Art & Philosophy; Two Sides of the Same Coin
“Any great work of art… revives and readapts time and space, and the measure of its success is the extent to which it makes you an inhabitant of that world—the extent to which it invites you in and lets you breathe its strange, special air.”
Philosophy and art; are they separate or are they two sides of the same coin? Philosophy, by definition is “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence.” The word philosophy literally translates to “the love of wisdom”! At first glance, it’s easy to think that art and philosophy are entirely different entities. In its broadest sense, art is anything and everything that attracts attention, first of its creator and then of the audience if chosen to be published or displayed. Merging the two together, philosophy of art becomes the study of the nature of art; the means by which we can learn what art really is – even though, let’s be honest, at the end of the day it’s all subjective! Philosophy’s main question when it comes to art is “what is it and what distinguishes it from other things?”. Much like with anything else, art as a concept is not without its controversies and philosophers have (obviously!) had a lot to say about it throughout the centuries, giving it entirely different meanings based on their different views of it – based on their subjective and relative views.
Aristotle and Plato, two of the most renowned philosophers in history, were grounded in their view that art is an imitation of real life. To them, it is a re-presentation – or presenting again – of nature and real life. This definition applied not only to paintings and sculptures but to plays like those of Shakespeare. Aristotle described tragedy as the “imitation of an action” when talking about a man falling from a ledge or balcony. Shakespeare referred to the purpose of Hamlet as being “…to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature”, thereby imitating the actions of life.
At the turn of the 19th century, there was a huge shift in the definition of art in that it was no longer seen as the representation of the outer world, but rather of the artist’s inner world, whether through tones in music, tones in literature or paints on canvas. It was also argued that a piece of art doesn’t necessarily have to portray the artist’s emotions, but of emotions in general. It’s easy, then, to conclude that this idea of art was common during the Romantic movement considering the focus on emotions and aesthetics. According to Nietzsche, the beautiful lies in the eye of the beholder, regarding the significance of art in the role it plays in enabling us to “revalue” the world and human experience.
Another one of the biggest philosophers in history, Immanuel Kant, had a third and entirely different idea of art, saying that it is “a kind of representation that is purposive in itself”. He believed that art has no other purpose than to just be art, to be created for the sake of being created. Théophile Gautier, a French poet, coined the term “l’art pour l’art” or “art for art’s sake”, emphasizing that the intrinsic value of art is separate from any moral, political or practical function. It just is what it is, basically.
There is one thing that theorists have agreed on, though, and that’s the fact that art is human made. A sunset is beautiful but it itself is not a work of art; a painting of a sunset is. It’s safe to say that no two people have the same definition of art, no matter what school of philosophy they adhere to. Each person’s definition is a combination of a lifetime’s worth of experiences, opinions and emotions. And in my opinion, that in itself is art.