ArtFor years I have asked the question, “What is art?”
My glib reply is that it all depends on where you draw the line. But I’ve also looked for serious answers. Here is what some others have had to say on the subject:
(updated January 21, 2010 newest additions are in teal)
The question of art is not a question of spontaneous feelings. It is not a question of emotionality, but of the knowledge of how to make things, how to realize something consciously. Everything functions in the brain. Even art.
- Manuel Alvarez Bravo
The defining function of the artist is to cherish consciousness.
- Max Eastman
I know it’s possible that art can change people’s lives. That’s what I want to do.
- Rand Miller
Aestheticism consists of believing that life is art and art, life, confusing the areas. Deceiving oneself.
- Umberto Eco
Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.
- Viktor Shklovsky, Art as Technique
Style is something modern movies can’t always find the time for. I am thinking for some reason of “The Thin Man” (1934), a movie that works in large part because of the way William Powell and Myrna Loy hold themselves, move, and speak; their attitude creates a space between the vulgarities of the plot and the elegance of their personalities, and in that space the humor resides. Their lives are their works of art.
- Roger Ebert
Art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences. The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring. The painting of Gustave Moreau is the painting of ideas. The deepest poetry of Shelley, the words of Hamlet bring our mind into contact with the eternal wisdom, Plato’s world of ideas. All the rest is the speculation of schoolboys for schoolboys.
- James Joyce, Ulysses
. . . literature, or any other art form, is wasting its time if it attempts to penetrate the essence of things.
- John Fletcher, Alain Robbe Grillet
. . . Hegel’s characterization of the business of art as the sensuous presentation, the embodiment, of ideas; specifically of those ideas which matter most to us. It is, he claims, precisely because art does this that it occupies a significant place in the history of culture. This is why art is important; ironically, it is also the root of the limit of art’s importance. Art allows thought to be at home in the world of perception, feeling and desire. But only certain kinds of thought can be provided with such a domicile.
- John Armstrong, Move Closer
. . . it is in the quality of our engagement that the human worth of art is apparent - art matters in virtue of the kind of experience it invites the spectator into. There is no access to art except in private - in looking, thinking, feeling as we stand before an individual work. Cultivation requires that we draw upon our own resources of sensitivity, reverie and contemplation, our capacity to invest our ideals and interests in the process of looking. Without these we can only know about art as detached observers who look on without being able to participate . . .
I remember many years ago somebody made a survey into what painting was. They put the question to my sister Norah and she answered that painting is the art of giving joy through form and color.
- Jorge Luis Borges
Sunlight. A naked girl. A chair. A towel. A bidet. A tiled floor. A little dog. And he gives the whole of existence a reason.
- John Fowles, (on a Bonnard painting) The Magus
And what is art if it does not enchant? Art is incantation. It is the fusion of the tangible and intangible.
- Dominique de Menil, 1987
Nothing, she said, nothing we make will ever match sunlight. A beautiful day beats all the art in the world.
- Richard Powers, Plowing the Dark
For art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity or perception to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication.
The artist is a person who solves problems before others are aware that they exist.
- Ben Shahn
I once heard some musician say “It’s not what you play as much as what you don’t play.” I think that was attributed to Miles Davis. You have to leave room in a work of art for the person’s mind to contribute something to the work.
- Desmond Williams
I have always been irritated by the complacent conviction that a ripple of stream consciousness, a few healthy obscenities, and a dash of communism in an old slop-pail will alchemically and automatically produce ultra-modern literature; and I will contend until I am shot that art as soon as it is brought into contact with politics inevitably sinks to the level of any ideological trash.
- Vladimir Nabokov, "Spring in Fialta"
Some works of art have an overt political content; many carry subliminal political messages, embedded in their framework. But it is remarkably naive to suppose that these messages exhaust the content of the art as art, or ultimately determine its value. Why, then, the fashion for judging art in political terms? Probably, people teach it because it is easy to teach. It revives the illusion that works of art carry social meaning the way trucks carry coal. It divides the sprawling republic of literature neatly into goodies and baddies, and relieves the student of the burden of imaginative empathy, the difficulties of aesthetic discrimination. It enables these scholars, with their tin ears, schematized minds and tapioca prose, to henpeck dead writers for their lack of conformity to the current fashions in "oppression studies" - and to fool themselves and their equally nostalgic colleagues into thinking that they are all on the barricades.
