Experiencing the Humanities
A Web Textbook
Famous Artist Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat*
Chapter Eight of
by Richard Jewell
Introduction--Art, The Language of Feelings
Art is a language completely different from English, French, Chinese, or any other normal spoken language. The language of all the arts is feeling: emotion, intuition, and form or idea without words. According to twentieth-century American philosopher Suzanne Langer, best known for her philosophy of understanding art, the special quality of the arts is that they provide symbolic language, nonverbal language, that helps us understand, learn, and appreciate life in ways in which words cannot. There is a whole world of experiences in the arts--and inside us--that cannot be described quickly or easily with mere words. That is one of the great functions of the arts for us: it gives meaning to the unnamable, and helps us relive feelings and experiences that we might not ever otherwise bring back, know, or understand.
When an artist creates a work of art such as a
painting, a sculpture, or a piece of music, he or she is
communicating with us just as surely as if she were talking
to us. Her "words," though, are not spoken things, but
rather are color, line, shape, movement, and musical sound.
There are so many ways of "speaking" to us through artistic
expression, and so many different things an artist can say
by using different combinations of things.
Opening Up To Art
There are many ways in which we are already open to artistic things.
How do we feel, for example, if we look at the color red? How do we feel when we gently stroke a long, warm, smooth curve on a statue made of wood? How do we feel when we listen to our favorite kind of music or read our favorite kind of story? All these are art and our reactions to art.
So we are already open to different arts of different kinds. Music does not have to be classical, or drawings or dance two hundred years old, for it to be true art. True art--in other words, the definition of art--is simply this: the use of materials to create a symbolic sensory image--an image that causes us, usually, to react with feeling. We are, all of us, already participants--nearly every day--in art. Though our reactions may be fleeting instants of time in any given day, still we react on an almost daily basis to colors meant to be pleasing to us, sounds meant to excite us, words meant to tell a story that gets to us. There are certainly differences between good art and bad, between "high" art and, say, folk or common art. But they all are art. As human beings, we already are patrons of art, whatever we happen to like.
For this reason, it is possible to learn more about art forms--or art styles--that we know little about. It is possible to open ourselves up to a work of art and begin to learn to appreciate the work of art more. There are several ways to do this.
One way is to approach a work of art, or "discover" it, simply by just opening up our own feelings and emotions. We can let the work of art loom larger in us, concentrate on it, empty our minds and our feelings before it, and let it sweep over and through us, taking us up in its hands and arms and giving us a ride.
Imagine that a painting, for example, is a body of water into which we can dive. Let it take us into its depths; we can swim in it. And often, gradually or quickly, we will discover--as we swim--what the painter was trying to get across, consciously or unconsciously. We will feel the feelings and emotions that the painter herself felt as she created the work of art.
Imagine that music, for example, is an ocean wave coming in to shore, and we can concentrate on the leading edge of the wave, just listening purely without thinking about it. With such edge-of-the-wave listening, we will begin hearing the different instruments and voices more and more.
When we approach a sculpture or other three- dimensional work of art, we should--if at all possible--touch it. Sculpture is meant to be touched. We should feel it, stroke it, run our hands and eyes over its warm and cold surfaces, its smoothness and roughness, and let feelings come up inside us of similar physical feelings. In this way a piece of sculpture will deliver its message, its feelings, to us.
When we watch dance, we can imagine that we actually are the dancers, and imagine from our distant seats what it must feel like to float on air, or run across stage in a blur, or lift or be lifted by another human being in a graceful arc.
It is by such imaginings--such empathetic sharing-- that we discover the emotional roots and feelings of the artist or performer himself or herself.
And if we can't open up to a particular piece of art, no matter how hard we try, that is okay, too. Our inability to open up is neither necessarily our fault nor the artist's fault, either. Works of art are as individual as foods--some people prefer steak, others trout, and still others prefer vegetarian rice. Art is the same. Any given artist is going to appeal to some people and not to others, and the differences may have little or nothing to do with actual artistic merit.
However, we can develop a more wide and far-seeing eye
for what artists intend in their works of art. That is one
of the reasons for studying the arts. We can appreciate
more, and discover more, about ourselves and others. And
we also can have greater pleasure in experiencing the arts.
Our Moods and Energy
There also are several ways in which we can better enjoy art. In part, we can understand and take advantage of our art appreciation by our thinking of our own moods, energies, and interests.
To be soothed: Sometimes we watch or listen to specific types of art just to be soothed, relaxed, or calmed. Examples of this include listening to calming mood music in the background, watching a favorite movie, or looking outside at the artfulness and beauty of the way our back yard or garden is designed.
To be energized: At other times, we want our art to put a zing in our lives, to lift us, to enliven us, to give us energy. We turn up the loud, energetic music, we put a million lights on our Christmas tree, we add lively paintings and photos on our walls, and we drive to see our favorite art shows, musicians, and stage plays.
To be moved: There are times, whether every day or once a year, when we simply want to have a strong emotional (or even spiritual) feeling. We want to be moved, to be carried away in feeling, to forget our normal lives and be transported for a few minutes or hours to a magical place where time does not exist. This often is the function for us of a church service, a musical dance, a visually rich comic book, a stirring novel, or even a good, old-fashioned Hallmark romance movie on TV.
To learn: We may seek out new art, or even new forms of art, to learn how others see the world, hear it, and walk through it. Though such learning can be purely intellectual, for many it is a mix of intellect and feeling. As we study new sculptures or buildings in foreign or ancient places, for example, we find ourselves better understanding not only the rational and intellectual lives of people who live(d) there, but also how they feel or felt, how they live their lives now or how they lived them in history. Such art "tours"--going from art object to art object whether in a museum, an old musical recording, or an historical village of homes and other buildings--are a type of "mind-emotion" trip in which we learn about a culture by how those in the culture have thought and felt.
To experience something new: Sometimes we just like to explore. We want to discover something new, different, something we never knew before; a different perspective, a different way of seeing or experiencing things. Art is a wonderful window on other ways of seeing and knowing, and participating deeply in new art forms can give us such experiences.
What are the types of experiences, above, for which you use art? Which ones would you like to use more? Picking the right time for each type of mood is important: if you are in a mood to be soothed, not challenged by something new, then use your current mood. If you try to force another mood, you may not enjoy your art experience by forcing art upon yourself.
However, you also can identify other types of moods: when do you
feel the need for a different kind of mood, and what art forms might you try
when you are in that mood? Experimenting can be very helpful in learning the
arts if you simply identify when you have certain kinds of moods and then seek
art with that mood in mind.
Classifying Types of Art By Audience
In our day-to-day lives as audience members--watchers and listeners of--the arts, we often tend to divide the arts into at least four categories. This method of classifying the arts is "audience-centered" because it puts us, the audience, at the center of classifying. The four categories are as follows:
visual arts -- two-dimensional art we can see
performing arts -- art that moves in time on a stage
musical arts -- art that is sound
sculptural arts -- solid-object art we can touch
literature -- art we can read orally
The usefulness of classifying the arts with this audience-centered method is simply that it makes the most sense to us. This is how we receive art. In fact, if we wanted to get more complex, we might even add "crafts" and "video arts" to the list. However, for the sake of simplicity, this book looks at all the different kinds of art using just the above four categories. Here are the kinds of art in each category:
The visual arts usually exist in two-dimensional form, and they stay in one place: e.g., a painting on a wall or a video image on a TV screen.
The performing arts are art forms that move like plays or TV; we go to see them, or they come to our living rooms. They consist of such art forms as the following:
screen shows (TV/movies/computer shows)
Music is sound art--notes that are placed together in a flow of time to create harmonious and/or interesting sounds that fit our feelings. They consist of such art forms as the following:
live band (rock, marching, jazz, etc.)
live orchestra (full, chamber, quartet, etc.)
recorded band and orchestra
Finally sculptural arts such as statues and buildings stay put in one place, just like visual arts, but exist in three-dimensional form for us to touch or climb. Sculptural arts include such forms as these:
Literature is language that affects our imaginations--we read, and this makes us think and feel differently. Literature includes such art forms as these:
comic book/graphic novel
Classifying Types of Art By Critic
A popular, traditional way of classifying the arts is as follows. It is a "critic-centered" method of classifying the arts because it has long been in existence among the world's critics and philosophers who comment about art.
major arts ("fine arts"): music, literature, painting, sculpture, architecture
minor arts ("applied arts"): ceramics, furniture, weaving, photography, lettering, etc.
The usefulness of classifying the arts with this critic-centered method probably was that in ancient times--when these divisions first began to be created--they helped philosophers and critics of the art discuss the differences between "pure" and "practical" art.
Pure art was art created, performed, and received by audiences simply for its own sake; practical art was art that happened in the course of making something practical like a pot or chair.
Such a division was very important to think about, at least, in ancient times: very few people had the money or leisure time to pursue art just for its own sake. There was very little "pure" art around, and the philosophers and critics were curious about what kind of art could be made when people didn't have to use it on pots and chairs.
However, it is questionable whether these traditional classifications have worked very well for more recent generations--or more recent centuries--of art.
This division of fine art versus applied art has kept some very good craftspersons who are excellent artists in their own right from being recognized, especially in the fine kingly and queenly courts and well-to-do arts houses of the last several hundred years.
