Ardor and Artistry
By Caleb Diener
The meaning of art is always hotly disputed: it was true in classical Athens, it was true in the Russian Empire of the nineteenth century, and it is true of us today.
What is fine art? This question has been discussed and debated for thousands of years by prominent philosophers such as Plato, Kant, and Hegel among many others. Aesthetics, the branch of philosophy that studies this question, is an intricate and difficult field, for it explores questions like objective truth, authorial intent, standards of legitimate interpretation, and the spiritual dimensions of a work. However, by narrowing our focus to two figures in this field, Aristotle and Tolstoy, we can glean much material for developing a rational aesthetic theory.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle provides a clear-cut, broad definition of art. He claims that “There is no art that is not a characteristic or trained ability of rationally producing, nor is there a characteristic or trained ability of rationally producing that is not an art.” For him, “art deals with production.” In the words of R. G. Collingwood in Principles of Art, “This is what ars means in ancient Latin, and what technē means in Greek: the power to produce a preconceived result by means of consciously controlled and directed action.” It is with this understanding that both the ancients and the moderns speak of the liberal arts. Under the Aristotelian definition, the deduction “All men are mortal; Socrates is a man: Therefore, Socrates is mortal” is a work of art. It is the process of taking something already provided—be it two premises, a block of marble, or a mathematical figure—and producing something new: a logical conclusion, a statue, or a geometric proof. For Aristotle, art clearly requires knowledge and is the process of creating something new, using skill and understanding.
However, as a view of fine art, Aristotle’s terms are too broad. Within his understanding of art, there are two branches which could be called fine art: the art to which people commonly refer in modern times when they speak of “art” (a painting, a chorale, etc.), and craft, the creation of objects that may well be beautiful but exist for some use. Craft requires an understanding of the desired product before it is in process. According to Collingwood, “This foreknowledge is absolutely indispensable to craft: if something, for example stainless steel, is made without such foreknowledge, the making of it is not a case of craft but an accident. Moreover, this foreknowledge is not vague but precise.” Collingwood argues, however, that the same is not true for art as we mean the term: a musical piece, begun with one intent, may legitimately change its purpose and shape as it is molded into its final product, for fine art is much less utilitarian than the crafts. Craft does not necessarily evoke emotion, nor is it intended to.
For Tolstoy, art is much different. In his judgment, the only goal of art is communicating emotion; further, the recipient of the art is critical, for the emotion evoked within the recipient must be precisely that which the artist was intending to evoke. His understanding of art treats it as a channel for transferring the emotion of the artist directly to the recipient. In What Is Art?, he writes that “The activity of art is based on the fact that a man receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the motion which moved that man who expressed it.” He continues with the bold claim, “If only the spectators or auditors are infected by the feelings which the author has felt, it is art.” The trouble here is, if nothing else is required than that the recipient feel the emotion of the artist, anything could be art. Not only does art not necessarily involve knowledge, truth, or skill, it is also subjective: “The degree of infectiousness is also the sole measure of excellence in art.” Tolstoy’s definition, like Aristotle’s, is much too broad. Strictly speaking, the vengeful murder of someone’s brother—if done in order to make the living brother feel the same hate as the killer—would be art, and its goodness as art would be in proportion to how similar the two hatreds were! Or, more lightheartedly, mere laughter which causes the hearer to feel joy like that of the one laughing would be art. Tolstoy’s definition is also clearly unsatisfactory.
However, a plausible definition of fine art may be found by synthesizing both of these broad proposals, combining the understanding of Aristotle and Tolstoy, ancient and modern. Combining them allows them to supply each other corrective limits, yielding a functional understanding of fine art. Aristotle’s idea of art lacks the emotion that Tolstoy provides; Tolstoy’s lacks the emphasis on knowledge, truth, and skill which Aristotle supplies. An acceptable definition of fine art, therefore, could be “that which appeals to the spiritual and emotional parts of man in order to convey truth skillfully.” A painting, a piece of music, and a sculpture can all fulfill this definition, in a way that neither the conclusion “Socrates is mortal” nor the murder of someone’s brother ever could.
This leads us to an interesting observation. A piece of fine art could satisfy this definition, while not conveying the truth or emotion intended by the author. Markedly in contrast to Tolstoy’s assertion that art is merely the communication of the artist’s emotion to the recipient, this definition requires that there be skill and substance to the art which could have a variety of interpretations. For example, an enthusiastic painter, creating a patriotic scene of a battlefield intended to inspire young men to join the military, may create a masterful work of art that nevertheless evokes a very different feeling in war-scarred veterans. Because it is a painting which is designed to and does evoke passionate emotions, because it conveys and portrays truth, and because it required some level of craftsmanship to make, the painting satisfies the proposed definition of fine art; yet it does not at all transmit accurately the emotion or intent of the artist. Artists whose work regularly is received differently than intended possibly could be called poor artists, while their work could nevertheless remain great art.
The question of what art is has been debated for thousands of years, and every answer tends (like the Hydra) to be replaced with two more questions. Much productive thought can be set in motion by considering the strengths and weaknesses of Aristotle’s and Tolstoy’s views, but there will always be a quest for a still deeper understanding of fine art.
Caleb Diener is a senior at Hillsdale Academy. He is a Christian, eldest of four siblings, musician, photographer, runner, and programmer. He is planning to attend Hillsdale College or Baylor University, and to study some combination of philosophy, the fine arts, and entrepreneurship. His recent projects have included running a marathon, photographing a wedding, drumming with a live jazz ensemble in a local café, and 3D-printing and launching a tube-fin rocket.
Student essays and creative writing at the Journal are submitted by our highest-scoring examinees on each test. Congratulations to Mr. Diener on his excellent score! You can find more from our top students here; you might also enjoy our ongoing series profiling the men and women of our Author Bank. And don’t forget to check out our podcast, Anchored, which is hosted by CLT’s founder, Jeremy Tate.
Published on 6th January, 2023.