- Robert Hughes, Culture of Complaint
In art as in politics - and certainly where the two intersect - our responses are often more attitudinal than philosophical.
- Christopher Orr, salon.com (“Dirty Harry or p.c. wimp?”)
He points out that, historically speaking, political radicalism and artistic avant-gardism have usually had an uneasy relationship, and that it is sentimental to expect otherwise; sooner or later politicians are going to demand that artists subordinate their art to the revolution and put it at the service of a wider end and an exalted cause. However much artists may themselves believe in that cause, they must inevitably either refuse to serve it - the famous non serviam of Stephen Dedalus - or prostitute their talents to it, as a thousand time-serving socialist realists seem happy to do. This is because the true artist ‘can only create for nothing . . . whatever his attachment to his party or to liberal ideas, at the moment of creation he can only be concerned with the problem of his art.’
- John Fletcher, Alain Robbe Grillet
. . . the error of politically correct art, which seeks to make its artistic effect dependent on the virtue of its political message.
- Curtis White, The Middle Mind
Art’s purpose is not the display of social virtues.
Representational art of all kinds (and probably non-representational art, too) depends upon noticing that something can be made to stand for something else and that this may assist thought or communication.
- Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow
The classic work of art is a gamble. The more it transmutes the language on which it rides, be it musical, plastic, verbal, or other, the more the author runs the risk of incomprehension and obscurity. But the larger the stake the degree of change or fusion to which its language is subject the greater the potential gain: the creation of an event in the history of a culture.
- Pierre Levy, Collective Intelligence
Max Raphael wrote that the aim of all art was “the undoing of the world of things” and the establishment of a world of values. Marcuse refers to art as "the great refusal" of the world as it is. I myself have written that art mediates between what is given and what is desired.
- John Berger, About Looking
To create one’s own world in any of the arts takes courage.
- Georgia O’Keeffe
The sole justification of our existence as artists, superfluous and egotistic as we are, is to confront people with the image of their destiny.
- Max Beckmann
Art is, after all, supposed to be a kind of communication, and “personal expression” is cinematically interesting only to the extent that what’s expressed finds and strikes chords within the viewer.
- David Foster Wallace, David Lynch Keeps his Head
Art to me doesn’t mirror society. The very essence of art is subversive to society, and whatever society is putting out, art’s got to be doing something else.
- Bob Dylan
Art never seemed to make me peaceful or pure.
- Willem de Kooning
But that’s art. Always the simulacrum, never the real thing. That’s art.
- Martin Amis, London Fields
The doctrine of art for art’s sake, and the corresponding denial of the social responsibility or function of the artist, the doctrine that the artist creates as the bird sings on the bough, as the lily bursts into flower, to all appearance for no ulterior purpose, and that the artist is consequently a child of nature, entitled to be oblivious, if he so chooses, of the precarious constructions of men that surround him - the notion, that is, that the justification of art is art itself - is a late doctrine, a reaction to the older, traditional view grown oppressive or, at any rate, no longer convincing.
- Isaiah Berlin, The Sense of Reality
This is the faith of European radicals of the 1830s . . . steeped in the religion of art as a form of salvation, personal and political, public and private. Art is the sacred function of spiritually gifted beings - poets, thinkers, seers - who possess, as Schelling taught, a deeper insight into reality than scientists or politicians or ordinary, bourgeois philistines.
Art is not journalism and it is not moral instruction. But the fact that it is art does not absolve it, or rather the artist, from accountability. Nor is artistic activity a set of garments which one can don and doff at will: it is the expression of an undivided nature, or it is nothing . . . What alone matters is what the work of art expresses, whether it is the fruit of conscious organisation or of a dark instinct: for the work is its creator, his truest voice, himself.
- (ibid) (on the views of Russian writer V. G. Belinsky)
Art is a service, not a product.
- John Perry Barlow, WIRED magazine 8.10
The best art makes your head swim with questions. Perhaps this is the fundamental distinction between pure art and pure design. While great art makes you wonder, great design makes things clear.
