There are many ways to define art. Some definitions revolve around concepts of beauty or pleasure or creativity or imitation or individuality.
But one useful definition is based on the principle of the transmission of emotion from one person to another.
Consider the following statements:
“Art is the activity by which a person, having experienced an emotion, intentionally transmits it to others.” —Leo Tolstoy
“The purpose of the painter is simply to reproduce in other minds the impression which a scene has made upon him.” — George Inness
“The person who can communicate his emotions to the souls of others is the artist.” — Alphonse Mucha
“Art must contain a human experience, and, through a personality, skilfully communicate this experience in an understandable language to the greatest number of thinking people for the longest length of time.” — Frank Reilly
There are a few corollaries to this conception of art-making. The artist must truly feel something for art to be possible. Charles Hawthorne said, “If you are not going to get a thrill, how can you give someone else one?”
This definition of art doesn’t concern itself with the formal qualities of the work. It doesn’t matter if the artwork has elegant compositional structure or graceful lines or the Golden Mean; it simply has to evoke in the viewer the emotion that originally drove the creator.
The artist isn’t the only one who matters. The viewer is part of the equation. Art can’t just be an isolated expressive activity that one person does to amuse himself.
The success of art can be measured by the strength of its effect on the audience. What do you say about your favorite movie?: “It made me laugh, it made me cry.”
What kinds of emotions are appropriate for art? Joy? Terror? Wonder? Uneasiness? All are legitimate, though Tolstoy holds in the highest regard the feeling of universal brotherhood.
Tolstoy is interested in authentic emotions. He excludes sarcasm, irony, cynicism, melodrama, and sentimentality, all of which are counterfeit emotions. He also excludes work that is merely technical or intellectual.
The emotion-transmission definition has universal strength because it doesn’t provide any limits on subject matter, technique, or degree of realism. Nor does it even specify the art form. It could apply as much to animation or writing or dancing or music as to painting.
But it has its limitations. The chemistry of emotional infection is very subjective. What moves one person may not move another. Tolstoy hated late Beethoven, Wagner, and opera in general, while most people find them deeply moving.
And the definitions don’t account for work created by hermit-like artists who do authentic work that is never appreciated by an audience. Does an artist have to be conscious of the audience to be effective at transmitting emotion?
This notion of art ruled most of the 18th and 19th centuries until it was swept away by aestheticism and modernism. The image at the top of the post is by Caspar David Friedrich, one of the German romantics.
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the definitions of art have been thorougly deconstructed. I believe we need to go back and dust off early ideas that lay behind the great masterpieces we admire from the past, and see if they still work for us today. I’d love to hear what you think.
One of the best articulations of this aesthetic philosophy was written by Leo Tolstoy in his essay, “What is Art,” (1896) link.
Wikipedia on “What is Art” link.
A recent movement in art, founded on many of these ideas, is called Emotionalism. http://www.emotionalism.org/