Note: This essay was my first exploration of issues in aesthetics, and I no longer agree with some of what I wrote here. For a more recent discussion, see The Conceptual Nature of Art.
The central purpose of this essay is the exploration of a metaphor about art from the Renaissance, mentioned in Timothy Steele's fine book on the decline of metric poetry in the 20th century, Missing Measures (University of Arkansas Press, 1990). Certain Renaissance critics, it seems, speculated that imitation is to meter as the soul is to the body. The implication of this metaphor is that every poem -- and, by extension, every work of art -- has, metaphorically speaking, a "soul" and a "body". The soul is the conceptual element, the abstraction, the message, the component containing important thoughts or values. The body is the sensory element, the craft, the technical component, the matter that is ensouled by the message.
I find this an interesting way of thinking about the arts, and this essay explores some of its implications. The hypothesis I develop is that art is a 'sensuous embodiment' of human thoughts and values. And I use this approach to come up with a definition of art that differs in several crucial respects from that promulgated by Ayn Rand.
[I use 'sensuous' rather than 'perceptual' because I want to stress that a work of art is directly available to the senses. I believe that, in art, human abstractions are objectified or concretized at the sensory level through the rearrangement of human perceptual impressions into clear, intelligible images. In this way, an aesthetic image performs the same function that a word does in the realm of logic: it reduces or condenses a vast sum of knowledge and information to a single cognitive unit. Let me illustrate what I mean: Wallace Matson argues in The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand that the Objectivist epistemology could dispense with "concepts" and replace them with "words"; but words are not the only things that can represent concepts -- aesthetic images can, too.]
The forming of a definition must proceed at all points according to the criterion of essentiality. For man-made entities, in which category works of art fall, this means isolating in order the following aspects: the genus, purpose of creation, means of creation, and (secondarily) limitations on the purpose and on the means. What would this kind of definition-procedure yield for the discussion of art?
The widest metaphysical category under which works of art can be subsumed is that of entity, as opposed to the categories of attribute, action, and relation. But works of art are man-made entities, not natural objects, which is why it is important to determine the purpose for creating them. And works of art are entities of a special kind: they are sensuous embodiments (as opposed to conceptual explications) of the creator's thoughts and values about certain aspects of reality. The primary purpose of creating a work of art is the objectification or concretization of those abstractions in the form of perceptually available concrete entities (which makes it possible to contemplate or experience those abstractions in concrete reality). The specific means vary by art-form, but in general I think we can say that the means consist in (the creation of) a perceptually available entity that stands in a relation of fundamental similarity but selective difference (i.e., either stylized representation or resemblance) to those aspects of reality the artist presents in the work.
Thus the following working definition: "Art is the sensuous embodiment of the creator's thoughts and values about certain aspects of reality, effected by creating a perceptually available concrete entity that is fundamentally similar to but selectively different from actual reality, and created primarily for the purpose of objectifying and therefore being able to contemplatively experience the kind of world the artist fundamentally values."
I have found it helpful to define each of the arts individually, as it is examples of each art form (or even sub-form, such as song or drama) that we experience in reality, not art as such. Getting clear on the nature of each art form clarifies the nature of art itself, I believe. So let me go on to characterize each of the valid art forms in the terms of this definition:
These are my provisional characterizations of the arts.
The above characterizations presuppose my initial hypothesis that art is the sensuous embodiment of an artist's thoughts and values about that specific aspect of reality he or she treats of in the work created. It is this hypothesis that I need to argue for more extensively, or at least offer some deductive and inductive reasons for taking seriously. And I will try to do so throughout this essay.
First, I think it makes little sense to say, in a global manner, that art is the selective re-creation of reality, because it is almost always about a specific aspect of reality that the artist has something to say -- not about existence in general. A poem about a flower or a child embodies first of all the poet's thoughts and values about the flower or the child, and may or may not sustain any kind of broader interpretation or bear any purely metaphysical message. Even so, the fact that a poet writes about flowers or children (versus wars or skyscrapers, say) -- along with what the poet has to say about his subject and how he says it -- does give us some sense as to what kind of world he values on a fundamental level (which is why I have included such broad "messages" in my characterizations of the arts).
Further, the hypothesis that art is the sensuous embodiment of an artist's thoughts and values about some aspect of reality does not necessitate that each and every art form be a mimetic re-creation of entities that exist in reality. And I think that this may be for the good, because there are certain art-forms -- I would name music and architecture at the least, and perhaps dance as well -- that are not clearly mimetic. (I put off for now the question of what might be called "second-order" mimesis.)