- John Maeda, The Laws of Simplicity
Art for me means all works of imagination, from poetry to television commercials to pornography, with questions of quality still operative.
- Camille Paglia, Sex, Art, and American Culture
An ad that pretends to be art is–at absolute best–like somebody who smiles warmly at you only because he wants something from you. his is dishonest, but what’s sinister is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect facsimile or simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill’s real spirit, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. It causes despair..
- David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Funny Thing I’ll Never Do Again
Is he not an artist who endeavours to create unity in the variety of rhythms of pigments and tones, and who employs his knowledge in the service of his sensations?
- Paul Signac
Only he can be an artist who has a religion of his own, an original view of the infinite.
- Friedrich von Schlegel
It is only when an object exists in our lives for no other purpose than to be seen that we really look at it, as for instance at a china ornament or a precious stone, and towards such even the most normal person adopts to some extent the artistic attitude of pure vision abstracted from necessity.
- Roger Fry, “An Essay in Aesthetics”
He stood outside the culture, critical and aloof, quarantined at an Ellis Island of the spirit with the disease of his art.
- Jay McInerney, Brightness Falls
When we abandon ourselves to a work of art with no other intention than the aesthetic experience itself . . .
- Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World
People want to be bowled over by something special. Nine times out of ten you can forget, but that tenth time, that peak experience, is what people want. That’s what can move the world. That’s art.
- Haruki Murakami, South of the Border, West of the Sun
For most of us, love and art are our closest encounters with perfection . . .
- Ellen Dissanayake, Art and Intimacy
You’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art, because it’s real difficult in life.
- Woody Allen, Annie Hall
No good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art.
- John Ruskin
Art should predict life.
- Faye Dunaway
Art is only art when it is synonymous with living.
- Alexander Girard
Art has not ceased to affect us; it’s just that the process we call art is happening elsewhere, in areas that might be called by other names . . . we have been looking for art in all the wrong places.
- Brian Eno, WIRED magazine 1995
In the traditional, classical view, art objects are containers of some kind of aesthetic value. This value was put into them by the artist, who got it from God or from the muse or from the universal unconscious, and then it radiated back out to those who beheld it . . . what’s wrong about [this] is that cultural objects have no notable identity outside of that which we confer upon them. This is a controversial and volatile statement. Their value is entirely a product of the interaction that we have with them. Duchamp’s urinal was an exercise in this. Things become artworks not because they contain value, but because we’re prepared to see them as artworks . . .
Has technology swallowed art, and so is art gone now? Or are we so inside technology that from here it’s all art? Or is that confusing art with artifice?
- Stewart Brand, WIRED magazine 1.1
There are important differences between the social functions of art (which may support religious, political, or military organizations), the conscious individual motivations for producing art (which may include making money, achieving social status, or going to heaven), and the unconscious biological functions of producing art (which must concern survival or reproduction).
- Geoffrey Miller, The Mating Mind
Art may be imagined as consumerism’s dreaming, playfully recombining the elements of mass culture in promiscuous assemblages, and along the way happening upon items of use.
- Julian Stallabrass, Art Incorporated
Art is not a luxury.
- Steven Van Zandt
. . . the human capacity for art is a particularly flexible and creative endowment, and identifying its evolutionary origins by no means undermines the delights of art history, or limits the range or richness of artistic expression.
There’s no such thing as autobiography there’s only art and lies.
- Jeanette Winterson, Art and Lies
Two things significantly distinguish human beings from the other animals; an interest in the past and the possibility of language. Brought together they make a third: Art.
All art is fiction, and the more complex the fiction, the better the art is apt to be.
- Robert Hughes, Time, 1983
Art is only good at the moment it’s done. After that it’s dead. It’s just so much dead shit. Artists are like people trying to hoard their shit.
- Mary Gaitskill, Bad Behavior
Works of art are like unruly children. They do their own thing.
- Donna de Salvo
When . . . a process whereby light left its own register on the receiving frame, there arose an art not of talent or wizardry but of pure composition, vision, and decision, not of technical execution - the machine managed that - but of conception. Yet composition, vision, and decision are precisely the skills any intelligent viewer uses when standing in front of and appraising a finished picture. The process of making the thing becomes qualitatively indistinguishable from that of appreciating it.
