point of art, which is not scientific but oriented around pleasure. But as we will see, our perspective is only one perspective, one that fits where we are situated in history, and not the only one.
What does God consider beautiful? "God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good" (Gen. 1:31). Everything that God has created, insofar as it is not marred by Sin, is beautiful. Who knows, perhaps even that which is marred by Sin is beautiful to God in a way, for Sin only exists because of the possibility that we might choose the good. Even the unrepentant sinner remains beautiful to him, because he or she is still the image of God. God is able to love the sinner even though he does not love sin.
The laws of physics are beautiful. They are indeed elegant. There is a mathematical beauty to the universe. These are manifestations of God as an artist.
3. The sense of the purpose of art and what therefore constitutes good art has changed from time to time in history. For example, both Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece assumed that the purpose of art was to provide a representation of reality.  For Plato, this sense of art implied that it was a bad thing, just as for similar reasons it mean for Aristotle that art was a good thing.
Plato believed that anything we experience with our senses is only a shadow and a copy of reality itself, which is something we access with our minds. The idea of a table is the reality. A physical table is a shadow and a copy of that reality. So for Plato, a piece of art was a copy of a copy of reality. It took one farther from the truth and thus was bad. It also could play on the emotions, which for Plato was bad.
By contrast, Aristotle believed art was good for similar reasons. Unlike Plato, he did not believe that the idea of something--its essence or form--was something that truly existed independently of substance. When I identify something as a table, my mind has abstracted the essence of a table from the table. Art is helpful in this regard, because art focuses on the essential form of something.
And while art often evokes an emotional response, Aristotle believed this experience could be cathartic in a way that actually helps clear our minds. Music might purge us of emotions so that we can think straight.
4. So Plato and Aristotle both judged the value of art on whether it led to greater rationality. Quite the opposite for the Romantics in the late 1700s and early 1800s. For them the emotional irrationality of art was what made it art and what made it good. The artistic ideal was the eccentric artist who seems possessed of something greater than him or herself. The artist is someone swept away by genius, someone with whom the rest of us cannot really relate.
This Romantic paradigm has more or less dominated our sense of art up until the present time. Good art evokes strong feelings which, while irrational, are good.
Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) had a slightly different perspective on art. He agreed with the Romantics that art was largely about feeling. But he disagreed on what constituted good and bad art. The Romantics viewed art as an individualistic matter. It didn't matter whether you or I recognized the meaning or genius of a work of art. It was a matter of the individual artist and individual taste.
But for Tolstoy, art was only good art if it evoked universal feeling and values. And the values of importance were things like the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. If a work of art made us feel more loving toward each other, then it was good art. If a piece of art helped us feel solidarity with one another as human beings, it was good art.
4. All of the above, in their own way, believe that art is good if it is constructive. If it builds rationality, Plato and Aristotle would have said it was good. If it built individual or corporate feeling, the Romantics and Tolstoy would have said it was good, respectively.
With Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), art becomes good if it has a destructive function. Building on the work of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Marcuse suggested that art serves a psychological function in relation to repression. Repression, for Freud, was the result of human beings not being able to fulfill their deepest drives and desires. This energy gets pent up inside us and can be destructive.
Marcuse saw art as an outlet for these repressive drives. Art allows a person to release these repressed feelings. In that sense, his perspective bears some resemblance to Aristotle's.
5. But we might end with Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), who thought all these perspectives failed because they all evaluate art on the basis of what we might call its "instrumental value." Art is good or bad depending on what it does. For Wilde, art has intrinsic value. Art doesn't have to do anything at all. Art is valuable for its own sake.
Next Week: Summary of Philosophy's Value
- Plato's Republic
- Aristotle's Poetics
- Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment
- Leo Tolstoy, What is Art?
- Oscar Wilde, Intentions
- Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization