Reason as the Leading Motive

Philosophy and Art

Posted by Jerry on October 2, 2006

The latest issue of the Philosophy Now magazine is dedicated to an examination of art–specifically, aesthetics and art theories. As expected, the introduction begins by surveying the wide disagreements among “experts” with regard to the definition of art (or whether it can even be defined).

“One of the most important questions asked by philosophical aesthetics–and one much discussed by contemporary thinkers–is that of the definition of ‘art’. The field is split between those who deny the possibility of there being necessary and sufficient conditions for something being a work of art, and the far greater group of those who have tried to lay down such conditions. The latter includes theories so diverse as Plato’s idea of art as representation (mimesis) and George Dickie’s institutional definition of art as “an artifact of a kind created to be presented to an artworld public.”

Adding to this discussion is Arthur Danto–who is apparently afforded the title of a philosopher and art critic. In a manner consistent with the post-modern trend of blurring everything–from art to language to moral and ethical issues and even man’s consciousness–to form the incoherent, incongruous, nebulous, grey, indistinct, and the indefinable, Danto states that “Art is collapsing into philosophy,” and that “Art has nothing left to do. It has run itself out, and has as its only project a philosophical one, the definition of art.”


To be sure, Danto is right. The “Art” of today indeed has nothing to do and nothing to offer. Judging by what passes as art today, Art has become nothing more than an object that mockingly asks us the question, “Am I art?”, to which the observer responds in a dazed and confused manner, “I don’t know. I guess you are because you asked me so.” Note what has just happened in this dialogue: in the process of reducing art to merely an object of indifferent perception, philosophy too is reduced to a meaningless and valueless contemplation.


In fact, Danto himself states this as the explicit definition of art, and by implication, of philosophy:

Danto believes that what “makes the difference between a Brillo box and a work of art consisting of a Brillo box is a certain theory of art. It is the theory that takes it up into the world of art, and keeps it from collapsing into the real object which it is.”

What are we, however, doing when we ask about the difference between a Brillo box in a supermarket and a Brillo box in an art gallery? Danto’s answer is that we are asking a philosophical question. Art now prompts us to do philosophy. Much of art today is about boundary testing of ‘art’: “Can this object be considered art?”, “What is art?” Danto argues that art is doing philosophy.

Thus, contemplating on heaps of trash and splotches of paint is the process of doing philosophy. This view is successful not only in corrupting art but also in degrading philosophy; and logically so, because art flows from philosophy–and the nature of one’s philosophy dictates the nature of one’s art. Of course, the nature of one’s philosophy need not be explicitly defined and understood; an artist’s sense of life (his subconscious appraisal of existence) is the source of his art, but his sense of life need not be (and more often, is not) consciously defined in objective terms. Ayn Rand said, “An artist reveals his naked soul in his work–and so, gentle reader, do you when you respond to it.”


In another article in the same issue of Philosophy Now, the question of the purpose of Art is raised: what is art for?

Karamians suggests that art… relates to our fear of death and an attempt to take control of the remorseless passage of time. Professor Tallis thinks that art fulfils a basic hunger in humans – the hunger for meaning. There has never been a human society which has been without art, so clearly the artistic urge does reveal something very central about the nature of human beings. It can touch the souls of people who enjoy it but also reveals the souls of the artists.

Now, contrast that with Ayn Rand’s aesthetic theory, a remarkable achievement, the product of a brilliant mind ruthlessly honest toward reality and the nature of man’s consciousness. Note Rand’s process of analyzing first what art is, and then, what art is for:

“Man retains his concepts by means of language.” Words are concepts that stand for “an unlimited number of concretes of a certain kind. For instance, the concept “man” includes all men who live at present, who have ever lived or will ever live–a number so great that one would not be able to perceive them all visually, let alone study them or discover anything about them. Language is a code of symbols that [convert] abstractions into psycho-epistemological equivalent of concretes, into a manageable number of specific units.”


