Creating and Understanding Art
(Philosophical micro-essay)

This is an abridged version.
The entire essay is available in the Russian language only

“A little boy           
once asked his dad:
What is good           
and what is bad
— Vladimir Mayakovsky

I. Introductory notes

People tend to foist their tastes on others. It is neither bad nor good. It is a cold fact. I could not resist the temptation either and wrote this small essay. It describes my basic ideas about art and the role it plays in our lives.

The purpose of this text is neither to convince you nor to open you eyes to reality. Instead, I suggest you reflect on the theme. Feel free to develop your own approaches. After all, a better understanding of the problem will be our mutual reward.


II. Why do people create pieces of art?

The answer is simple. Creative work is a bare necessity of life like food, oxygen, etc. People have both the need for practical things and the need for beauty.

Some people think that art serves for communication purposes, because it can convey feelings from one person to another. To a certain extent that is true, but this function is secondary. We will discuss this idea a little bit later.

People could not exist without creating pieces of art, and they create them mainly for themselves, because during creation something important and valuable happens to them. They understand that the society can reject their works. Sometimes they even do not intend to demonstrate their works to the others. Still, they continue creating pieces of art. The explanation to this is as follows — the process of creation means approaching perfection, while perfection is the final purpose of human beings. Let alone the idea that striving for perfection can be very practical.

Thus, any person produces pieces of art not for other people, but mainly for himself.


III. Sending messages and feelings by means of art

As I mentioned above, art can serve communication purposes. An author can send his feelings to the audience and share his impressions with them. However, two questions remain:

1. Why does he want to share his feelings with the others?
Why do other people need to receive his feelings?

I have already answered those questions in the previous Section: an artist produces art because something induces him to do that, and he cannot resist the urge.

On the other hand, we must admit that the function of social contacts is secondary because this form of communication is far from being perfect.

1. If art conveys something that cannot be expressed with words, then how can the author be certain that his ideas and feelings are understood by the audience correctly? Of course, he cannot be certain, because he cannot accept the feedback in the form of words, for in this case words are useless.
2. Suppose some feelings can be expressed with words, but the author transforms them into, for example, music to emphasize the emotions. Such a behavior is rather risky. Using music instead of words may result in a complete misunderstanding.

This imperfection was always understood by many people. Feodor Tyutchev, a famous Russian poet, once wrote:

“How can your heart itself express?
Can others understand or guess
exactly what life means to you?
A thought you’ve spoken is untrue.

                 (Translation by F. Jude)

Thus, I believe the communication function exists, but it is secondary. I would say, any instrument can be used for many purposes. And the same thing is with art. It can perform lots of operations. Still, its main purpose is to improve the artist himself.


IV. Irrationality and subjectivity

In his famous book What is Art? Leo Tolstoy wrote: “To define art, we must stop considering it as a source of delight.” He believed art served only to convey feelings from one person to another. Such an approach did not take irrationality and subjectivity into account. Although I agree with Tolstoy that treating art as a source of positive emotions is not a good basis for analysis, I still think that the role of irrationality is great.

Art is a source of many feelings, and those feelings cannot be always explained rationally. If I like tea and you like coffee, we are unlikely to change each other’s preferences. That is absolutely normal. Moreover, had all people been absolutely identical, no progress and no evolution would have ever taken place. And finally I must say that I love the world where different tastes coexist.

Many people admit that any explanation of their feelings is defective. Words often kill both the essence of feelings and their purpose.

Thus, any piece of art is always appreciated in an irrational manner by both an artist and an audience.


V. Can one learn how to create a masterpiece?

As I have already said, people are constantly creating pieces of art. But typically those are not masterpieces. I will define the term ‘masterpiece’ in the next Section, while here I am going to say a couple of words on learning.

Like many others, I believe nobody can be taught to produce a masterpiece. That is why masterpieces are so rare. But if learning does not lead to great results, why should we learn? The answer is simple. The learning does not guarantee a positive result, but the absence of learning is often the main cause of negative outcomes.

According to Karl Bryulov, a famous Russian painter, the real art becomes apparent in subtle details. This subtlety is beyond understanding and learning.


VI. Art of perception and art of understanding

Besides the need to create pieces of art, human beings have the primordial need to consume pieces of art created by other people. Again, this need is not primarily aimed at bringing positive emotions. Delight is a reward, but it is not a cause.

In my opinion, people need other people’s art for self-improvement. The pieces of art help them to achieve self-perfection, i.e. they improve their souls. People do not try to understand the author — first of all, they try to understand themselves. Any piece of art is born twice. It is born for the first time, when the author finishes creating it. It is born for the second time in the souls and minds of the audience. In this sense, perception can be considered as co-creation.