The definition of art as a selective re-creation of reality comes from Ayn Rand's writings on aesthetics. But we can question how universal Rand's definition is, given that she explicitly states that architecture does not re-create reality, but instead merely "creates a structure . . . expressing man's values" (RM, p. 46). This is one of the reasons that architecture is "in a class by itself", the other being that it combines art (which according to Rand, it seems, exists solely for the purpose of contemplation) with some kind of utilitarian purpose.
The whole passage on page 46 of The Romantic Manifesto is of interest here, because it contains the seeds of Rand's equivocal stance on another of the arts: music. Rand states:
Literature re-creates reality by means of language -- Painting, by means of color on a two-dimensional surface -- Sculpture, by means of a three-dimensional form made of solid material. Music employs the sounds produced by the periodic vibrations of a sonorous body, and evokes man's sense-of-life emotions. Architecture is in a class by itself, because it combines art with a utilitarian purpose and does not re-create reality, but creates a structure for man's habitation or use, expressing man's values.
Notice that Rand does not include music in the first sentence, with its repeated "by means of" clauses. Music employs certain sounds, but does it do so in order to re-create reality? It seems not, at least based on this passage. Furthermore, Rand seems to include architecture among the arts (or, at the least, says that architecture qua object of contemplation is art) even though it does not re-create reality at all but instead only "express[es] man's values." Could something similar be said of music? For the answers, we need to investigate further.
Still on page 46, Rand states unequivocally that:
. . . in order [for man] to concretize his view of existence, it is by means of concepts (language) or by means of his entity-perceiving senses (sight and touch) that he has to do it. (emphasis added)
Her next words are: "Music does not deal with entities".
If music does not deal with entities, then how on Rand's view can it concretize a view of existence? Is music perhaps not an art at all? I would not go that far, but I think we are forced to say that music does not re-create reality. Indeed, how could it, since on Rand's view hearing is not an entity-perceiving sense? This fact about the sense of hearing is part of why, in Rand's words, music's "psycho-epistemological function is different from that of the other arts".
Later in the same essay, Rand, in contrasting music with sounds that are non-periodic in nature, makes the following observation:
. . . musical tones heard in a certain kind of succession produce a different result -- the human ear and brain integrate them into a new cognitive experience, into what may be called a new auditory entity: a melody. (emphasis added)
It is this last phrase that I want to seize on: the creation of a melody as the creation of an entity. A melody is not a representation or even an idealized re-creation of entities that exist in the world, as a painting or drawing or statue or story or poem is. A melody is, I would argue, a metaphysically new entity, unrepresentative of anything else in the world (and related only to other melodies, by mathematical similarity). This is why music has always been considered so "pure": precisely because it is not mimetic. Music seems to inhabit a world of its own (being similar in this regard to mathematics).
But does not music touch the soul? To use Rand's words, is it not true that "music is experienced as if it had the power to reach man's emotions directly"? It is, but in affirming so I want to avoid upholding the position that music somehow re-creates emotions, or even what Suzanne Langer called the "feeling-tones of the emotional life". I believe that music does not such thing, because a melody simply is not a re-creation or representation of an emotion in the sense that a statue or a painting is a re-creation of a person. When I see a painting of George Washington, I can say "that's George Washington"; when I hear a joyful melody, I cannot in the same way say "that's happiness". This is one of the implications of the fact that hearing is not an entity-perceiving sense, and of the fact that a melody is itself a man-made auditory entity, unrepresentative of any prior entity in reality. Music, as it were, creates its own reality, and in this sense is metaphysically independent of the reality we perceive with our senses and re-create through painting and sculpture and literature.
But what then accounts for the emotional power of music, if it truly is as independent as I am implying? I would like to attempt an explication by way of investigating Aristotle's views on music and how music differs from the other arts.
Aristotle's discussion of music, as of so many other topics, is brief and sketchy. His most extended remarks on the subject come at the end of the Politics (Book VIII, chapters 5-7). The ancient catalogues of his works list at least one book devoted solely to music, but unfortunately this has been lost to us. Intriguingly, when Aristotle discusses music in the Politics, he almost never uses the word "mimesis" , as he does with the other arts. Instead, he uses the word "homoiosis". Now, I have long puzzled over this usage. Mimesis means, in essence, re-creation of reality (even, in the light of Poetics VIII, selective re-creation of reality), whereas to say that music is a "homoiosis" of character, as Aristotle does in the Politics, is to say that it "bears a likeness" to character. What can this mean, and how does the "homoiosis" of music differ from the "mimesis" of the other arts?
