What Is Art?

A Definition

To understand what art is one must first understand what value is. Value is a living organism’s drive without a specific object. In other words: just as we use the word “chair” to describe any chair, not just a specific one, i.e. not this chair or that chair, but the idea of a chair without a specific material manifestation, so do we use the word “value” to describe an impulse, or a complex of impulses, without talking about a specific one in particular.

The reason why we use the word “value” instead of “impulse” or “drive” is twofold. First, the word “value” describes the object of our desire rather than the desire itself, as the words “drive” and “impulse” do. Second, we differentiate between short-term urges and long-term desires, that is, a desire for an appealing snack may be called an impulse, while a desire to have equal rights within your community will be called a value. Both stem from the same drives that all living organisms possess, with the latter being a more complex manifestation based on the experiences stored in a developed brain rather than signals sent by the sensory organs. In other words: an enticing smell might trigger an “impulse”, while the interpretation of our experience in a human society might lead to a formation of “values”.

Value is really everything we want or like, although the use of the term – as in “a value” – is generally only used in an ethical context – ethics being the formation of societal values (i.e. the ways we believe humans should interact) and the best ways to promote them (i.e. principles). So while an animal will also have “values” in the form of basic instincts, only humans have the rational faculties to have ethical values.

Now that we have a definition of value, we can give a definition for “art”: Art is transmission of human value. It is not necessary to go beyond this, but if we wanted a more specific definition we could say that: Art is a method of transmitting human value by means of images, sound and language (language being also accessible through touch).

Three points:

  1. The word “value” here is used in the original context of my definition above – it is something one can feel rather than something that one only states on paper. Thus, it is imperative that the artist feels the object of their work, or else it is not a work of art but an illustration, or some other material output which can be created just as well by a robot or a force of nature.

  2. Art is transmission of the artist’s perception of value, a transmission of his feelings to another person. If a work cannot transmit the intended feeling of value to at least one other person, then it cannot be identified as art. It will be expression without an audience, and so, just as above, it will be merely an illustration or some other object that generates no feeling from the observer, or generates a feeling not intended by the artist.

  3. The value being transmitted must be human, i.e. an ethical value. As mentioned above, animals also have “values”, but they are very basic values that we call drives and instincts. For example, one can easily generate the feeling of surprise or shock in an individual by using some sudden loud noise or some other powerful audio or visual effect. That the artist felt the same emotion of shock as the observer does not make the work art because the feeling is animalistic rather than human.

The above can be reduced to scales for the evaluation of a work of art. These are: 1) the power of transmission, and 2) the complexity of the subject.

How well the artist’s feeling is transmitted, both in its intensity and its integrity, will have a crucial effect on the quality of a work. If the feeling can be transmitted accurately and in full, then we have a powerful work of art. If the feeling transmitted by the work is weak, then we have a poor work of art. If no feeling can be felt, then it is not art, but an illustration, or other material creation.

By complexity of the subject I mean the complexity of the value being transmitted. What is the subject of the work of art? For example, in Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky deals with the concept of morality itself. The hero, disgusted by the immorality of the world, decides that he, too, should brush it aside in order to make his pursuit of power unhindered. But the more he tries to destroy his sense of morality, the stronger he feels it, a pain that only intensifies in the manner of a knife being used for an amputation of a healthy limb. The reader can feel the disgust and the pain, and even if they do not fully realize what it means, they experience the emotions felt and expressed by the author. Through a masterful use of language, the reader gets to experience the author’s sense of value.

One could reduce the subject to something primitive, such a unique visual or audio experience. Such an experience may be interesting, but it will be merely a sensory experience rather than transmission of human value. It would not be art. A work of art must be a transmission of human values and the complex emotions that embody them: sadness, guilt, grief, happiness, dread, hope, sorrow, joy. The more complex the values, the greater the work of art. A work of art transmits that which cannot be explained in ordinary prose, and the best work of art transmits the highest, most developed feelings of the human spirit.

June 2014