The author’s message may be understood or it may remain without an interpretation. It is not very important, because this factor is secondary. When the process of creation is completed, a piece of art starts to exist independently. First, it helps other people to understand themselves. Second, it helps them to understand each other.

A true masterpiece is not a piece of art with a clear message from its author. What actually matters is the fact that a masterpiece can help a large number of people to understand themselves and each other. A crucial factor is versatility. If a piece of art is versatile, it can help more people to improve themselves. A genius is a person who creates pieces of art that are helpful and useful for many different people during lengthy periods of time.

Further, creation and perception can be multi-step processes. For example, a playwright writes a play. Then a director from a theater interprets the play and tries to create his own piece of art on that basis. There are also many other participants who help the director (decorators, musicians, actors, etc.) To a certain extent, they can also be considered as independent co-creators. It would be funny to suppose that the audience has to decode a lot of different messages (or feelings) from all those people. Of course, it is not so. The audience is primarily concentrated on their own feelings.

On the other hand, a man’s attitude towards a piece of art can be very unstable. If a picture lost its attractiveness for somebody, it does not mean the picture is bad. It does not mean that the person is bad either. This situation is absolutely normal. It means that right at the moment that piece of art can not help that particular person to improve himself.

Again, we see that it is the perception by the audience that really matters. At the same time, it means that no piece of art can be considered defective or bad without bias. This idea was perfectly expressed by Samuel Beckett who said “There is no painting, there are only pictures; as these are not sausages they are neither good nor bad."

Unbiased judgements can exist only within the limits of many cultural and statistical restrictions. In other words, universal unbiased judgements in art simply do not exist.


VII. Relativity and the Absolute Beauty

As I have already said, both the author and the audience have the right to put their own multiple interpretations on any piece of art. Does it mean that there is no Absolute Beauty? Not necessarily so.

The idea about Absolute Beauty can perfectly coexist with my approach. At any given moment, a person can sense only a tiny part of the Absolute Beauty. And different people may get access to different parts of it, which gives way to multiple interpretations.

Thus, relativity does not contradict the idea about Absolute Beauty.


VIII. Brief conclusions

Well, it is time to sum up the main ideas of this article.

The author creates pieces of art mainly for himself, not for the other people. He simply cannot exist without the process of creation.

Then his piece of art starts its independent existence in the world where different people can put a lot of their interpretations on it. In a sense, they are co-creators of that piece of art, because they create the images of it in their minds. They may understand the author’s idea or they may fail to understand it. It is not that important. What really matters is their attitude towards that piece of art. That is all.


IX. Recommendations

1. Do not force yourself to create pieces of art. Better results are typically achieved when the creator can not help but create.

Leo Tolstoy formulated a more categorical statement. He said any professionalism plays a bad role, because it makes a person to create art even when he does not want to create. Well, I do not think professionalism is so bad. Still, in part I have to agree with the famous Russian writer.

2. Do not neglect learning. Learning does not always lead to great results, but the absence of learning always lead to failure.

When learning remember that there are no strict rules in art. Therefore, do not always follow recommendations from other people.

3. Do not be upset if somebody does not properly understand the idea of your work. The audience has the right to put their own interpretations. Recall how you interpret pieces of art by other authors. Can you always understand what other people wanted to say by their works? Respect other people’s opinion.

4. Do not pay much attention to what professional critics say. Your feelings and your opinions are much more important.


X. Epilogue

If I managed to convince you, I am very glad. If I failed to convince you, I am also very glad, because it means you can feel and judge in your own manner; and that is yet another proof of my theory*.

Moreover, I believe, not every idea should be and can be explained. Art, like the life itself, is a miracle to a certain extent. I like the following lines from a poem by David Samoilov:

“You and me do not trust in miracles,
That is why they don’t happen to us”.



If it were a profound work on aesthetics, I would have to prepare a long list of references. However, in this small essay I ask for your indulgence.

Still, I would like to recommend you to read an interesting book — What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy. Neither you nor I are likely to agree with all ideas of Tolstoy. But unanimity is not required. First, the book is interesting. Second, it makes a reader to think over problems of aesthetics. I wish you happy reading.

It is very likely that I am not the first to develop such an approach. If you know any other similar materials, please send me a link or a reference.

August 22, 2003

* * *


Main page
List of articles - рейтинг фоторесурсов    

© Igor Yefremov, 2003, all rights reserved

You must obtain a written permission from me to use any materials of this site for any commercial or non-commercial purposes, unless there is an explicit statement to the contrary.

Hosted by uCoz