A Philosophy of Art: An Artist's Statement, October 2019

philosophy aesthetics


What is 'Art'? What does it mean to be an artist? To create artwork? What does it mean to appreciate art? Art is both a broad term and a narrow term. It can be used to point one towards beauty or to move one towards action. It can delight; it can shock; it can comfort and it can cause pain and grief. It can speak to a solitary individual in the quiet of the evening or it can move multitudes. The pursuit of Art can be a pleasurable path or a burden from which there is no escape. Such is art and such is the life of an artist.

What is Art?

What is the essence of Art? Can we look at something and say definitely whether it is or is not Art? Is art essentially a process or an object? What are the elements of ‘Art’. What is the difference between artist, artwork and art?

Defining ‘Art’ succinctly and completely is very difficult. Coming up with a single definition1 that captures all the ways the term is used and has been used is not a simple task. I have reviewed many definitions and thought deeply about the concept and my experience of it within the world. I propose the following as a good working definition:

Art. Creative activity that is appreciated, either by the artist or by an audience, for qualities beyond it basic functional purpose. This does not capture everything that one might mean by 'Art', but it is a broad definition from which to begin.

However, I’m not as concerned about defining Art as crafting a philosophy of art.

A Philosophy of Art

Art is not the same as beauty nor is it necessarily the pursuit of beauty. In the practice of art, the concepts of art and beauty are often intertwined but they are not necessarily bound together.

The Elements of Art

The Artist

Art is produced by an artist. Who is an artist? Anyone who creates some work or performs some activity with the intent of creating a work of art has become an artist. Anyone that, while in performing some other activity, adds expression to the activity beyond what is necessary for its functional purpose is an artist. Anyone can be an artist.

The Medium

Art is expressed through a medium. There is no set medium that must be used for art. There is no limit to the possible mediums that could be used for art. Art could be expressed through visual mediums or through auditory mediums. Any of the five sense available to us (see, hear, touch, taste, smell) could became avenues for the expression of art. Mediums of art can transcend the basic core senses. Words on a page, a dance performance and a drum beat can be expressions of Art and viewed as a medium of art.

The Audience

Art is perceived by an audience. It may be an audience of one. It may be an audience of millions. The audience receives the work of art, but it is not just a passive receiver. The audience’s reaction to and appreciation of a work of art is as much a part of the experience of art as are the artist and the medium of the work of art.

The Purpose of Art

An artist intending to produce a work of art is doing so with the intent to communicate. Not all communication is Art. It still needs to be communication that “is appreciated… for qualities beyond it basic functional purpose” but the content of that communication is open and varied. As examples among many possibilities, the intended content of the artist could be an expression of beauty, a statement about the world, a religious affirmation, or an expression of feeling. And the purpose of the communication could be as bold as to inspire action, as straight-forward as to provide an entertaining experience, or as simple as to foster an appreciation for a momentary glimpse of beauty.

Likewise, the audience for a work of art will come to the encounter with its own expectations of the communication. For some of the audience there may be a desire to be moved, to have a work of art impact them in someway that is meaningful to them. Others in the audience will look for art that entertains, that provides relief and escape from the pressures of life. Others will be looking for expressions of beauty to lift and inspire life and many will be looking for all of those things and many more (though not necessarily all at the same time).

The Practice of Art

The elements and the intent of art are the practice of art. Given this philosophy of art, as long as either the artist or the audience thinks of a work or an act as being art that is sufficient for it to be art. Whether it is ‘good’ art or an effective artistic statement is another matter. Bad art is still art. What is bad art or good art? Ultimately that is determined by the values and perceptions of the artist and the audience. If the artist has achieved his or her goals in the expression of the artwork, then it is an effective artistic expression and in at least one sense ‘good’. If the audience has perceived the art roughly as the artist intended then the artist has been successful with respect to the artist’s intention for the work of art. However, the intent of the artist and the perceptions of the audience do not have to align in order for a particular artwork to be effective as art for both.

The Value of Art

This philosophy of art is a wide and broad perspective on art that is respectful of both the artist and the audience. Each will value a work of art independent from the other. Each member of the audience will value a work of art independently from each other member. As it is for the alignment of an artist’s intentions and the audience perceptions, their valuations of a work of art will not necessarily align. The artist will value work based on how successfully he or she executed their intentions for the artwork or the emotional significance the creation of the artwork may hold for them. The audience will value artwork for the experience it creates within the audience, irrespective of the skill or quality of a particular work or art. As individuals, that experience will largely be subjective in nature and could be based on the qualities of the artwork in and of itself or based on the context, story or history of a particular work of art or of the audience itself.

The Creative Endeavor

The creative endeavor adds value and meaning to both the life of the artist and the audience of the artwork. It is a key element of the human experience that should be valued for the experiences that it adds to each individual life regardless of what each individual values out of a particular experience. It is a part of what makes us human.

  1. For the linguist looking for a comprehensive overview and analysis of the word, dictionaries and encyclopedias are a good place to start. The Oxford English Dictionary and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy both provide a good starting point for the in depth consideration of all of its nuances. ↩︎