Truth, Beauty and the Meaning of Art

Posted on October 11, 2012 in Blog Post, Editorial, Philosophy, Writing


“Beauty is truth, truth beauty” – That is all Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.
– Keats, Ode to a Grecian Urn



I thought I’d put together some arguments on the nature and meaning of beauty to the human experience. I hope you’ll spend some time with these presentations and consider their implications.

The first is an argument by Roger Scruton, produced for the BBC:

One of the arguments that Scruton makes is that the whole concept of beauty and the value of art changed, beginning with Dada, and through the modern art movement, as artists began a trend that questions the public’s understanding of those traditional values, and put the emphasis on the ego and profits of the artist and those who sold their work.

When you break down the traditional values of skill, craft, beauty, and meaning, what do you have left? Art as a commodity, a fad, a thing of cleverness to be bought and sold while it is in demand.

The second is a more recent presentation put together by artist Scott Burdick, discussing the abandonment of representational art and traditional concepts of beauty in the art community. He references Scruton’s work and continues with comparisons of contemporary realists and their modern art contemporaries:


The next presentation, while not directly about beauty, offers a useful tool for consideration in this discussion, and has a great deal of relevance when considering art as a story-telling medium.

Scott McCloud wrote a seminal series of books that discussed art through the medium of comic books. He has in his philosophy, a particularly useful take on the nature of abstraction and offers a “map of the entire boundary of visual iconography.” I think this is particularly useful when examining the value of modern art. This section of the lecture starts at about 8:00, the rest is an introduction and personal history worth watching, but if you would like to you can skip ahead to the relevant part.


The next is a presentation from by Richard Seymour discussing how we perceive beauty, both in art and in design (forgive the obnoxious lisp):


The thing I take from this presentation is that if you attend an exhibition of art, and do not ‘feel’ moved by it, walk out. Art, the most meaningful of art, is not a thing which should require interpretation. If it’s more than the novelty of cleverness, it should hit you immediately, and powerfully in a way that is primal and hard to describe. And if it doesn’t, it’s not worth your time.

Next is a tangential argument proposing a Darwinian theory of beauty by Denis Dutton:


Dutton summarizes by saying that we have an innate appreciation and need for skill and craftsmanship, and ultimately find beauty in something done well. Perhaps this explains why so much of modern art is so unsatisfying.

So if that’s the case, that we have that innate need for demonstrations of skill, what does that say about Modern Art?

Over the years I’ve collected many definitions of what Art is, or should be. Consider this list:

  • Art is a response to a stimulus
  • Art is destruction and rebirth
  • Art is beauty
  • Art is what moves people
  • Art is a concept
  • Art is novelty
  • Art is what sells
  • Art is what is all the rage
  • Art is artifice, craft
  • Art is ingenuity, creativity, an original idea
  • Art is a new perspective
  • Art is a lie that tells the truth
  • Art is an ideal
  • Art is a representation of what is
  • Art is a representation of what is meaningful
  • Art is entertainment, drama, comedy and tragedy
  • Art is indifferent to public appeal
  • Art is what people believe it is
  • Art is satire
  • Art is what pokes fun at powerful things
  • Art is a vehicle to sell products
  • Art is persuasion
  • Art is salvation
  • Art is ritual, tradition, a custom
  • Art is communication
  • Art is education
  • Art is a refuge
  • Art is journalism
  • Art is a tool for healing
  • Art is an escape from reality
  • Art is whatever you can get away with
  • Art is a record of a moment in time, of what has been
  • Art is illusion
  • Art is a gift from God
  • Art is enlightenment
  • Art is a commodity
  • Art is the message
  • Art is the technique
  • Art is anything done that does not involve reproduction or survival
  • Art is dead the moment it is hung on a wall
  • Art is the act of creation, not the result
  • Art is a relic, an archive of human values and experience

Which of these definitions ring true to you?