The discussion in the Politics revolves around education, the question being: is it best to teach the young music? Aristotle's answer is yes, but for our purposes it is his reasons that are fascinating. Aristotle states that music is of value for three reasons: (1) it provides respite from human cares, (2) it provides intellectual stimulation, and (3) it has the power to educate the feelings and shape the soul. Aristotle believes the first two are true of and important about music, but it is #3 that convinces him music ought to be taught to the young. And it is precisely on this point that Aristotle contrasts music with the other art-forms in Politics VIII.5 (1340a5-1340b12, with excisions):
May not music have some influence over the character and the soul? It must have such an influence, if the character is affected by it. And that the character is so affected is clear, and not least by the power which the songs of Olympus exercise, for beyond question they inspire enthusiasm, and enthusiasm is an emotion of the character of the soul . . . Rhythm and melody supply likenesses [homoiomata] of anger and gentleness, and also of courage and wisdom, and of all the qualities contrary to these, and of the other qualities of character, which hardly fall short of the actual affections, as we know from our experience, for in listening to such strains our souls undergo a change . . . The objects of no other sense [than hearing], such as taste or touch, bear any resemblance to character; in visible objects there is only a slight resemblance, for there are figures which are such, but only a little, and not all persons share in the feeling. Again, figures and colors are not likenesses, but rather signs, of character -- indications of feelings . . . On the other hand, in melodies there is a re-creation (mimesis) of character -- and this is clear, for the musical modes differ in nature, and those who hear them are differently affected by each; some make men sad and grave, others enfeeble the mind, another again produces a moderate and settled temper, another inspires enthusiasm . . . The same principles apply to rhythms: some have a character of rest, others of motion, and of the latter some have a more vulgar movement, others a more noble movement. Enough has been said to show that music has a power of forming the character. . . .
Despite the sometimes confusing terminology, I find Aristotle's discussion helpful in clarifying my thoughts on the nature of music. Aristotle is making a distinction between music and the other arts based on the directness of the art form's re-creation of character. The visual arts, he claims, do not re-create character directly but instead re-create outward signs of character (such as gestures, facial expressions, etc.). Music, on the other hand, has a direct effect on the character. The reason is that each musical state and motion (each harmony, melody, rhythm, rest, and so on) has its own particular character (as Aristotle says about rhythms, some "have a character" of rest or motion, or of noble or ignoble movement). The character possessed by each musical state or motion bears a resemblance or likeness to a character of soul, and this resemblance excites in us, as if by sympathetic vibration, the emotions essential to that character. Another way of putting it is Rand's: music "evokes man's sense-of-life emotions". Thus music, though not mimetic, though not re-creative of the emotions in the way that the visual arts are re-creative of outward signs of character, can nonetheless evoke the emotions, because the states and motions of music bear an essential likeness to the states and motions of human feelings.
Music, in its not being mimetic, is similar to another of the arts, namely architecture. Architecture does not re-create reality, but instead "creates a structure for man's habitation or use, expressing man's values", as Rand puts it. Is this similarity perhaps the reason for all the old cliches about architecture as "frozen music"? Both architecture and music are in some sense metaphysically creative (they do not re-create). A building does not represent anything, but instead creates its own "inside world", which can be similar to, but which is always fundamentally unlike, anything given to us in reality. Again, the relation is not one of re-creating reality but of bearing a likeness to reality (the soaring vaults of a cathedral bear a likeness to the high trees of a forest, for example).
Analogous claims can perhaps be made for dance -- that the states and motions of the dance do not re-create the inner life but instead bear a likeness to the states and motions of our inner lives -- but I have not pursued those claims here, especially given my shameful ignorance of dance as an art form.
My fundamental point with all of this is that it may be that the essence of art is not the selective re-creation of reality (as Rand argues), but what I have called the sensuous embodiment of the thoughts and values of the. Part of my reasoning is that "sensuous embodiment" includes both those arts that re-create reality directly (painting, sculpture, literature) and those that bear likenesses to reality (music, architecture, perhaps dance).
Notice another difference from Ayn Rand's definition: I do not speak of the "metaphysical value-judgments" of the artist, but of the artist's thoughts and values. Why do I shy away from the cumbersome phrase metaphysical value-judgments, besides the fact that is indeed cumbersome? I do so because the concept leads to many difficulties, at least in my view. What are we to say of a work that does not express truly significant, "metaphysical" values concerning human existence (at least according to some critic or expert)? Is such a work not art? Is a romance novel, say, somehow not a novel, not a work of art?
Many people today have contact with art only through popular art (pop music, movies, and mysteries, romances, thrillers, and such), and most human beings in history have in the main experienced folk art, I would imagine (on the process of how folk art becomes fine art, see Albert Murray's essay "Folk Art and Fine Art" in his book Stomping the Blues, Da Capo, 1976). I would like to be in the position to say that -- given certain basic standards of intelligibility -- any novel, any play, any poem, any piece of music, any work of architecture, any statue, any choreographed dance piece, any drawing, any song, any film is a work of art. It seems much easier to me to admit that and be done with it. Let us proceed along the "libertarian" line that if a work is an example of one of the art-forms, then it is art (no matter if it is fine art, folk art, or pop art).