At the same time, these royal courts and well-to-do houses (or "schools") of painting, music, and literature have given too easy fame and fortune to painters, writers, dancers, and other artists who have practiced the "right" or "correct" kinds of art for their time and place. These establishment artists often are quickly forgotten a few decades after their death, and the more vital artists who were not fully recognized in their own time by critics are gradually, with time, given the critical applause that they deserve, too.
Our modern times and arts further complicate the use
of this classical division between fine and applied--
"major" and "minor"--arts. Take, for example, the "major"
art of literature and the "minor" art of photography. We
can easily argue that that excellent photography provides
much more wonderful art than poor writing of cheap stories.
And what do we do with the photography of movies, TV, and
videos--things that were hardly even dreamed of in the
older times when the five "major arts" were named?
Classifying Types of Art By Artist
Another more practical way to classify the arts is an "artist-centered" method of classifying the arts. It has to do with how art is created by its makers, rather than by an audience-centered or critic-centered method. In an artist-centered" method of classification, it is possible to say that all the arts divide into three categories: the arts that are first imagined or created visually --sight arts; the arts that are first imagined or created through auditory means--sound arts; and the arts that are first imagined or created by physical or spatial sensing--touch arts.
These three would then be broken down into further subcategories something like this:
literature (as read aloud)
plays (like literature)
video programs (like literature)
The usefulness of classifying the arts with this artist-centered method is that we can see--from the artist's point of view--how he or she actually imagines and creates a work of art.
Here again, though, we run into problems of definition. Not only is there a problem with defining how some things are created (e.g., what about plays or videos that are imagined visually more than through auditory perception, but contain both; or what about comics and cartoons?). We also run into problems of how audiences actually perceive the results (e.g. plays may start as sound, but they are received by audiences primarily as sight; dance may be created as touch, but it is received by audiences primarily as sight).
It is perhaps easiest to classify the arts by the types of categories most people already are using. Thus the audience-centered method appears the most simple.
However we classify the arts, clearly we are in an
especially wonderful time of expansion. We are seeing new
methods and uses invented almost yearly when, long ago,
such changes might happen once in a century. In the arts,
as in so many other fields of human knowledge and
experience, we are in new frontiers.
"Real" vs. "Abstract" Art
Another natural classification we make in art is between what has a content that we can understand-- something "real"--and what has content that is so abstract that we can't make heads or tails of it. When we classify art this way, we are classifying according to whether or not it has some kind of subject matter--something understandable. Some art has a lot of subject matter--like literature and photography. In this kind of art there are a lot of contents--a lot of realistic people, places, things, or events in it. Such art is called "objective" or "representational" because it contains objects that we can understand--because the words, paint, clay, or whatever else is used to make it represent realistic things.
At the other end of the spectrum, some art has little or no subject matter to it--architecture, for example, or dance. There is little or no recognizable content--no people, places, things, or events: just pure design. When art is full of design and little else, it is called "nonobjective' or "nonrepresentational" because it does not contain understandable objects, and because the medium of clay or physical movement, for example, does not represent anything real or concrete to us. Emotion and other things can be expressed by such nonobjective art, but there no real things or people are visible in the work.
We can show a rough spectrum of the arts according to this objective-nonobjective difference. Not all of the arts fit in neatly, and certainly in some art forms there are types of art pieces that are very objective and types that are very nonobjective (e.g., compare a photograph with an abstract painting of color splotches in the visual arts). However, with these considerations in mind, here is a spectrum of objective-to-nonobjective arts:
It is important for us to realize, in looking at this
list, that no matter how much we say we dislike abstract or
nonrepresentational art, still all of us respond on a
weekly or even daily basis to some forms of it. Architecture--the way buildings are built, their arches,
their surface materials, water fountains, dancing--whether
we dance to it or watch it, song melodies with no words--we
respond to all of these things that are, in arts terms,
nonrepresentational or abstract. So the abstract arts are
just as close to our hearts at times as are the objective,
representational ones. It just is a matter of what we
personally like or don't like--and sometimes a matter of
what we can discover we do like, once we understand what
the artist is trying to accomplish.
What is great art? On the one hand, great art obviously is old art which has been designated great. However, how do we know in our own times what art is great and what will never be remembered? And who decides?
These are important questions, for the great art of the past often was not considered great when it first existed. For example, when Shakespeare and Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol) were writing, most critics of their times considered them hack writers with little or no literary ability.
Similarly, Van Gogh and many of the other Impressionist painters of the late nineteenth century were barred from participating in the important rituals and functions of "real" painters in their time, and often they were very poor. Yet today their paintings often sell for millions of dollars while the so-called "real" painters--as recognized by those in power at the time--now are barely remembered.
A third example is that of Isadora Duncan, often
considered the mother of modern dance. In her time, she
was attacked and reviled by many as nothing more than a
shameless upstart who showed her body and her sexual
fantasies to everyone in wild, uncoordinated gyrations on
stage. Yet now many acknowledge her as a pioneering
breaker of convention and a great artist. In addition, abstract
dancing--with dancers exposing their legs and arms--is now the accepted norm.
In addition, cultural appreciation differs among countries, regions, and people within regions. Traditionally in China, for example, poetry, calligraphy (hand drawing of well formed letters), and painting were, according to the Chester Beatty Library, "the three highest expressions of Chinese culture." And the "'first rule' of Chinese painting was to grasp the living spirit of a subject rather than to deceive the eye with a reproduction of its presence" ("Exhibition Gallery"--"Arts of the Book"). However, as in other parts of the world, modern Asian cultures appreciate a wider variety of art forms and styles than ever.
So what does make great art? Is, for example, rock music great art? Are music videos? Cartoons and comics? Those who fashion themselves as our critics of the fine arts --whose views and reviews appear in daily newspapers and monthly magazines--often have been the last to recognize great art in the past, and we probably can expect this situation to continue in the present and future.
One reason, perhaps, that critics often don't see great art for what is, in the present, is that critics often are prejudiced against that which sells well. Bestsellers--whether they are bombshell novels, movies, music albums, or even comics--usually are considered to popular, too trashy, or simply just too successful to be highly literate or finely tuned to true artistic sensitivities.
However, experience and history suggest that most great works of art come originally from best-selling works of art or artists of their own time. In fact, there are perhaps three signs or indications that a work of art may become great. A great work of art usually is
"Best selling" means it is very popular in its day, or is produced by an artist who has done other very popular piece. Actually, the popularity of a great work of art must be so great that it successfully appeals to not just one generation, but dozens of generations of people for hundreds of years to come. Not all best-selling works of art are great, by any means. But most great works of art come from the ranks of bestsellers.
"Groundbreaking" means that it does not follow regular convention or already tried artistic methods real closely. It is not, in short, just one more soap opera following an old, old formula, no matter how well done.
Critics look for this newness in art, but often they are so busy examining the special and new swirls that the bark has on one type of tree in the forest of art, that they fail to see a whole new type of grove growing up on the edges of the forest. Rock music and, more recently, rock videos, probably will become excellent examples of this: already, more radical music critics are saying that certain songs such as "Light My Fire" by The Doors, "Yesterday" by the Beatles, and many others, and certain music videos as well, someday will be considered great classics of fine music.
Finally, "inherently beautiful" means, just as the art critics do require and demand, that a work of art have an inner harmony, beauty, and emotional/intuitive meaning that is unified, strong and intense, and deeply moving to us.
Many pieces of art have one or even two of these three qualities; they are popular, unusual, or beautiful. But having all three usually is what helps a work of art someday become great--that and a good spoonful of time, such as a century or two, to see how other people like it as well.
Step 1: Make a list of the kinds of art forms (realistic painting, rock videos, square dancing, etc.) that you like a lot, ones you kind of like, ones you dislike and really dislike, and ones that don't do anything for you at all. Then circle one of two in each group that you would be interested in learning more about.
Step 2: Look up each of your circled items in a large encyclopedia and/or a book about the arts.
Find a painting you like (the larger and more original, the better) and then imagine it is like a body of water. Try "diving" into it by giving yourself over to it, focusing on it totally, the whole of the painting all at once, and letting it come into you. Describe what happened, if anything. Next, try this with a painting you don't like as well.
Choose a piece of music you like. Try listening to the cutting edge as if it were an ocean wave and you were concentrating on the front edge only, ignoring what has already gone past. Listen to the texture of the different instruments or voices. Then describe what happened, and next, try it with a piece of music you like less.
Find a piece of sculpture, a carving, or an architectural or craft form that you like. Touch it. Rub your hands over its shapes and angles. Let the physical sensation of it take over your senses. Close your eyes and let the physical sensations create fantasies of other objects, times, or places. Then describe what happened, and try it with some sculptural form or shape you don't like as much.
List several different major moods that you have at different times in a day, week, or month. Then first describe what kind of art you tend to be drawn to or use when you are in those moods. Finally, for the moods in which you do not often enjoy any kind of art, what kinds of art might you be interested in trying out during those moods? What would you want the art to accomplish for you in that mood? Where might you go or what might you do to find the right kind of art?
*Image in Chapter Title: Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat (1887). The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 17 Mar. 2020.
Most recent revision of text: 25 Dec. 2019