- Richard Powers, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance
Much of life becomes background, but it is the province of art to throw buckets of light into the shadows and make life new again.
- Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses
Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.
- Pablo Picasso
Art is supposed to wake you up. It’s supposed to make you say “wait a minute. I can think about everything differently than I thought about it one second ago”.
- Liz Lerman
Real art has the capacity to make us nervous.
- Susan Sontag
Integrity. The impossible. The clean, consistent, reasonable, self-faithful, the all-of-one-style, like a work of art. That’s the only field where it can be found - art.
- Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead
To be - that is the artist’s greatest pride. He desires no other paradise than existence . . .
- Saul Bellow, More Die of Heartbreak
Naturally you’re aware that bad art can finally cripple a man.
So I spoke to myself and I began to write. But no, this was not writing: it was a real war, a merciless hunt, a siege, a spell to bring the monster out of its hiding place. Art is, in fact, a magic incantation. Obscure homicidal forces lurk in our entrails, deadly impulses to kill, destroy, hate, dishonor. Then art appears with its sweet piping and delivers us.
- Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek
One must never underestimate the influence of art on either species behavior or industrial development.
More than anything, though, I believe that architects, artists, and designers are the optimists of the future.
- Richard Koshalek, Dwell magazine, June 2007
There are no boundaries between artists and designers.
- Eido Ishioka
Great art is either easy or impossible.
- G.B. Shaw
The desire to please women was no doubt at the beginning of all art and thought. (What a silly misunderstanding, if so.)
- Wilfred Sheed, The Critic
In times of widespread chaos and confusion, it has been the duty of more advanced human beings - artists, scientists, clowns and philosophers - to create order.
- Tom Robbins
I came into filmmaking for the best reasons - because art works. Art can discharge . . . dangerous feelings in a healthy context. I didn’t do this because I wanted to be a ‘filmmaker’, I came into this because I had to do it.
- Martin Scorcese
Science is what we understand well enough to explain to a computer. Art is everthing else.
- Donald Knuth, WIRED magazine 7.11
The arts are the science of enjoying life.
- John Maeda
A science is sterile until raised to the level of art.
- Louis Sullivan
When we form something through artistic activity, we are formed and changed in the process, and that spurs the developmental process.
- Henry Schaefer-Simmern
Art is internal, in that its forms affect the senses and thereby influence the psyche, the emotions, the spirit.
- Bill Newkirk
By definition, art transcends the ordinary, calls attention to itself, and offers virtuosity as its calling card.
An Alchemy of Mind
I think one’s art goes as far and as deep as one’s love goes.
- Andrew Wyeth
Art, to me, is seeing. I think you have got to use your eyes as well as your emotion, and one without the other just doesn't work. That's my art.
Being a good artist means knowing how to think. Good art making is about incorporating your interests into a whole lifestyle. It should be about the pursuit of ideas rather than money.
- Patti Podesta
I used to believe that artists went crazy in the process of creating the beautiful works of art that kept society sane. Nowadays, though, artists make intentionally ugly art that’s only supposed to reflect society rather than inspire it.
- Tom Robbins, Skinny Legs and All
. . . what was interesting about the exact rendering in oils of a subway map? How bleak, how unchallenging, how dumb . . . its terms were social, intellectual, and political, not aesthetic. This art existed for the purpose of conceptual argument, rather than for its impact on perception.
Beauty! Wasn’t that what mattered? . . . the masses had been desensitized to it, the intelligentsia regarded it with suspicion . . . how could persons of good conscience pursue the beautiful when there was so much suffering and injustice in the world? [Her] answer was that if one didn’t cultivate beauty, soon he or she wouldn’t be able to recognize ugliness. The prevalence of social ugliness made commitment to physical beauty all the more essential.
The object of the artist is the creation of the beautiful.
- James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
To speak of these things and to try to understand their nature and, having understood it, to try slowly and humbly and constantly to express, to press out again, from the gross earth or what it brings forth, from sound and shape and colour which are the prison gates of our soul, an image of the beauty we have come to understand - that is art.
When I think of Art, I think of Beauty, Beauty is the mystery of Life. It is not in the eye, it is in the mind. In our minds there is awareness of perfection..
- Agnes Martin
All the languages of art have been developed as an attempt to transform the instantaneous into the permanent. Art supposes that beauty is not an exception - is not in despite of - but is the basis for an order . . . Art is an organized response to what nature allows us to glimpse occasionally . . . the transcendental face of art is always a form of prayer.
- John Berger, as quoted by Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses
Most people ignorantly suppose that artists are the decorators of our human existence, the esthetes to whom the cultivated turn when the real business of the day is done . . . . Far from being merely decorative, the artist's awareness is one of the few guardians of the inherent sanity and equilibrium of the human spirit that we have.
- Robert Motherwell
Too often in the past we have thought of the artist as an idler and dilettante and of the lover of arts as somehow sissy or effete. We have done both an injustice. The life of the artist is, in relation to his work, stern and lonely. He has labored hard, often among deprivation, to perfect his skill. He has turned aside from quick success in order to strip his vision of everything secondary or cheapening. His working life is marked by intense application and intense discipline. As for the lover of arts, it is he who, by subjecting himself to the sometimes disturbing experience of art, sustains the artist – and seeks only the reward that his life will, in consequence, be the more fully lived.
- John F. Kennedy
Art is invention, but also remembering.
- Robert Hughes, Time, 1986
One can surely live without art, but how much fun would life be if it didn’t exist? Art represents a special world of imagination and a playing with the senses that only humans can enjoy.
- Tsuzen Nakajima
We go through all the exhibitions, the concerts, the theatres, and find only industrious cobblers and noisy fools, who delight to produce something for the market, something that will "catch on" with a public for whom art and music and drama have long ceased to be spiritual necessities.
- Oswald Spenger (1926!!)
How can cosmic religious feeling be communicated from one person to another, if it can give rise to no definite notion of a god and no theology? In my view, it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it.
- Albert Einstein
Religion and politics are unnecessary to the culture - or the individual - that has poetry.
- Tom Robbins
If I had to live my life again, I would have made it a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week . . . the loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.
- Charles Darwin
Art is self-expression, but it's for all of us. It helps us understand who we are as a species.
- Sigourney Weaver
Like all people, only more so, they wonder what life they are meant to live and try to use art and romance to stop time.
- Jeff Giles Newsweek (on Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Go)
Music is not thought too indefinite to be put into words, but, on the contrary, too definite.
She felt that skill or any virtu was a desirable and lovely thing purely for its own sake; and it became more effective the further divorced it was from moral intention.
- Thomas Pynchon, V
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.
- Albert Einstein
A man can be an artist at anything . . . it depends how good he is at it . . .
- Christopher Walken, Man On Fire
Through art we express our conception of what nature is not.
- Pablo Picasso
That tension between the bright prison of a form and the freedom of imagination is what artistic genius is all about.
- Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses
The work of art is an artificial object which permits the creator to place the spectator in the state he wishes . . . the goal of art is not simple pleasure, rather it partakes of the nature of happiness.
- Charles Edouard Jeanneret (Le Corbusier) and Amedee Ozenfant
It’s the impossibility of having a beautiful life that gives artistic beauty its particular impact and poignancy.
- John Armstrong, The Secret Power of Beauty
Theories of art carry the seeds of their own destruction. In an age when any Joe can buy CDs, paintings, and novels, artists make their careers by finding ways to avoid the hackneyed, to challenge jaded tastes, to differentiate the cognoscenti from the dilettantes, and to flout the current wisdom about what art is (hence the fruitless attempts over the decades to define art).
- Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
The only theory of art which makes sense is that which acknowledges the specific creation of a new world, a world differing from, and not to be explained in terms of, any other worlds, material or physical, except that of the art in question . . . the arts continue to develop themselves, and enlarge our faculties of perception and response, in their own right and on their own terms.
- George Dyson
Art will always be art.
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Q: What do you do when you're not making art?
A: I ride my bicycle.
- Katsuya Terada (interview in Juxtapoz magazine, Sep/Oct 2004)