What is art? A debate for our times

In response to Richard Eyre's essay in our Arts & Books magazine last week, other cultural figures – and readers – reflect on the true meaning of art
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Robert Macfarlane, in The Wild Places, writes, "I had been told that if you climb Ben Hope on the summer solstice and spent a clear night on the summit, you will never lose sight of the sun."

Figuratively speaking, this is what the arts do for us – they keep the light of our hope alive. Think of Václav Havel. The arts arise in the basic human impulse to figure (and figure out) the possibility of hope, of other worlds, of other lives. The arts belong to the ecstatic, to what is beyond the familiar condition of everyday. No matter how apparently simple or humdrum the subject, the artist aims at transcendence, at transformation.

The poet and artist William Blake, speaking of the duty we owe towards children, bade us "Teach these souls to fly!" When a book, a theatrical or musical performance, an exhibition, leaves us grounded, flat, slumped in our seats rather than up on our feet cheering for more, we know well enough what art isn't. Art is for lifting our hearts and minds and spirits to the sun.

Malcolm Ross, Totnes

Without trying to sound too Marxist, what of "class" and culture? The dichotomy between popular (or populist) art and that deemed middle-brow or high-brow. Then there is national identity and culture and art. Pushkin is loftier than Shakespeare to Russians, Goethe and Schiller to German speakers. Cervantes heralded the Golden Age in Spain. Finally, time as an arbiter. Dylan versus Keats? Wait for a few centuries. It would be worth time-travelling to see if in 300 years Handel outlasts Eminem.


I so warmed to Richard Eyre's enthusiasm and the joy he found in his vocation that any comment might sound churlish. Yet his remark, "It's through the arts that the potential for each of us is fulfilled" flummoxed me. Yes, the arts can do many things, but fulfilment of our personal potential? In what sense? Entertainment, spectacle, human insights, enchantment, being present at something timeless, I'd agree to all of these. But the separation of the artist from the audience/spectator/people sets limits on its effects on personal development. The healing of this split can take place, according to Nietzsche, only in the theatre of life itself.

Roy Sturgess, Newcastle upon Tyne

Art encompasses all human activity but is transcended by the subset of science which is applied art – the application of human activity to describing the universe. Art is all other activity and consequently deals in metaphysical assertions (as will be seen from the plethora of woolly terms enveloped in quote marks – "the DNA of Art" indeed) – and, as the value or quality of the art is provided solely by the observer, a topic of interesting, but endless and ultimately fruitless, debate. Art is transitory, whilst science is enduring because art is meaningless except to the observer. Science, on the other hand, provides a constantly revised but uniquely transferable framework of meaning. Art has no intrinsic worth, its value must all be invested by the observer. Consequently, one can argue, The X Factor, say, serves up bad art because its appeal is shallow whilst Shakespeare provides good art because his work requires a sophistication of response to appreciate. Nonetheless, these are not truly meaningful or objective assertions and the conclusions you might draw from them are not truths, but cultural propositions.


I agree with everything Richard Eyre says. For me, the crux of the matter is that art is all things to all people. It transcends ethnic, religious, educational and moral sensibilities. It allows the opening of the mind from the sink estate to the regal estate. From ancient to modern and into the future, it is humanity's striving for novelty and getting away from the usual mundane existence. But, as he says, it has to have quality of execution otherwise it is worthless.

"Art reflects, expresses, invokes and describes the ambiguity of humanity" – it is what I always thought but couldn't express. Thank you for a wonderful article, almost a work of art in itself.

Ian Fraser

For me, art is not something that just challenges attitudes and beliefs but something that challenges the thought process itself.


The great imponderable – what do we mean by "art"? I can only answer with a series of open questions. To begin with the Keats/Bob Dylan divide. I love Dylan's use of words and language but I still cannot decide whether he is popular music's most outstanding poet or its most outstanding plagiarist – does he reinterpret the language of the Bible, Blake or the blues or does he merely plunder it?

On the issue of Picasso, "a challenging and subversive painter", whose work I personally do not care for, and the comparison with Warhol, who, if I read Richard Eyre correctly, I am to dismiss as "merely a phenomenon of the market". This statement smacks of what I regard as the usual art critic snobbery. I, for instance, admire a selection of the works of Jack Vettriano and Robert Lenkiewicz.

I vividly recall how critically reviled the Pre-Raphaelites and artists such as J W Waterhouse once were until the critical tide turned to acceptance and later admiration from the 1960s onwards. Can we, should we, dismiss Warhol or Lenkiewicz or even Dali, who some consider the Warhol of Surrealism, as we once did the Pre-Raphaelites?

Laurence Price, Weston-super-Mare

Life and Nature itself is art from the lowest to the highest and we humans are the manifestation of one form of that art. We create art every moment of all our lives. Some do so with their hands, others with their feet, some unconsciously and some do it with arguably the most difficult of all, their imagination. In the modern world much value is placed by dealers on the market value of anything, eg a urinal turned upside down. If a hawker convinces someone to buy it for a million pounds, does that make it better art than looking out over the sea on a sunny day and being dazzled by a zillion dancing lights? I don't think so.


Art is not to be confused with craft, or skilled technique. For example, a lifelike painting, or photograph, is representational craft, but not art. Craft can be used in the service of art, to create art, but it is not art of itself. What about beauty? Traditional notions of beauty in created objects rely on craft, not art. Representational crafts rely on a kind of magic to achieve their effect, but even when this magic is astonishing, it does not turn into art unless it moves into unfamiliar realms. High resolution photographs can be made to look like the real thing, as can waxworks, or television pictures, and they are all capable of eliciting strong emotions. But this is just a feature of normal experience. Art is distinctively characterised by an encounter with the strange, the different, the unknown, the hidden, the not-yet-thought-of.


Lionel Shriver, Novelist

This assignment is a formula for sounding like a prat. But I might hazard that for me art is a way of rearranging the world so that it provides a kind of satisfaction that reality fails to deliver. It's an imposition of order on chaos. An effort to rescue life from the arbitrary – which may help to explain why I love novels but don't have any interest in biography. Secondly, it's an attempt to appropriate the world and make it yours. Art is an assertion of ownership – for the artist and audience alike.

Simon McBurney, Theatre director

Art is a way of making reality more present. We have been taught to oppose reality with the imaginary. But the act of making coherent sense of the world is already an imaginative construction. We are constantly distanced from reality. It lies beyond our world. Art brings that reality closer. Without it we are literally lost, homeless. It secures our uncontrollable desires, our destructive, sometimes beautiful imaginations and we call it philosophy. For as Novalis said, "All philosophy is really homesickness. It is the desire to be at home everywhere."

Maggi Hambling, Artist

Art is a gift from the gods which must be honoured and offered back to them. Food can satisfy the stomach but art can excite the spirit.

Julia Peyton-Jones, Director, Serpentine Gallery

Art is a cornerstone of all our lives and artists provide the key to understanding it. Perhaps the best answer is to pass on the wisdom of Gilbert and George; "In countries where you don't have art, you don't have freedom. You can only change the view and the vision of the human person through culture, through different books, through art, pushing forward the frontier of knowledge, making it a much freer society. Tolerance allows for different ideas, and a more complicated, richer life."

Bonnie Greer, Playwright

For me, art is all about the expansion of human capacity. Great art truly gives us the opportunity to extend our capacity as human beings. It's the encounter with beauty which enables us to do that.