What is Art? An Exploration into its Meaning and Purpose
Art takes many forms from paintings, drawings, sculptures to writing, doing a performance and there is even a region where art and science, two seemingly opposite endeavours, seem to overlap. Art expresses itself in many forms but what gives rise to these manifestations? Strictly defined, it is the human intellect expressing itself in a creative way in order to give rise to something beautiful and capable of evoking some kind of emotion, action, harmony and even perform a function. Here, both the more strict definitions of art and the aspects that are not so clearly delineated by definitions and common thinking will be explored.
Like an echo reverberating off a wall, history calls to us what has transpired during an otherwise vanished epoch. Drawings carved upon the wall of a cave communicate to us happenings of the past where once humans carefully etched their way of life and told tales and stories of their lore. Maybe there was a drawing of animals once hunted, a scene expressing cultural values and traditions. Whatever it may be, whatever topic drove one to keep a record must have been something of value, something that meant something to the individual. Can this be called art? Could using basic tools to carve pictures or scenes upon a ragged be called a masterpiece? In terms of self-expression, it can be called art because it still follows the basic definition of art whereby the human intellect creates something that is visually appealing. The cave drawings may not be as impressive as a Renaissance painting but relative to what was available at the time of creation, the artists had to apply their creativity in order to work out how to impress the images of their imagination and lives upon a wall and do it to the extent that another person looking at them hundreds of years forward in time can recognise them and make sense of them. The art is not only in the execution, but also in the result. And in terms of execution, the artists of that particular time were only using what was available to them and that in itself deserves some credit to their ingenuity or ‘artfulness’.
Art as Therapy
Art is a form of therapy to many and this is also directly related to self-expression. There is a form of art where the artist is primarily doing it as a form of self- expression which means that the artist does not need a high level of skill in executing the work that they are doing but rather is a an act freely expressing themselves. This type of art is the most easily accessible to anyone looking for a therapeutic form of outlet or catharsis but holding true to the definition of art, it is not art in its highest or most complete form. It could be said that this is more a subcategory of art. Because the main feature of this type of art is self-expression and this is also related to communication. The artist, in expressing his or her inner world or reflecting upon their life, is essentially communicating with whoever observes their art.
Communication is a more structured process (as for example when compared to pure self-expression) because if the artist is trying to convey a certain message or type of information more care and skill has to be applied. Many aspects must be taken into account such as the layout of the artwork, the colours, the symbols used etc. in order to transmit the message from the artist to the viewer effectively. In this case, the artist must refine their skills and produce something that is both beautiful and informative. The element of beauty or aesthetics is important here because we are discussing communication through art as opposed to raw text in order to transmit a message or information. For the artist’s work to be a mouthpiece of information as well as be pleasing to the eye is an essential skill.
Art is a process of creation. Something comes into existence that had not existed before and it is done through the artist’s brush as a culmination of their self-expression. The new thing that has come into existence whether it be a painting, drawing etc. is essentially an illusion, a reflection of something within us. It is an illusion because a drawing or painting is a collection of strategically placed and mixed lines and colours so that when the artist looks at the finished work it matches that which the artist’s will wanted to express and when another person looks at it, they also recognise it to be the same (or mostly the same, subject to interpretation) that the artists sees. It is a reflection because it is an echo of something within that the artwork gives shape and form to and when we encounter this artwork we can recognise it as beautiful and it means that it has touched that place inside us and holds a piece of it too.
There is a kind of satisfaction from the creative process. One feels like ‘something has been done’, like some kind of progress has been made. Like giving birth after a careful period of nurturing and gestation. And that which has been born interacts somehow with the rest of the world in a way that it provides some sort of function or has a purpose or importance to be what it is.
Many people may derive much pleasure and a sense of relaxation by looking at an artist’s work. This work may become the centrepiece of someone’s home or it may have been the spark to light up someone’s inspiration to act upon their aspirations. It may convey an important, timeless message that never becomes irrelevant with time and the only transient thing is the artwork, made of ageing materials, which embodies this message itself in the form of a mouthpiece. The artwork allows us to almost grasp in our hands that which could not be seen had not the skilled hands of the artist brought all of the different elements together to manifest the form before us.
Beauty and Harmony
There are artworks that appear briefly in the scope of time and are then quickly forgotten about – possibly the only being who still holds it dear is the artist of the work itself, or critters using the canvass to feed off and live within as it sits decomposing in a rubbish tip. Sometimes Art-Forms appear that draw one’s eyes, heart and senses to look upon it like one is being nurtured just by observing it.
What is this quality that shields a piece of art from eroding away quickly, as if swallowed by time? Before we answer this question we can first explore the concept of beauty. Everyone can recognise something that is ‘beautiful’ but describing what beauty exactly is can be a more difficult task. What happens when we encounter beauty? For example, when a person comes across a scenic view where they can see the ocean waves crashing and the blue horizon stretching far beyond the reaches of one’s eyes it makes one stop and look. One wants to simply look, one wants to immerse themselves in it, get to know it and almost in a way become it or rather take on the beautiful qualities that it exhibits.
Beauty comes in many forms; it could be a star flickering in the sky, a cloud formation, a serene landscape, a lush tree swaying in the wind, the way a tiger stalks its prey, the intricate mechanism of how an insect’s antenna is structured and how it functions, the collective result of an event organised by humans (such as a theatre performance) an individual person and their deeds. Before we explored the concept of time and how a beautiful thing tends to be longer-lived but it doesn’t mean that all beautiful things are long-lived because the main factor to point out here is human intervention. When a human recognises a beautiful thing, the human will try to preserve it, to cherish it, to immortalise it, because humans think about time. Actually, in terms of the natural world it is not just about time but rather about being – timeLY.
Before we expand on timely-ness, we need to explore how beauty comes about. Beauty is the result of harmony. Again, like beauty, harmony is a word often used but not fully understood. If we were to look at the things around us and the actions resulting from their interactions and relationships we can see that any living thing will normally (unless insane) be attracted to harmony/beauty and be repelled from chaos. The basic units that the things around us are comprised of must be in harmony in order for them to carry out their functions in a healthy manner.
The tree’s roots, trunk and leaves all have their purpose and they need to work together – in harmony – so that the tree can continue doing what it does. And the tree will also be interacting with the environment around it such that its existence not only depends on how its own composite parts are functioning but also how the environment outside of it is also interacting with it. For example, birds may depends on the tree for fruit and to nest in but the birds will also eat the tree’s fruit seeds and when the bird defecates the seeds will drop to the ground in another location complete with fertiliser (the bird’s droppings). This is an example of harmony and the basic constituents that give rise to harmony is balance. Every moment there is balancing act occurring, a fine-tuning and even a disruption or termination of it. A word can be borrowed from biology to understand this further: Homeostasis.
“Homeostasis can be defined as the stable state of an organism and of its internal environment; as the maintenance or regulation of the stable condition, or its equilibrium; or simply as the balance of bodily functions. The stable condition is the condition of optimal functioning for the organism, and is dependent on many variables, such as body temperature and fluid balance, being kept within certain pre-set limits.” (From Wikipedia)
We can extend the meaning of the word ‘homeostasis’, for the purposes of this discussion to include the gross and subtle balancing-act occurring in and between all things around and within us at all times. This balance, in its basic units is the balance of the opposite yet mutually-dependant forces of Yin-Yang. When there is balance, there is harmony, when there is harmony, we recognise this is beauty, when we recognise beauty we are attracted to it; we want to become in-tune with it and we want to preserve it.
Continuing our discussion on timeliness, Nature, outside of human activity doesn’t exactly function according to preserving a thing of beauty for as long as possible but rather it preserves things according to their harmonic balance. A flower is beautiful but it has its purpose in the larger scheme of things and once that purpose has been fulfilled it would be dis-harmonic for the plan to preserve its flowers which beyond a certain point would be there pointlessly consuming the plant’s resources. This is where we can observe termination (or death) occurring. And, this termination, or chaos that leads to it, is also part of the greater balance or harmony.
Just as there are many different forms taking shape, rising and falling around us, there are also many different types of art loved by and created by people. There are a variety of elements and likewise, a variety of people. The elements are comprised of different proportions of Yin-Yang balance and because different people embody different elements inherent in their nature, different types of art such as drawing, painting, dancing, music etc. inevitably exist. Beauty comes in many different forms and shapes and is likewise loved by different people who share an affinity with different kinds of Art.
How do we preserve this beauty? One way, is by either cherishing beautiful works of art or creating them ourselves. And here we come full circle: Art is a reflection of the forces balancing themselves around us, an immortalising (or snap-shot glimpse) of the harmony around us recognised as and admired as beautiful and a creation of the artist whose art is infused with and is a reflection of his or her own inner balance and harmony.