One time, I took an art theory class. We read many many theories written through the ages all trying to answer the question: “what is art?” At the end of the class, we were prompted to write our own theories. This is mine.
Art as Imitation of the Creator
The basis of my art theory comes from what I believe about God. God is the ultimate goodness, beauty, and creator. God created all things and is therefore the first and greatest artist. All artists have been inspired by nature (“creation” and “nature” will be used interchangeably) in some way and everyone has felt the rush of emotion and awe known as an aesthetic experience from watching a sunrise or seeing the view from the top of a mountain. Scenes of nature are one of the few things that are universally agreed to be beautiful. The “first art” of creation is what inspires artists to create and point out or mimic the beauty that they see. God created humans in his image (Gen. 1:27), this means that appreciation of beauty and the ability to create and respond to art, are gifts given to humans alone. Animals do not have these abilities because they are not created in the image of God with souls and deep emotions, which lead to artistic expression. Art is unique from other types of human creation in that its purpose is to express emotion and exhibit beauty rather than be tools or inventions for practical every day use, although some tools can be turned into art through decoration. This paper will discuss what I believe are the necessary conditions for art:
- Art is composed by a human
- Art elicits an aesthetic experience
- Art reveals beauty
- Art is inspired by creation
- Art expresses an emotion of the artist
- Art requires altering materials to create something new
- Art is made with technical skill
Art is composed by a human
This statement is important to understand because it leads to all the others. Whether it is dance, music, theater or visual art; all art is “put together” by a human or collective humans. As mentioned earlier, God created man in his own image or likeness. This is what sets us apart from animals. Humans have souls, emotions, and reasoning abilities that animals do not. Creativity is a big part of God’s character, as the first thing we see him do in scripture is create the universe. When he created everything, it was good, beautiful and perfect. Naturally, being created in his image, we also possess the desire and ability to create beautiful things and to appreciate beauty. This being said, zoo animals walking around in paint is not art. If a human uses an animal to be an instrument in her or his own creative process, it can be labeled art because the human had an idea or emotion and chose to express it through the animal’s markings. In both these situations, the animal was not inspired paint out his emotions. Animals do not invent, create or participate in activities that do not benefit their immediate survival. Therefore, only humans created in the image of the creator God have the desire and capacity to create art.
Art elicits an aesthetic experience
An aesthetic experience is something that is only brought upon by art and creation. This is the reaction that one feels when being mesmerized by an incredible painting or struck by awe when seeing a vibrant sunrise. This “wow” reaction comes from the visual or musical stimuli entering the viewer or listener’s senses. Humans are able enjoy this response to art because God created us with a desire for beauty and an appreciation for goodness so that we can see him through it. An aesthetic experience differentiates art from other types of “made” things that comply with necessary conditions 6 and 7. Things like spoons, couches, or lamps do not cause this response because they are designed to fulfill a need of every day life and are mass-produced for efficiency. Of course, all of these things can be transformed into art through decoration and intentional use of design elements but when only practicality is considered, common objects do not spark wonder in the viewer or user. Emotions that are commonly thought of when discussing beauty, are happiness, love, joy, peace, amazement, and wonder. Aesthetic experiences and beauty go hand in hand which leads to the next point:
Art reveals beauty
One of the many privileges of being an artist is pointing out to others what is beautiful. Whether it is recreating something known to be beautiful such as painting a landscape; or causing the viewer to see something formally considered ugly in a new way such as the work of Andres Serrano (among many); or even displaying found objects in a way that brings attention to their inherent beauty–artists present the world with what is beautiful. To call an art piece successful and for it to last through history, viewers must want to look at it. Because beauty encompasses positive feelings, viewers desire to return to the source of beauty again and again. An impression of goodness lasts longer than one of negativity because the viewer chooses to recall the experience rather than suppress it. Art that causes the viewer to cringe or turn away in uncomfortably may be successful in conveying a message or making the viewer think but it is not true art. They will not last once they have served their purpose of getting their point across. It is true that people have differing opinions of what is beautiful but these opinions are often not far apart and the emotions that accompany beauty are universal. The ultimate and irrefutable example of beauty is found in God’s creation.
