Art is What Artists Do

“ is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits…”

Aristotle Nicomachaen Ethics, translated W.D. Ross

What is art?

I have no idea, and nobody else does either.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s discusses the various definitions of art. Reading it recalls to mind what Camus wrote in the Myth of Sisyphus: no one ever died for the ontological argument about God’s existence.

Academicians and critics love definitions, but we do not live our lives through the dictionary or abstract thought. Most important ideas have no clear definition.

What is life?
What is truth?
When does life begin or what is a living being?
What is self-defense?
When is war justified?

Reasoning about them is not the same as trying to define them. We reason to convince people, or to share or express our deepest feelings and values. Cognition is not, and ought not be the primary driver of our lives. It is but an attempt to make sense out of something more primordial and inchoate. You cannot define experience. Our experiences are more varied than there are words to describe them. As Nietzsche argued in Beyond Good and Evil, even the demand for rationality is an expression of a value or desire. You reason to make sense of your feelings.

Art is an unfolding psychological process both for the creator and the audience. Jorge Luis Borges understood this when he said “The fact is that all writers create their precursors. Their work modifies our conception of the past, just as it is bound to modify the future.”

It is just as true for the consumers of art.

The world is different if you discover Stravinsky before Palestrina, T.S Elliot before Baudelaire. Not wrong, just different. Not better, just different.

As an unfolding psychological process, it is an attempt for an artist to solve a pressing problem presented by the artists before them and their own abilities, ideas, values, and curiosity.

Art is a tradition. Problems never stay solved for long. They reappear in new contexts. Each generation solves them within its own historical context.

The nearest analogy I can think of is religious tradition.

Tradition like religion arose at the dawn of human civilization. Each individual in the tradition absorbs what came before, and reacts to it based on the world around them. There are schisms and heresies, manifestos, and claims about “laws”. What makes a tradition Christian or Buddhist? What does Unitarianism have in common with Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy? What does Pure Lands have in common with Theravada? They all evolved from a particular historical circumstance, the life of Jesus or Buddha.

Like biological evolution, traditions encompass both preservation and innovation.

The traditions in the art world are varied, contradictory and reflect the values of their worlds. Conceptual artists do not understand, and possibly revile, expressionists. Ad Reinhardt despised artists who did not do “ultimate painting”. Craftsman and illustrators he had no issue with. Representative painters are reviled by everybody. Often there is not even peaceful co-existence. You can only talk within a tradition. Dialog between artistic schools is fraught with all the problems of interfaith dialog between religions.

The important issue, as Rilke argued in Letters to a Young Poet, is to live the question. You cannot define an understanding of art which is a psychological process — but you can live the quest to find out what art is.

“…I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

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