What is Art?

by Benjamin Studebaker

A few weeks back I was driving around in the states while listening to a discussion on NPR about whether or not food is a form of art. It made me ponder seriously one of the basic questions of aesthetic philosophy, often asked, but rarely answered seriously or comprehensively–what is art? This post details the outcome of a serious think about the topic.

In Plato’s The Republic, Plato takes art to be a form of imitation. Art is, for Plato, a human representation of something that exists in the world. This is, broadly speaking, true. Paintings, films, songs, plays, and so on all represent human ideas concerning other things. These things could be physical–a piece of art portraying a table could convey a human idea about the nature of real tables. They could however be more abstract–a piece of art could convey a human idea about the nature of an emotion, of human beings themselves, of anything that exists either in the physical world or in our minds.

I’d like to take this concept of imitation on board and use it as our foundation. I do think it is important to emphasise another element here as well, however–these imitations are conveying ideas. Art makes some kind of point about life, nature, the world, and so on. It is not merely imitation, it is imitation with some kind of intellectual purpose. It attempts to persuade us that the world is or is not a given way.

What is more interesting is how art makes its arguments. Art is not like philosophy–it does not assemble premises and deduce from those premises via logical argument claims about the world. It does, however, make the same claims that philosophy makes. If you think back to say, English class, students are usually told that what makes novels important are their themes. The themes in novels usually reference philosophical ideas. Some novels make the argument say, that the races should be equal, or that there is gender injustice. Others might claim that we have freedom of choice, or that love is more powerful than hate, any number of claims in any of the philosophical magisteria, but all with the commonality of being philosophical in nature. They reference ultimately political theory, moral philosophy, metaphysics, and so on down the line. So how does art make philosophical arguments if it eschews the philosophical method of logical argumentation?

Consider say, film. A film is a fictional imitation of real life. It contains within it a set of philosophical ideas. However, the film is making the argument for these ideas via an anecdote. The film supplies you with a story, a single incident, and expects the details of that specific incident to convince the viewer of the ideas the film is proposing. Now, in philosophy (and, indeed, in science), taking a single anecdote and deriving from that generalisations about life, the universe, and everything is inductive reasoning, and it is not particularly preferred. It is considered much better, much more likely to provide a genuine account of a given thing to deduce from principles to particulars–to deduct, rather than to induct. It is easily and often the case that anecdotes mislead us, because the individual case is not similar to all or most cases. To illustrate the incompleteness of this kind of thinking, here is an argument from anecdote:

  1. The sky is cloudy today.
  2. Therefore, the sky is generally cloudy.

We cannot derive the conclusion from the premise. Many places are rarely or occasionally, but not generally or usually, cloudy. More importantly, even if the conclusion were true and in the given location it was generally cloudy, the knowledge that on one given day it was cloudy would not be sufficient justification for accepting the general principle. This is the case when the anecdote does in fact reference a real event–in art, we remove ourselves further by proposing fake anecdotes.

The anecdote contained within a novel, film, or play is not a real anecdote, and if it were a real anecdote it would not be logically sufficient for convincing anyone of any conclusion about the nature of the universe. If you read a novel that tells you a story that makes the claim that say, we should not be cynical, the claim is being made on the basis of a single anecdote that never even actually happened. You have no reason to accept the conclusion that we should not be cynical based on having read that novel.

What about art that is not narrative? Music, painting, sculpture, and poetry often do not argue through narrative anecdote. They make their arguments by invoking sentiment or emotion in the viewer or listener. A great song elicits a strong emotional sentiment from you, but that sentiment is notably not in and of itself a logical argument and has no argumentative force. No matter how strongly you feel the lyrics or the message of the painting to reflect the truth, you do not have before you any of the necessary components of what you would need to know that it is so. The argument is purely an emotionalist one. We often engage in art of this type even when, on some level, we feel it contradicts reality. If you see someone listening to a song about how the singer is a “strong independent woman who doesn’t need a man”, it is quite likely the listener feels at that moment the very opposite sentiment and is seeking comfort from the song.

This can be done through narrative “escapist” art as well. I enjoy the film How to Train Your Dragon not because it represents metaphysical truth about man’s nature but because it presents an alternative truth that I find more pleasant and more comforting. This leads into my next contention–in response to the question “why do we engage with art if we cannot derive truth from it with validity”, the answer is that the alternative truths in art are both comforting and entertaining. We enjoy art not because it is truth, but because it is not truth.

The upshot of all of this? There are a lot of people out there who will tell you that their taste in art is superior to the popular taste because their art has “meaning” while this other, “lower” art is just entertainment. This is an irrelevant and fallacious claim. No art contains truth, all art is purely entertainment and escapism. What gives you a given amount of entertainment is of the same value to you as what gives me the same amount of entertainment. There is no fundamental difference in the value of Beethoven and Bieber. Neither contains a valid argument for a given truth, both serve only to please us, so it is entirely arbitrary which one you prefer to listen to. Liking the former makes you no better than someone who likes the latter, and vice versa. A piece of art is only “good” or “bad” in so far as more people derive more enjoyment from “good” art while fewer people derive less enjoyment from “bad” art.

There is nonetheless one danger in art, the danger of actually taking it for philosophy and deriving one’s beliefs from it. For most of us, it is self-evidently obvious that to take art as truth is ridiculous. Playing Grand Theft Auto does not equate to the real life murdering of hookers. While it may be perfectly acceptable within the imaginarium of such a game to kill hookers, we do not take the argument made by the game in favour of hooker-killing to be a representation of truth or a valid or compelling argument for actually killing hookers. However, for a select few people, for those obsessed with culture and with deriving “themes” and “meanings” from art, there is a real danger of actually accepting the invalid argumentation art offers. Usually the people engaging in this behaviour are not players of violent video games, but hipsters and hard core art aficionados. These people have substituted art for philosophy in their lives, perhaps because they found philosophy insufficiently entertaining or simply lacked the requisite intellectual skills required to process it. They know nothing of truth or reason and live their lives by sentiments and anecdotes. They are no intelligentsia–they are merely pseudo-intellectual sophists, and the rest of us should pity them.

I conclude with a caveat–I do not say that art is bad, or not to enjoy art. I consider myself a lover of art; I consume copious amounts of television, films, music, novels, and the like.  Art is a wonderful part of life, but it is wonderful in the same way that sports or hobbies are wonderful, as a form of entertainment and escapism, not as a philosophical activity. It is a great arena to play with ideas, stories, and thoughts, provided we recognise the limitations and the necessity to always, always, verify ideas through reasoned, critical analysis. Enjoy the art that pleases you, whatever that might be, but do not take its intellectual contents to be true, and recognise that the art others enjoy provides them the same satisfaction your art provides you. There is no hierarchy of art, no higher or lower, lesser or greater. There is only fun, so go forth and have it.