Art is inspired by creation
Because creation was originally perfect in beauty and was created from a perfect being with none of the flaws of human skill, it is the ultimate inspiration of all art. Everything humans have learned about aesthetics: color, shape, value, etc. comes from what we have observed in nature. The reason that all people can appreciate art whether or not they have been exposed or have had formal training is because creation is the example available to all. By walking outside, one is exposed to art. This explains why a person deserted on an island alone may attempt to decorate his living space or arrange rocks and found objects into sculptures. He does not need to be taught that creating and beauty bring life; he can see examples all around him and being a created work of art himself, it is in his nature. Sometimes artists wish to recreate the emotions they felt from interacting with some part of creation. Sometimes artists want to recreate the colors or shapes they have seen in nature. Sometimes artists choose to use materials found in nature to explore their properties and turn them into new things. Sometimes artists simply pick up a piece of nature and put it on display so that everyone can learn to appreciate it the same way that artist did when seeing it. All of these are forms of being inspired by creation and every art piece’s inspiration traces back to the beauty of creation.
Art expresses an emotion of the artist
Without emotion, art has no impact. Without impact, or an aesthetic response, it is not art. If no emotion is put into a piece, no emotion will be drawn from it. Emotionless art is formulated and calculated.
For example, when I was taking a painting class a couple years ago, I was told to paint the still life that was set up in front of me. This could have been an opportunity to create art had I felt any kind of emotion about the still life. If I was upset at the assignment and painted out my anger or if I found joy in the shadows and highlights and wanted to honor them, or maybe if I was excited to experiment with color and see what the medium of oils had to offer me—these would all be the starting line to the creative process of art. Instead, I had no interest in the assignment. I focused on completing the bare minimum. Putting the paint on canvas and getting the assignment over with to get a grade was my only motivation. The result was homework to practice mixing color and using a brush on canvas. It was not a work of art.
Emotion is the spark that ignites inspiration. Art with no emotion is empty and meaningless. It has nothing to offer. Emotion is what separates a masterpiece from an everyday spoon. Emotion is the fuel of the artist. Because emotion is so intangible and mysterious, art is often the only way to express it. Art and emotion are both gifts that balance each other out. Art harnesses incomprehensible emotions and turns them into something manageable and understandable. Because art is a tool for emotional output, emotion is required to create art.
Art requires altering materials to create something new
This point is the most basic recognized idea of art. Art must involve creation and creation involves change. The definition of creation is “the action or process of bringing something into existence.” This change that brings something into existence can be as complex as throwing clay on a wheel to design an intricate structure or as simple as moving rocks into a specific formation. God created the universe out of nothing. Everything was his original and new idea. To imitate our creator, we take the materials that he provided for us and practice our innate desire to create by reinterpreting them and transforming them to reflect our interpretation. Even if what is created is a replica of something else, it is still a transformation of the original materials. I believe that this point is the reason a lot of artists become egotistical and arrogant. Bringing something into existence is a way to glorify God by imitating his character but it can also make the artist believe he or she is a god her/his self. It is quite an honor to be given the ability to bring completely new things into being but if not respected and if glory is not given where it is due, it can turn into a power trip for the artist.
Art is made with technical skill
Though everyone can appreciate beauty and art, and has the ability to create and express their feelings, true art displays technical skill. Revealing beauty requires knowledge of materials and mastery of technique. Poor craftsmanship, bad acting, and singing off-key do not exhibit beauty. In Exodus 31, the Lord fills two specific men with the spirit of God in “all kinds of craftsmanship to make artistic designs for work in gold, in silver, and in bronze, and in the cutting of stones for settings, and in the carving of wood.” (NIV) God gives these men the skills to create art for his tabernacle. Most cultures agree that God or the gods will be pleased with beautiful art that is well done. In this instance, God wanted his tabernacle to be beautiful so that it would reflect his character and proclaim his glory. Skilled craftsmen were required for this to be accomplished. Some people are more talented than others from birth but artistic skill can be learned. Practice and knowledge of materials are necessary for quality craftsmanship, which allows for beauty to be fully realized and art created in the truest sense of the word.
When first considering my theory of art, I tried to decipher what art is as society has defined it today. I realized soon that it would be impossible to discover what art truly is by looking at how it is defined by society at large since it is constantly changing. Instead, I decided to start with what I know is true and begin from there. I know that God is the first artist and gave us the desire to make art. Therefore, he should be the one to define art. I took what I know of God and what emotions I have experienced myself when creating art and built my theory around those things. I do not think that art should be censored because I know that everyone has a different opinion of art and I think that all these opinions should be respected. The risk that my theory presents is that it is fairly narrow and could cause judgmental responses to art that does not comply with my conditions. However, every theory presents this risk and I choose to hold my theory of art close to me. Meaning, I will create art that lines up with my theory and not judge others for creating art that lines up with their own theory. I may not agree that their piece ought to be called art or believe it is a successful piece but I can appreciate their intentions and effort and value it as a creative endeavor of a fellow human that I respect.