“Consciously or subconsciously, explicitly or implicitly, man knows that he needs a comprehensive view of existence to integrate his values, to choose his goals, to plan his future, to maintain the unity and coherence of his life–and that his metaphysical value-judgments are involved in every moment of his life, in his every choice, decision, and action. Metaphysics includes every concrete that he has ever perceived. It involves such a vast sum of knowledge and such a long chain of concepts that no man can hold it all in the focus of his immediate conscious awareness. Yet, he needs that sum and that awareness to guide him–he needs the power to summon them into full conscious focus.


“That power is given to him by art. Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.

By selectivity, art becomes “a single new concrete that represents an embodied abstraction. The claim that ‘art is a universal language’ is not an empty metaphor. Just as language converts abstractions into the psycho-epistemological equivalent of concretes, into a manageable number of concretes–so art converts man’s metaphysical abstractions into specific entities open to man’s direct perception. Remember that abstractions as such do not exist. To acquire the full, persuasive, irresistible power of reality, man’s metaphysical abstractions have to confront him in the form of concretes–i.e., in the form of art.”


The validation for Rand’s aesthetic theory is numerous and obvious in reality: the contemporary trend to render language as meaningless or in relativistic terms that could stand for anything and everything is a derivation of a philosophy that denies objective reality, that denounces objective morals and principles, that is a slave to concrete-bound pragmatism, that panders to the subjectivist whims of multiculturalists, environmentalists, animal rights activists, and the politically correct censors, that says nothing can be defined, nothing is clear-cut, nothing is black and white, life is all grey. The outcome of this attack on language and the degradation of philosophy is a form of contemporary “art” that does not know what it is–in fact, it is vehemently opposed to definition. What passes as “art” today lacks a sense of identity, lacks any metaphysical content, leaves itself up to whatever is interpreted (or NOT interpreted) from it, offers a debased experience merely of sensation and perception, offers nothing more than a smirk of derision toward the audience, is vapid, valueless, and empty–which it declares as its only value.


If art is the food that nourishes man’s consciousness, then the contemporary west is engaged in deliberate food poisoning, and countries like India are starving not just in the physical sense. India has plenty of slithering snakes, meandering cows, and gluttonous elephant-headed creatures that are idealized as gods and represented in works of art. This is the metaphysic of mysticism and degradation of the human form that is concretized in the art that exists here. It serves as a revealing yardstick of the intellectual health of Indian minds, their view of themselves and of existence.


Art, besides religious art, has been woefully ignored in India–and its effects are evident in the malnourished minds of Indian who cannot think beyond a few concretes, who do not think in terms of principles, who cannot grasp wide abstractions and fundamental premises, and whose 300-page constitution is an embarrassing testament to this fact.


In addition, Rand said that the cognitive neglect of art is a consequence of a culture of altruism and selflessness. This is fully manifested in India. “Art is an end in itself; it serves no purpose other than contemplation–and the pleasure of that contemplation is… intense, deeply personal,” a selfish pleasure that is experienced as a primary. Thus, an altruistic culture that denounces as vice anything that is purely for a selfish purpose, for one’s own pleasure, would obviously be averse to granting any importance or cognitive or societal value to art–as India does. Their concrete-bound view can be summed up as being focused on “feeding the body but starving the mind.” However, even this is not entirely accurate because man is an indivisible entity of mind and body–a thinking, conceptual being. Thus, “starving the mind is also starving the body.” For a man to exist merely as a physical creature without the efficacious use of his mind is to exist as a mere animal, not as man qua man.

3 Responses to “Philosophy and Art”

  1. Tyrel said

    Remember way back when, when I was attempting to write about art?! Well,, lately I have been wanting to make a go at it again and see what happens and then today I see your post! Me and my crazy ideas! LOL

  2. Ergo said

    Why should anything or anyone stop you from writing whatever you want to? No one’s pressuring you to solve the “great century-old philosophical problems!” Think first, then write what you believe is your grasp of reality, check it with the facts, correct it if necessary. It’s that simple! (or that difficult.)

  3. Tyrel said

    no,, i was just saying what a coincidence it was! btw,, where is bandra? near you?

    ooohhhh….i just got fanaa today to watch!! i am soooo excited!

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