What is Art?

Updated: Nov 25, 2019



This is the first part in a series on art - it's meaning and importance for man, society, and the Faith.


The word “art”, for the postmodern man, evokes a plethora of contradictory examples. For one, it may call to mind a painting by Jackson Pollock, for another, David by Bernini, and to some, the comically tragic work Trash by Paul Branca. One of these pieces has been treasured for over three hundred years and embodies the highest level of technical skill, beauty, and material. The others - well, what of the others? Are they great art as well? According to contemporary society, yes. No matter how much our common sense tells us that these works are not comparable, the artistic elite insist that they are.


So is there an objective way to determine what is truly art?


According to the modern definition, art is nothing more than:


“the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”

But this definition fails. Why? Because it excludes nothing. This all-inclusive attitude has existed for the last 100 years, producing artists such as Thorvald Hellesen, and his painting Maleri in 1920. We are only now beginning to realize the full ramifications of abandoning the pursuit of beauty in art. As Catholics, we see its effects in all aspects of daily life. Individuals, families, and society at large are frustrated by the lack of observable beauty. As mankind becomes more and more detached from from the world around us, we find ourselves more and more lost in an aesthetic desert of our own making.


"Trash", Paul Branca


"Maleri", Thorvald Hellesen


Origins of the Word “Art”

The origin of the English word “art” is the Latin word ars, meaning skill or craft. This lays the foundation for the true concept of art and, as a starting point, already excludes the vast majority of items on display in museums around the world. Art must be rooted in craft. Any process involving the refinement of raw material must have a certain element of craft or skill associated with it. If one is going to paint, one must know how to work with paint; if one it going to sculpt, one must be trained in the ways of the sculpting of clay and stone. While the Latin root definition of art is certainly foundational, like its modern counterpart, it is still too broad and fails to distinguish art as something more than the mere technical ability to create something. For example, a plastic lawn chair requires some skill to make but is nothing compared to a carved oak armchair made by Chippendale. Both require craft, but one is far more valuable, not just for its practical usefulness, but also because it is inherently beautiful and desirable. So what further distinction is needed to have a working definition of art?


"The School of Athens" fresco by Raphael

Art Imitates Nature

The ancient philosophers approached the subject of art secondarily. They first defined reality and then, by predicating art from that definition, determined if it was good. These philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, understood that knowing the order of things and conforming to that order was the key to living the best life possible. Anything that took man away from that conformity was bad and anything that brought him into closer conformity with reality was good. These philosophers had varying theories concerning the nature and purpose of art but they both agreed that “art imitates nature.”


Plato: Art is Dangerous

Plato saw the physical universe or nature as a reflection of reality and for him all art was but an imitation of that reflection. This essentially defined art as a copy of a copy and thereby inherently flawed and prone to representing reality incorrectly as it was so “far removed from the truth” (Plato, Republic, 598). Plato famously illustrates this point through the example of a bed (Plato, Republic, 597). In Plato’s example, there is a perfect non-physical ideal or form of a bed, then a carpenter makes a bed, then a painter paints a picture of the bed made by the carpenter. Consequently, the painter’s imitation is three times removed from the true nature of bed. This understanding led Plato to mistrust all art because he recognized that it has a unique power to influence the minds of men for good or bad. This mistrust extended beyond the art of strict imitation or what he called the Mimetic arts i.e. painting and sculpture. It also included any play that showed the wicked prospering. “For that reason, we must put a stop to such stories, lest they produce in the youth a strong inclination to do bad things” (Republic 391). For Plato, art was dangerous and if it were to exist in any form it must be watched closely and only used in a didactic manner. Plato’s pupil Aristotle had a more favorable view of art and further developed its definition and its elevated purpose.


Aristotle: Art Can Be Useful

Aristotle, instead of banishing the arts, codified their appropriate use in his book Poetics. Aristotle believed that the imitation of nature in art was not a dangerous deficient copy of reality, but rather an impulse of man’s nature that could be used to educate and lead man to virtue. (Poetics 1448). At all times Aristotle continues to limit what could be considered art by limiting what could be expressed by the artist as art. “The poet being an imitator, like a painter or any other artist, must of necessity imitate one of three objects—things as they were or are, things as they are said or thought to be, or things as they ought to be” (Poetics 25). This definition would exclude any interpretive art that lacked form or structure as we so frequently see today. Finally, Aristotle speaks to the the requirements of beauty that is incumbent on all art in order to be considered as a good. “Again, a beautiful object, whether it be a living organism or any whole composed of parts, must not only have an orderly arrangement of parts, but must also be of a certain magnitude; for beauty depends on magnitude and order. Hence, a very small animal organism cannot be beautiful; for the view of it is confused, the object is seen in an almost imperceptible moment of time. Nor, again, can one of vast size be beautiful; for as the eye cannot take it all in at once, the unity and sense of the whole is lost for the spectator” (Poetics 7). Notice that a sense of unity is an important attribute of art and if the sense of the whole is lost on the viewer it is impossible for the thing to be considered good art. Clearly Aristotle, when he spoke of art, had a clear definition in mind. Beautiful art for Aristotle had to imitate reality, it had to be big enough to been seen easily and small enough to take in all at once. Most importantly, art for Aristotle can only be represented by an ordered whole. While both Plato and Aristotle contribute to the definition, it is St. Thomas Aquinas who orders the criteria by which a thing may be considered beautiful and consequently worthy of the name “art”.



Definition of Art: Beauty Made Manifest

St. Thomas Aquinas: Conditions of Beauty

In contrast to the ancient philosophers, St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of beauty itself and lays out the principles by which a thing may be said to be beautiful. St. Thomas teaches that if a thing is in accordance with its form it may then be considered beautiful. But what does this mean? For St. Thomas Aquinas, in order for a thing to be beautiful it must include three conditions: "integrity, proportion, and clarity." (Summa Theologica, Prima Pars Q. 36) Integrity, in this sense, is the existence of the thing. For it a thing to be beautiful it must first exist. Proportion is the thing existing in proper relation to other existing things, representing balance. All its parts must be in a balanced relation and proportion to one another. Clarity is that quality that emanates from the beautiful which grasps the attention of those around it.

Definition of Beauty

St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that man is made of body and soul, intellect and will. Between the faculties of the intellect and will, “beauty” is the object of the mind while “the good” is the object of the will. Beauty is “that which gives pleasure when seen” (ST I-II, 27. Q. 1). By the visible world he means as comprehended by the intellect as it is the object of the intellect. Beauty, according to St. Thomas is the mind receiving the information from the senses and determining that what it sees is beautiful. This is not to say that a thing is made beautiful by the mind perceiving it, rather, a thing is beautiful in itself and that beauty is apprehended by the intellect and consequently attracted but only if the previous conditions of beauty are met. Maritain provides a salient summary:


“Beauty is essentially the object of intelligence, for what knows, in the full meaning of the word, is the mind, which alone is open to the infinity of being. The natural site of beauty is the intelligible world: thence it descends. But, it falls, in a way, within the grasp of the senses, since the senses, in the case of man, serve the mind and can themselves rejoice in knowing: the beautiful relates only to sight and hearing of all senses, because these two are maxime cognoscitivi(That which is most intelligible) (Maritain, 23).


True Definition of Art

Art then is the effect of man’s creative act - the physical manifestation of beauty. Beauty is the physical manifestation of order. Art reflects the created order of nature through imitation and heightens the observability of this order by more clearly communicating it to man and consequently, elevating man out of chaos into order.

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