This does not mean that anything at all is art. Intelligibility and basic standards are essential. Performance art, for instance, is not art, and neither are such twentieth-century "innovations" as conceptual art or environmental art. These so-called arts are not among or based on the valid and fundamental forms of art (music, literature, painting and drawing, sculpture, architecture). The valid forms of art are determined by the nature of human cognition, i.e., by the conceptual nature of the human mind and by the nature of man's perceiving senses. It is on this basis that I categorize the arts as follows:
Arts appealing primarily to vision:
Arts appealing primarily to the mind through language:
Arts appealing primarily to the ear:
Not everything that is conventionally or "institutionally" classified as music or sculpture or any of the other arts is in fact art. John Cage's 4'33'' is not art because it is not music, just as Andy Warhol's Brillo boxes are not art because they are not sculpture (or any other art-form). But the direction of my disqualifying such works is from the specific valid art forms to art itself. Is this supposed work of art a work of music? No. Is it a work of sculpture? No. Is it a poem? No. If it is not any of the arts as I have characterized them, then it is not art. But if it is music, or if it is a poem -- no matter what its metaphysical merits or technical quality -- then I am inclined to say that it does embody some human thoughts or values, and that it is a work of art.
There is another way of seeing the truth of this. A work of art is supposed to give one the experience of seeing existence as one believes it is or is meant to be. Experiencing a work of art, one feels "Yes, this is what life means to me!" But there is nothing to say that what life means to any particular person is necessarily significant or important (though it is important to that person). Someone who reads a romance novel experiences the same category of feeling as someone who reads a novel by Victor Hugo: each one can justifiably say "Yes, this novel represents life as I see it." The one reader's view of life is less exalted than the other's, but that is a matter of quality, not a difference in kind or category (art versus non-art) between the novels themselves.
Music is even a better example, I believe, especially given Rand's explicitly stated latitudinarian attitude in regard to the relative merits of different types of music (RM, p. 56). It seems to me there is little sense in arguing, for example, over whether jazz music is "art". Given the fact that certain jazz compositions are at a high level of musical expression (the music of Duke Ellington springs immediately to my mind), then where to draw the line? Should we call all jazz art, or only "serious" jazz, or only "non-commercial" jazz, or only jazz that never served the utilitarian purpose of providing dance music, or only jazz that did not serve primarily as entertainment, or only jazz that is sufficiently far from being folk art? I would just as soon say that all jazz is music, and therefore that all jazz is art (again watching out for "music" that is only institutionally music). Affirming that enables us to focus on the merits of jazz as art, rather than to engage in endless tribulations over inclusion or exclusion in the exalted realm of "art". The same goes, I believe, for so-called new age music, bluegrass, blues, rock, reggae, ragtime, etc. After all, pieces of music that were once considered mere entertainment -- from Mozart dance suites to the songs of George and Ira Gershwin -- have won their places as classics, and the same may happen in time for the music of the Beatles and other popular artists of our day. And let us not forget that the popular music and film provide the vast majority of people today with their artistic experiences. Such experiences may not be as exalted as those derived from listening to Beethoven or reading Shakespeare, but even so they share the essential characteristic of giving the feeling that "Yes, this is life as I see it".
This is not to say that a romance novel is a great novel, that an assembly-line portrait is a great painting, that a trite piece of verse is a great poem, that "Roll Over Beethoven" is Beethoven. But each of these is, nonetheless, art. Let us simply say that and get on with the harder task of explicating what constitutes good and even great art. If we try to make our definition of art do too much work for us (excluding all that we deem unworthy), then the definition is not serving the cause of conceptual clarity, but is instead being used as an bludgeon against those we consider to be philistines or to be plain wrong.
One criterion for deciding if something is good or great art is that of significance. And significance, in many respects, comes down to the importance, the weight, the philosophical meaning and metaphysical depth, of an art work's theme and message. This is part of what it means for a work to be a masterpiece: it speaks to something timeless in man, to part of the essence of what it means to be human. Only a few works of art ever created are masterpieces (even from among the many works produced by such master artists as Mozart or Michelangelo). And we can be confident that only the greatest works will survive the ravages of time. It is hard to feel patience in the midst of the debacle of art (and pseudo-art) in the twentieth century, but I firmly believe that, one hundred years from now, no one will be listening to the works of John Cage, because his output does not offer anything of value to the human mind and soul. And, although our progeny may or may not be listening to the Beatles, we expect they will be listening to Bach and Beethoven.
Art that speaks to the highest in man will always survive.
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