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Dissecting Reality 101: Art, A Privilege or a Perspective?

TAGORE: Melody and harmony are like lines and colors in pictures. A simple linear picture may be beautiful, and the introduction of color may make it vague and insignificant. Yet, color may, by combination with lines, create great pictures, so long as it does not smother and destroy their value

EINSTEIN: It is a beautiful comparison; the line is also much older than color.

The desire to create objects which are aesthetically pleasing rather than that of practical value seems to exist in all cultures. The irrepressible urge to paint, sing, dance, act and beautify one’s surroundings has continued up to the present time.

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Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy which studies beauty and the arts. We naturally think of an artist as wanting to communicate something to us, and communication is a deliberate, intentional activity.

Imagine waking up one day to discover that the Martians have landed on Earth. How would you go about trying to explain to them the difference between ‘art’ and ‘non-art’? How would you convince them about the value of art?

According to Aesthetics, as per the Intention criterion of art, the special class of objects that are made with specifically an aesthetic intention are the ones properly called works of art; but despite the appeal of this criterion, critics have doubted that simply intending something to be art is enough to magically transform it into art. Also, it is possible that something not originally intended as art may now be treated as such.

As per the Quality criterion of art, art is closely connected to skill. In short, we feel that a work of art should not be something that a person with no ‘talent’ in the arts could have made. This belief that a work of art should have some kind of intrinsic quality has often been associated with the idea of beauty.

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Traditionally it was believed that beautiful art is produced by painting beautiful objects, or by revealing the beauty in everyday objects. But, since we can speak of beauty with respect to the form of a work of art as well as its content, perhaps we should say that a work of art is an act in a perfect marriage of form and content. It is worth noting though that despite the appeal of the quality criterion, it is open to criticism. It is possible for a work of art to have great technical competence but lack originality. For example, there are plenty of competent artists currently churning out impressionist prints. The other side of the above point is that a work of art can sometimes show originality, and yet requires little technical skill.

The third criterion for distinguishing between art and non-art is the Response of Spectators criterion, although trying to tread into this territory is tricky. The ‘general public’ prefer the familiar to the strange and hence have demonstrated hostility to a lot of then-budding art movements.

Given the difficulties with the above criteria, a deceptive answer to the question ‘what is art?’ might be ‘ art is what is found in an art gallery or treated by experts as a work of art’. In the early twentieth century, a French artist began exhibiting what he called ‘readymades’. These were simply objects taken out of their everyday context, renamed and put in an art gallery. The most famous of these objects was a white porcelain urinal with a pseudonym daubed on it. By suggesting that everyday objects might have aesthetic value, the artist can be seen as raising the question of where art ends and non-art begins. Taking our cue from this, we might be tempted to say that if we just opened our eyes, we would see that everything is art. But if we say that everything is art, then the word ‘art’ loses its meaning as it would no longer distinguish some things from other things.

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Many people also say that art contributes to our knowledge of the world when we use it as imitation, communication and education. Plato famously held that art inflamed the emotions, art weakens our ability to lead rational lives. On the other hand, Plato’s younger contemporary, Aristotle had a different view of the relation between art and emotion. According to him, art does not incite emotion, and rather purges and cleanses us of it (catharsis). Given the number of movies based on violence and criminal activity, this dispute is of great contemporary relevance. Some people have argued that even morally uplifting art stimulates sentimentality and not real action. It is possible that you may weep at scenes of injustice in a movie (thereby convincing yourself that you are a caring individual) and yet be impervious to signs of injustice in your daily life. The great thing about imaginary (as opposed to real) injustice is that it requires merely an imaginary response.

As an endnote, it is worth noting: there is something paradoxical about aesthetic judgement. On the one hand, we take seriously the idea that there are standards of aesthetic judgement, and that some judgements are better than others. On the other hand, we say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and there is no accounting for tastes.

However, for humans, a life without the arts is difficult to imagine. Imagining a world without music is freaky. Imagining a house shorn of aesthetics is strange. Hence, it can be said that since we derive great pleasure from the arts, that in itself is enough to justify them.

Image Sources: [1], [2], [3]

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