What is art? – The dictionary definition of art says that it is “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects” (Merriam-Webster)
But the thing about art is that it’s so diverse that there are as many ways to understand it as there are people. That’s why there are scholars who give their own special definition of the word, such the one penned by this famous Russian novelist, which goes:
“Art is the activity by which a person, having experienced an emotion, intentionally transmits it to others” – Leo Tolstoy
During his life, Tolstoy was known to write based on his life experiences, such as his most famous work, “War and Peace” that used much of his experience during the Crimean War. And whether or not his definition of art is the best, the point is that people look at art based on how they have experienced it.
What is Art?
There are many common definitions of art. Few to quote:
- any creative work of a human being
- a form of expressing oneself
- resides in the quality of doing; the process is not magic
- an act of making something visually entertaining
- an activity that manifests the beauty (What is Beauty in Art?)
- the mastery, an ideal way of doing things
- not a thing — it is a way (Elbert Hubbard)
- the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known
- discovery and development of elementary principles of nature into beautiful forms suitable for human use (Frank Lloyd Wright)
Why is Art Important?
Probably, the best theory that I like all which best explains – Why is art important – is from Van Jones, subtly provides a great response to What is art?
Van Jones presented a graph that accurately represents the interaction between the four aspects of society and its different members.
Consequently, Vones depicts why is art important to our society?
The graph (below) represents our society.
Society is driven by the powerful elites, the dependent masses, government, cultural producers and artists
Van Jones Graph
On the left you have action, and on the right, ideas; elites are at the top, and the masses are below. There’s an inside act and an outside act.
On the inside, there’s big money: elites are spending millions of dollars to influence politicians and policymakers. The inside act has the power to influence policy creators.
On the outside, we at grassroots set our expectations and needs, so that the elected candidates pass laws that give us power. Masses reflect what society really wants (heart)
The left side, “action,” often means quantifiable policy changes. The right side, “ideas,” can be harder to see. We are not necessarily talking about concrete things here, but rather, a “headspace.”
Academic institutions and think tanks, which are not always involved in the immediate policy wins, are significant in creating a culture of thought
While the left side, “action”, continues to produce quantifiable policy changes and new laws, the right side “ïdeas”, can be hard to quantify its outcome. Although “head” talks theories and academics, it fails to produce any significant contribution to policymakers.
Artists come into the play here at this moment
Artists are represented here on the side of ideas, in the “heart space.”
Art is uniquely positioned to move people—inspiring us, inciting new questions and provoking curiosity, excitement, and outrage.
Artists can strengthen the will and push people to act. They do not think like policymakers or academics people.
Artists think from their heart – big, revolutionary and visionary ideas.
This is why artists are able to move people to action, thus creates a significant cultural and political contributions.
This is what makes art powerful.
Impact on Politics, Culture, and People
Art is very important in the society because it is an essential ingredient to empowering the hearts of people
When activists are showing images of children suffering from poverty or oppression in their campaigns, this is the art pulling the heartstrings of society’s elite and powerful to make changes.
Similarly, when photographers publish the photos of war-torn areas, it catches the attention of masses whose hearts reach out for those who need help.
When an artist creates great music and movies, it entertains people around the world. This is art, making a difference in society.
A very modern example of art in action is street art. When the famous Italian street artist Blu created the mural in Kreuzberg, it sparked a lot of strong, different reactions that were rooted deeply into the differences between East and West Berlin. Who would have thought that a wall painting depicting two masked figures trying to unmask each other could illicit such strong reactions?
Now the issue behind this mural is a totally different matter to discuss. But whether or not the effect of the mural was good, it cannot be denied how a well-crafted piece of art can have a great impact on society.
Art is also a remarkable mode of depicting culture from all over the world
When you see a Zen garden in Sydney or San Francisco, you know that it’s a practice that originated from China. Likewise, when you see paper swans swarming a beautiful wedding ceremony, you know that this is origami, an art that came from Japan. When you see films featuring Bollywood music and dancing, you know that it’s a movie from India. Art has the power to take cultural practices from where they are from and then transport and integrate them into different parts of the world without losing their identity. There, these art forms can be used to entertain, create awareness, and even inspire foreigners to accept these cultures, no matter how strange or alien they may seem.
And that’s exactly what John Dewey implies in Art as an Experience:
“Barriers are dissolved; limiting prejudices melt away when we enter into the spirit of Negro or Polynesian Art. This insensible melting is far more efficacious than the change effected by reasoning, because it enters directly into attitude.”
This is especially important in our highly globalized world. Art has played an important role in helping fight against intolerance of different cultures, racism, and other forms of unjust societal segregation. With immigration becoming a growing trend, the world’s countries are expected to be more tolerant and accepting of those who enter their borders. Art helps make that happen by making sure that identities and their cultures are given due recognition around the world.
Why is Art so Powerful?
Perhaps the simplest answer to this question is that art touches us emotionally.
Art is powerful because it can potentially influence our culture, politics, and even the economy. When we see a powerful work of art, you feel it touching deep within your core, giving us the power to make real-life changes.
In the words of Leo Tolstoy:
“The activity of art is based on the capacity of people to infect others with their own emotions and to be infected by the emotions of others. Strong emotions, weak emotions, important emotions or irrelevant emotions, good emotions or bad emotions – if they contaminate the reader, the spectator, or the listener – it attains the function of art.”
In sum, art can be considered powerful because of the following reasons, among others:
- It has the power to educate people about almost anything. It can create awareness and present information in a way that could be absorbed by many easily. In a world where there are those who don’t even have access to good education; art makes education an even greater equalizer of society.
- It promotes cultural appreciation among a generation that’s currently preoccupied with their technology. In fact, it can be said that if it weren’t for art, our history, culture, and traditions would be in more danger of being forgotten than they already are.
- It breaks cultural, social, and economic barriers. While art can’t really solve poverty or promote social justice on its own, it can be used as a leveled playing field for discourse and expression. The reason why everyone can relate to art is that everyone has emotions and personal experiences. Therefore, anyone can learn to appreciate art regardless of their social background, economic standing, or political affiliation.
- It accesses higher orders of thinking. Art doesn’t just make you absorb information. Rather, it makes you think about current ideas and inspire you to make your own. This is why creativity is a form of intelligence – it is a special ability that unlocks the potentials of the human mind. In fact, studies have shown that exposure to art can make you better in other fields of knowledge.
The truth is that people have recognized how powerful art can be. Many times in history have we heard of people being criticized, threatened, censored, and even killed because of their artwork. Those responsible for these reactions, may it be a belligerent government or a dissident group, take these measures against artists knowing how much their works can affect the politics in a given area.
In the hands of good people, however, art can be used to give back hope or instill courage in a society that’s undergoing a lot of hardships
Great Art elicits powerful sentiments and tells meaningful stories
Art can take the form of film, music, theatre, and pop culture, all of which aim to entertain and make people happy. But when films, songs, or plays are made for a specific audience or purpose, the art begins to diversify.
Films, for example, can be made to spread awareness or cultural appreciation. Songs can also be composed in a way that they bring out certain emotions, give inspiration, or boost the morale of people.
During the Victorian period in England, women started to make a name for themselves with such classic artworks such as Elizabeth Sirani’s “Portia Wounding Her Thigh”, a painting that signifies the message that a woman is now willing to distance herself from gender biasedness.
The painting’s subject depicts an act of a woman possessing the same strength as that of a man. “Portia” represents surrender because she isn’t the same type of woman known in society as weak and prone to gossip.
One of the revolutionary works in the history that ultimately opened the doors of arts to women in general, ultimately, showed the power of women in art
There are also works of art that illicit strong intellectual discourse – the kind that can question norms and change the behavior of society. Sometimes, still, art is simply there to reach out to a person who shares the same thoughts, feelings, and experiences as the artist.
The truth is that art is more than just a practice – it is a way of life. Art is more than just a skill – it is a passion. Art is more than just an image – each one tells a story.
The fact that art is quite connected to human experience makes it unsurprising that we have always made it part of our ways of living.
This is why ancient and present-day indigenous groups from all over the world have a knack for mixing art and their traditional artifacts or rituals without them knowing, which in fact one of the fundamental reasons of why art is important
Some say art is boring. But the fact remains that art has the power to take cultural practices from where they are from and then transport and integrate them into different parts of the world without losing their identity.
There, these art forms can be used to entertain, create awareness, and even inspire foreigners to accept these cultures, no matter how strange or alien they may seem.
This is especially important in our highly globalized world. Art has played an important role in helping fight against intolerance of different cultures, racism, and other forms of unjust societal segregation. With immigration becoming a growing trend, the world’s countries are expected to be more tolerant and accepting of those who enter their borders.
Art helps make that happen by making sure that identities and their cultures are given due recognition around the world. Thus, it is imminent to reflect upon – Why art in important – which in fact provides you the answer to – What is art?
This is why we at The Artist believe that art is a form of creative human expression, a way of enriching the human experience.
Art and its definition will always be controversial.
There will always be debates about what art is and what is not.
But no matter what the definition may be, it has been around us for as long as humans have existed (i.e. cave paintings, hieroglyphics). Whether or not we are aware of it, we allow arts to affect our lives one way or another, and the reasons why we make art are many!
We use the arts for our entertainment, cultural appreciation, aesthetics, personal improvement, and even social change. We use the arts in order to thrive in this world.
So, share your thoughts – What does art mean to you?