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Word Gems 

exploring self-realization, sacred personhood, and full humanity


Editor's 1-Minute Essay:




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The following represents a distillation of Dr. Adler's Syntopicon Essay plus my own thoughts:


  • Most people today would likely define "art," especially the fine arts, as a painting or sculpture, something found in a museum.

It is common to hear the phrase, "music, literature, and the fine arts" -- as if music and literature were not fine arts.

This narrow and contorted meaning of "art" has been with us for only little more than 100 years.


  • the term "art" described -- not an object of production but -- a capacity, a skill for the making of something.

This traditional meaning still resides within our language. We speak of

  • industrial arts
  • arts of war, medicine, cooking, etc.
  • arts and crafts
  • artisan

All of these speak to a skillful ability to make or produce something. Human effort, beginning with a mind's creative idea, is very much part of the classical definition of art; as such, in the room in which you now read this, you are surrounded by "works of art" -- man-made objects. A tree, a dog, a sunset -- are not works of art as they are not the product of human effort.

Is a human baby a work of art? Clearly, human effort is involved here. But, Dr. Adler disallows this example as well.

  • A work of art, to be accounted as such, will express human effort -- but it must be of a certain kind; it is the kind of effort that not only results in making something but, also, will begin with an idea, a creative, mental conception of the object to be produced: the work of art will exist in the mind before it enters our three-dimensional world; and that mental existence, in a very real sense, will be a deep and most significant expression of the artist's inner person.

While a baby's parents may have desired its arrival, they were not able to dictate the exact features of the newborn. "Junior" may resemble one or both of them, or he may not; or he may strike a likeness to Grandpa; there's no way of predicting this. As such, Adler instructs us, human babies are not works of art (though part of us remains unconvinced) in the classical sense of the term.

Dr. Adler explores other usages:

  • Arts & Science: both words address a kind of knowledge. "Arts," here, focuses upon "know how" -- an ability to make or produce something well; as opposed to "science," or "know what" -- an insight into the essential nature of things. "Skillful technique and studied theory" might well express the essence of "arts and science."
  • Artificial vs. Natural: things "natural" can come into being without human effort; but the existence of the "artificial" relies solely on human intervention.

Are spiders' webs, beavers' dams, bees' hives, and birds' nests works of art? Few would deny the excellent craftsmanship of these productions (see Editor's essay on Man); but Marx, expressing the ancient view of art, asserts that the product of the least skillful human architect is a work of art -- while these animal efforts are not -- because, before he raises his structure in the world, he does so first in the imagination of his own mind; no animal does this but is driven only by mechanical instinct, without conscious plan.

Adler presses this issue further by asking whether music, accidentally produced by a cat walking on the keys of a piano, might be considered a work of art; no, he says, because the cat knows nothing of its achievement -- but, if a jazz composer, in an attempt to musically simulate the sound of a cat walking on those same keys, creates a piece, such as, "Kitten on the Keys," this is, indeed, a work of art.

  • Art is counted as one of the "Great Ideas" of history because it aids -- as a sister to "science," an ally in the same grand effort -- humankind's quest to eliminate caprice and chance from life.

From our earliest days on earth, we have sought to make things (art) and know things (science) in an effort to regulate and even master the vicissitudes and terrors of mortal existence. Humankind's collective stumblings toward civilization have been an effort to reduce life to predictable and stabilizing rules and formulas -- as opposed to merely existing as pawns, subservient to fate. This concept is expressed in the Greeks' view of the noble physician (skilled artist), one operating with knowledge and leaving as little to chance as possible; unlike the empiric, the "quack" of his day, whose methods were nothing more than an ad hoc hash of trial-and-error.

  • Cooperative Arts vs. Productive Arts: the products of the "cooperative arts" -- farming (plants), medicine (healing), and teaching (knowledge) -- are referred to as such because, in these efforts, man works with nature. In each of these areas -- all dealing with living things -- nature is able to bring about its ends without human aid but, if done alone, less is usually accomplished. The (merely) "productive arts" seek to create artificial things: shoes, houses, autos, baseball bats -- anything and everything that would not come into existence at all but for human skill and toil.
  • Fine Arts vs. Useful Arts: Oscar Wilde once quipped, referring to the "fine arts," that "All art is quite useless"; that is, it serves no utilitarian purpose -- and, by definition, this must be the case (which is why his comment is humorous). Probably most people would guess that the meaning of "fine" here means "excellent," "very good," or even "refined." Adler enlightens us: the etymological root of "fine" is the same as that found in "final." The implication is most interesting. The fine arts are those which are created as ends in themselves -- just for the sheer enjoyment of them -- without mundane thoughts of utility; their aim is to delight, to inspire, to enthrall. This is why the "fine arts," in both French and German, are referred to as "the beautiful arts." The "useful arts," as the term suggests, speaks to those works of art serving various needful purposes -- purposes of means rather than ends: brooms, bottles, lampstands, and top hats.
  • Liberal Arts vs. Servile Arts: masters and slaves in the ancient Greek world occupied themselves with different duties. A master -- a "free" man -- was educated for his own sake; a slave was trained to perform various tasks for the benefit of another. A slave, one engaging in "servile" work, "got his hands dirty" and worked with things: he milked cows, tended the garden, and picked grapes. The master -- the free or "liberal" man -- did not get his hands dirty but, if educated as society dictated, developed and worked primarily with his mind: he studied rhetoric, grammar, logic, mathematics, and other pursuits.

Today's common phrase,

  • "liberal arts," despite its checkered past, addresses the need for men and women to be educated not (merely) trained; to develop their minds, to learn how to think; to take their places in society as truly free persons, intellectual slaves of no one.

The liberal arts and the fine arts are often spoken of in the same breath -- and rightly so. Both acknowledge humankind's long quest for excellence of spirit. As we've learned, from ancient times, the definition of art included the artist's mental conception of the object to be created. As such, a work of art becomes a very personal expression, indeed, a very extension of the artist's essence.

Speaking primarily of the fine arts, these extensions of hidden inner person, of character and personality, of soul and mind, become the essential quality of art's fascination.

Great art is never merely sterile objectivism, the mere imitation of nature -- if that were the case, quick-print shops and cheap instant cameras would have put out of business the notable artists some time ago; but neither is great art, in my opinion, radical subjectivism, an extreme abstraction totally divorced and without reference to the common experiences of our world.

  • Stated another way, art -- if it is to be deemed great art -- must say something. Art is a kind of language. And great works of art must speak to us, and they must speak to our higher selves, the selves that we desire to become. If art fails here, we shall do better at the print shop.

Great art will teach us something about life, about death, about love, about suffering -- but the elucidation offered must not remind us of a trip to the encyclopedia; it is the artist himself or herself that we want to see, that hidden inner person expressing itself in plastic art forms -- we want to know not only about matters of life and death and love, but we want to know what the artist, personally, has learned about these weighty issues.

Art, in its broadest definition, is a principle related to all human work, of all skilled labor. Every human being is an artist in some fashion, because everyone is skilled at and produces something.

  • To live is to be an artist.




Editor's last word: