Art Demystified

by W. Jim Jastrzebski

Dedicated to my little sister Wawax


This article contains an attempt to explain what art is and how it works. It is meant to help those who would like to create pieces of good art but aren't sure what "good" means in relation to art. It might help also those who don't doubt that they create good art but have hard time to convince others about it. It might make them sure either that what they do is good art or that it isn't and what should be changed in it to convert whatever they create into good art.

Those who already create good art and have no problems with convincing others that what they create is good art don't need any theory and so they don't need to read this article unless they want to learn something too or they want to find whether the author is not misleading his readers too much. In the former case any questions and in the latter case any critical comments (at any level of courtesy) are welcomed since misleading his readers is of course not the intention of the author and so any deviation from truth should be straighten immediately after someone spots such an occurrence.

The author is trying to apply simple examples of application of abstract rules as well as true analogies to generally known phenomena from outside art (please report all instances of false analogies if you seem to spot them) in hope that those examples and true analogies are much easier to visualize and remember than those abstract rules.

To understand the article the reader is not required to know anything about art. It is enough that she understands just some basic logic, which hopefully every normal person has in herself as an inborn feature. In any case questions to author are appreciated if something seems not clear.

Why art needs an explanation

Art has been done by humans for hundreds of thousands of years so it's probably older than any part of human culture and so the amount of prejudice that grew around it through ages is staggering. That's why hardly anybody (perhaps except small kids) can look at art and see only what's there. Most people see art through their particular prejudices and may not see at all the things for which the art has been created by the artist and should be visible to any member of the given culture if the artist didn't fail in his effort to create art. That's one reason why art needs to be explained in some instances at least.

It seems that to avoid too detailed explanations it is the best to provide the basic rules, that are valid for any piece of art. Those rules should apply to visual arts (like drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture), performing arts (like dance, music, sports, theater, religion), literature, etc. (we skip the question whether religion belongs to performing arts or to literature). Those rules could be used as a value system against which one can evaluate any given piece of art to be sure that one is not fed garbage as art.

Substituting garbage for anything that might have also an absolute value, different from its (relative) market value, happens a lot in cultures whose value systems are based exclusively on market values. Since the present system on our planet is capitalism, also ours is a culture with a value system based on market value. For this reason we have to expect that substituting garbage for art is surely going to happen in our culture. To protect ourselves against fraud we should know how to tell garbage from a genuine thing.

That's another reason why art (as any product of human activity) needs to be explained: to prevent selling garbage by unscrupulous producers of garbage under false label, similarly as politicians sell totalitarian (fascists, a.k.a. communist) systems under label of "democracy". Even if recently, when the label of "democracy" became too tough to apply in instances when as in our country the results of presidential elections are ignored by the power elite, a totalitarian system has been sold under a label of "empire" whose "duty" is to protect the world against itself.

Unnoticed by most of the world, from the "greatest democracy in the world", we turned overnight (not unlike the Roman Empire) into an "empire whose duty is to police the world that can't recognize (especially France) what's right and what's wrong" (and so we even changed the name "French fries" to "freedom fries" to show that we are for freedom while the rest of the world, especially France, is apparently against it, and so now we feel obliged to hate everything French).

It is of course all garbage but for the majority of the world's population, which is too busy with their own affairs to worry about problems of others, it might pass as genuine stuff, even something that they want to emulate. And all of it is just a matter of knowing a few things that could be explained in a short article. So the conclusion seems to be that explaining things is good since it is in the interest of general welfare of human species. As a protection against propaganda spread by direct beneficiaries of that propaganda, and as we see from the example with politics and religion, even if we don't know whether to treat religion as a part of performing arts or a part of literature, it is only art anyway, and so it requires understanding to avoid buying garbage.

The third reason for the explanation of art is that it is also in the interest of the artist who otherwise wastes good work on bad consumers (activity known as "throwing pearls before hogs"). And then good art starts to disappear slowly making museums the only place where it is available, and so after a while people who like good art see already everything and are left without anything to look forward to. A sad situation. So it is worth to know the basic rules about art, and on average to know more is better.

Purpose of art vs purpose of the artist

Art is a human activity, which only purpose is to create beauty. The purpose of the artist can be different. It may be to express herself, or to shock the bourgeoisie, or to shock the whole society, depending on sociopolitical views of the artist (usually it is only bourgeoisie since artists are mostly leftists). For many artists the purpose of art may be simply to create money.

Even if purpose of some artists might be strictly money the art and money are in general not correlated in a way that good art correlates with good money (which is called positive correlation). It is very often bad art correlated with good money and good art with bad money (negative correlation) for a simple reason that bad art might have bigger market than the good art, so an artist who plans to create art for money should not concentrate as much on artistic values (beauty) as on commercial value (market value) of the piece, which is whatever at the moment the "art lovers" (people who invest in pieces of art) are looking for.

However this article is only about artistic value of art, which is eternal, and not about its commercial value, which changes from one season to another and therefore much more difficult to trace and write about (apparently the author likes to write about the easy stuff leaving the tough stuff to art critics who love to write mostly about commercial features of art pieces like their "energy", "expression", "naturalism", "originality", "style", "symbolism", "technique", to mention just a few in alphabetical order).

In any case, whatever the artist's purpose, if it is not to create beauty, it is not the purpose of art just the purpose of the artists. It is important to make a distinction between the two, especially for the artist. Technically the art created for some particular purpose of the artist may be still art and in general it is, but the name should be used with a qualifier like "failed", "bad", "postmodern" or anything that warns the reader that it may be not something that most people consider "art". It is like calling fake money "money", which is bound to mislead a lot of people. It is better to call it e.g. "monopoly money", signaling through a qualifier that it is not a genuine stuff. It is more honest than calling it just "money".

It is the same as electrical engineering is not necessarily the purpose of activity of an electrical engineer nor what electrical engineers do (actually it rarely is). The purpose of electrical engineering is of course only to create electrical gadgets and maintain those that has been already created.

Contrary to popular misconceptions about art it is exactly the same kind of activity as engineering. That's why it might be that Leonardo da Vinci, possibly the greatest engineer of all times, was also the greatest artist. Both, art and engineering need from its creators the same qualities. Those qualities may be called in short brain and heart .

Having talent helps in many cases too but, surprisingly enough, it is not necessary, as existence of great artists who had no talent but created better pieces of art than their highly talented colleagues, demonstrates. Even more surprisingly, the talent is an obstacle for those artists who don't have either brain or heart. Complete bummer for those who don't have neither. The problem is that having a lot of talent but little brain or heart prevents them most of the time from learning , which is something without which artists can't create good art. Because to create good art, the same as in engineering, one needs to learn to know and feel what good art (or good engineering) is.

It brings us to the subject what is good and what is bad in art.

Good art vs bad art

Civilians, especially those prone to mystical thinking, and even some artists who use the same type of thinking, tend to think that good art is something created through divine intervention. The standard prejudice is that the more of this divine intervention fells on the artist the better art she creates. It comes from misunderstanding what art is (if the reader has forgotten already what art is please click here, read again, and then click Back button).

It turns out that good art has nothing to do with divine intervention. It is something that humans who create good art consider to be good art .

It may look like a circular reasoning, and that it is enough to consider something "good art" to make it good art. It is not so. To see why it is not so we return to the analogy with engineering.

One may consider creating electrical gadgets the function of electrical engineering, but those gadgets can be very good, or not so good, or completely ridiculous. And of course only another electrical engineer and not a civilian is able to tell exactly which type of a gadget it is. Civilian may like the gadget that is just a piece of junk because a civilian doesn't know what it takes to make a good electrical or electronic gadget. Had he known he would have been not a civilian any more but an expert in electrical engineering. He could tell objectively which gadget is better and which is worse. And to tell this there must exist objective criteria of evaluation.

Those criteria might be more obvious in engineering than they are in art, but the principle is the same. We don't need to dwell on engineering criteria but we need to understand what they are in art to know the basics of what art is all about.

People thought about those things for thousands of years and they already found something which we just need to adopt because it turns out to be true (which in this case means "accepted by those artists who know their stuff", like "true" in electrical engineering means "accepted by those electrical engineers who know their stuff"; for brevity we won't analyze the problem of how to tell who knows his stuff leaving it to reader's intuition). So those criteria for art to be good are truth , that might be considered to be the spirit of the piece of art, life , that might be considered to be its soul , and form , that might be considered its body , the art itself.

It is like a human who is mostly body to other humans who just see him or her without interacting intellectually with the person. They will see the beauty (the form ) or lack of thereof but will not know anything about her spirit (whether she is honest or a crook) or her soul (whether it is there or she is like a dead person). The soul is called sometimes "personality" (which by the way puts to rest the prejudice that animals other than humans don't have souls).

Of course everybody would rather interact intellectually with a person that is honest (great spirit), alive (great soul), and of nice form (great body) than with a person that is dishonest (no spirit whatsoever), dead or just clumsy (no soul there), and on the top of it, he's ugly (not a great body neither). It shows us that those criteria for interacting with a person are objective criteria, at least within certain culture. They are the same objective when interacting with a piece of art. A piece that is very honest, very alive, and of beautiful form, will be obviously preferred to an opposite in all these three aspects, by great majority of humans. And this is what decides about the objective value of a piece of art. How humans react while interacting with a piece of art.

There is a caveat hidden here about which all artists or engineers who have any understanding of their profession know. It is easy to fool a civilian into feeling that something is beautiful, and there are techniques to achieve it in any branch of art and engineering. Such a piece of art that lacks the truth but looks to a civilian (and often to some artists too) beautiful and even is alive in many cases, is called kitsch .

A textbook example of kitsch is "Nydia, Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii", created in 1856 by an American artist Randolph Rogers. It is a beautiful and alive sculpture of a beautiful girl but it is phony. It lacks the element of truth . It is not meant to express a true feeling or anything which would act on the viewers by telling a true story to their minds but it is meant to act directly on the feelings of the viewers. The viewer's pity for a poor girl who is not only in a wrong place at a wrong time but blind too. It does not use the intellect of the viewers to touch them but uses the biological mechanism in their bodies to create an emotion. It is an easy art since it is well known that creating two opposing feelings creates an emotion of being touched.

The simplest example of such activity is to paint a beautiful child crying. The mixture of beauty of the child and its unhappiness creates two opposing emotions which is enough to touch the viewer. It is bad art. If the piece is beautiful, like "Nydia", it is a beautiful piece but still phony since it acts on feelings on the viewers not through their brains but in a mechanical way through the biological mechanism of their bodies (through their hearts only). It is missing the most important part in the art, the truth that acts on viewers' emotions through their intellect.

It is like sex (that also uses biological mechanism of human body) but that is missing love (the intellectual part). It can be still good thing especially for men since for men, whose intellectual life is not that developed (most use only half of their brains for thinking as discovered by MRI tests) even bad sex is still good, but since the same thing with love is much better, it is relatively worse just because of the existence of something better. It might be especially bad for women and all those who use more than half of their brains for thinking. Its relative value is smaller that the value of a piece that is not only beautiful and alive but is also true and acts with its truth on the intellect of the viewer.

But as not everyone is able to love, also not everyone is able to pick up the artistic value intellectually. Such people are doomed to either sex without love or enjoying watching kitsch. Which of course there is nothing wrong with neither if their sex makes them happy in one way and the kitsch that they watch satisfies them in another. They are then happy and satisfied people.

Yet there is still something more in both sex and art that can make much happier those who are able to appreciate it. Their happiness is much greater in both when they have sex with love and when they look at the art and understand its beauty. But while love comes naturally to most animals, including humans, understanding the art is not that natural since it is a cultural thing. That's why it is important to learn the criteria of evaluation of art (truth, life, form).

Priority of criteria of evaluation

We might ask which part is the most important in a piece of art? Is it its form? Is it its life? Or is it its truth? We may think about a person and whether we value the most the form (body), the personality (soul), or her spirit, the feature of being honest and having heart? Of course her spirit is the most valuable thing in her. No amount of personality or beauty can compensate for its lack. So if spirit is lacking, nothing helps. Without truth, the piece of art is doomed to be a kitsch.

Now, the beauty can't neither compensate for the lack of personality (for lack of life, lack of soul). Then it is a beauty without any charm , but yet charm is possible without any beautiful form. So the order of importance becomes: truth (spirit), life (soul), and only then the form (body or physical beauty ).

So why the purpose of art is to create beauty?

There are a few reasons.

The first reason is that when people still lived in caves they still had the need for beauty and discovered that if it is not around them they may create it at will. And this was how art came into being, and to create beauty became the main reason for the art, and it stays in it as form.

Another reason is that because the form is the least important but important too and if the artist forgets this and only remembers to create truth and life he starts creating ugly pieces that don't talk to people, or perhaps talk but nobody wants to listen. And then the truth and life is lost on most people.

This kind of art (without beauty) if it still contains truth and life is called "hermetic" since it is completely unavailable to civilians. It is mysterious to civilians (they wonder why it is called "art" at all and suspect, sometimes unjustifiably, that the art critics who praise it, are idiots). It is as if this art were hermetically sealed from the environment of normal population. It is one of the forms of not that great art, but not necessarily as bad as the kitsch (the art without the element of truth), and it even has its dedicated crowd, a small one, since most people prefer real good art, and civilians, even when they don't understand it, they prefer at least something beautiful (even something rather kitschy than perhaps "deep" and "artistic" but ugly).

Everyone must have noticed by the age of six that when a beautiful person talks most people listen even if the talk makes no sense (beauty pageants are an example), and that when it is an ugly person, many people wouldn't listen to him even if he were St. Francis himself (maybe animals, who might have different ideas about beauty than humans, would).

While in normal life the beauty is the least important element in a person and beautiful person with no other values has almost no value at all (or at least no lasting value), if she has the other values and lacks only the beauty her value is still great. If this great person lacks the beauty, she can't make it at will, so her (alleged, since it is also a subjective thing) ugliness if exists is justified. In art a piece that lacks beauty that is easily achievable is unjustified by anything except the lack of skills of the artists and this might have been helped by learning in any good art school (at this point the reader should be warned that as there is bad art there are also bad art schools that are founded strictly to make money and so they might employ art teachers who might not know at all what "beauty" means however how to find a good art school is a subject that is beyond the scope of this article).

As I mentioned before the ability to create art is not something that comes over the artist through a divine intervention. It can be learned as any other skill. And of course talented people learn faster. But less talented or ones with no talent whatsoever, if they love art, they can learn as much as talented can. Or much more. An advantage of lack of talent is that this learning takes more effort and so the less talented students get knowing the subject more thoroughly than those talented but too much sure of their skills individuals, what most teachers of any subject discover while observing their students.

An example of a great artist with little talent is August Rodin, possibly the best French sculptor, who was rejected by the Academy of Fine Arts, where he wanted to learn his profession because he couldn't sculpt. Yet he loved it enough to learn on his own and finally made better sculptures than all his talented colleagues. Much better than highly talented Randolph Rogers, the author of this unfortunate "Nydia", a piece that got into history of art as a textbook example of a monumental kitsch.

Another example of no talent made great artist through a lot of hard work is Van Gogh. His pictures are true and alive and by that became also beautiful, because Van Gogh knew what beauty is and tried to put it on his canvas. After a while it showed up there. It wouldn't if he didn't try hard enough because it was too tough for him or he thought that without talent he shouldn't even try.

One may also argue that Van Gogh had talent, just couldn't paint. He could tell the beautiful piece from ugly and that's why he became eventually such a good painter. But this is my point. One has to use brain. To know the difference between ugly and beautiful, and trying to make things beautiful, even if one can't paint at the beginning. It comes later when there is a brain and a heart. It never comes when there is only talent (an inborn ability to draw a photographic representation of the model).

So what is needed is this special kind of knowledge or feeling to tell the true and alive from the phony and dead. The beauty is the easiest thing to tell from the ugly. So basically what an artist needs is the ability to see the beautiful, alive, and true even in something that at the beginning looks only ugly, and learn how to convert it into true, alive, and beautiful. She has to have ability of telling the beautiful when she's seeing it and she will learn the rest if she has the will. All great artists dealt with ugly subjects and learned how to created beautiful pieces of art out of them.

Classification of pieces of art according to main criteria

So if art may be considered to be a three dimensional thing where those dimensions are, in order of importance, truth , life , and form called sometimes beauty then the crudest classification would be to classify a piece of art by whether it has one or more of those features or not. Or at least whether it is long or short on truth , life , and form and then assign e.g. 1 to "long" and 0 to "short". It gives us eight various combinations of truth , life , and form that might be numbered by those binary numbers from 000 (for worst possible art) to 111 (for best possible art).

Yet only eight classes for the whole art that humans ever created might be too crude so we may add some other feature to make it more diverse.

One such feature might be simplicity with positive value assigned to simpler piece and less value to more complex one. Yet usually this feature is already contained in the form where simpler form adds to the piece and complex form takes away the value. That's why it is said that an artist has to know when to stop adding to the piece, and some (bad) artists just don't know when to stop, often ruining something that might be quite a good piece just by adding too much unnecessary stuff to it (e.g. look at Dali's art and compare it to Rembrandt's).

As a rule the form should be never more complex than necessary to express the truth and life it is going to express. Even only one element that has no clear purpose in a piece of art subtracts from the value of the piece. Also missing such an element that is necessary to present the idea of the artist (leaving it to e.g. imagination of the viewer) is the subtraction from the value of the piece. As Albert Einstein said about creating a description of any phenomenon that we want to explain: that it should be as simple as possible, but not a bit simpler. So since simplicity is already contained in the form, our fourth feature, we are looking for to make the classification more diverse, should be something else.

A feature of a piece of art that artists as well as civilians appreciate is whether the piece is inventive or not (called then "traditional"), which we may represent by fourth dimension called "inventiveness" represented by the last binary digit in the classifying number. This way we divide all the pieces into 16 classes with worst being 0000 (sorry kitsch) and the best being 1111 (great art).

Adding more features would surely confuse most civilians since normal people can differentiate only between four object at any given time and if the number of objects gets bigger it becomes too big a number to handle comfortably.

So let's limit the number of dimensions to four, list all possible classes, and assign names to them.

Then the four criteria of classification (in order of importance and representation by zeros and ones in the table below) are: Truth (spirit), Life (soul), Form (quality of the body), Inventiveness

Bad Art group (various types of kitsch )

Good Art group

... to be continued ...


Back to top.