What is Art?

By Wil Forbis
July 1, 2013

The Our Wacky Brain collection:

"There is nothing ugly in art except that which is without character, that is to say that which offers no outer or inner truth."


Welcome friends. You're eagerly perusing another installment in acid logic's "Our Wacky Brain" series---an attempt to examine the mysteries and magic of the human brain as viewed through the twin lenses of neuroscience and psychology.

The question, "what is art?" might seem a little off topic. After all, isn't art more related to ethereal concepts like culture and creativity than hard science? That's certainly a popular presumption, but I would argue that art is intimately connected with our abilities to perceive the world around us and to organize what we see into hierarchies and patterns. Both such skill sets are often discussed in the realms of psychology and brain science.


Mona Lisa

This particular "Wacky Brain" article is little different. Entire books have been written on the question of "what is art?" and there's still much to say on the topic. Obviously I'll be taking a very brief and nonspecific look at the question. Additionally, I freely admit that instead of substantially answering the question, I'm largely raising additional questions for rumination. This article is more of a free-form flow of ideas than a definitive proof.

We should note that there are many disciplines to art: painting, music, architecture, sculpture, film etc. What I write about here is relevant to all of them, though some statements are more relevant to certain types of art than others.

First, let's define a term. One I like to use, particularly because it is so nonspecific, is the term "object." What is an object? I think we all have an understanding of the term as it applies to things in the physical realm: a brick, a tree, a car. I also use the term to describe living creatures: your sister, a cat, a frog, an amoeba. I extend it even further to describe more ethereal concepts: an emotion (say, joy), an idea (say, communism), and even more subtle, hard to define perceptions (take déjà vu as an example, or the taste of an orange.) Objects can be anything in the physical and mental universe that we have in some way defined and categorized, usually, but not exclusively, with words.

How do we experience objects? Through our senses of course. We see things, we hear things, we touch, smell and taste things. We also experience some harder to define objects through our additional senses; when jumping out of a tree we experience gravity (an object) via the vestibular system in our inner ear. (This is "felt" as that sometimes slightly seasick sensation of rushing towards the ground.) We sense the object of heat via thermal sensors in our skin. We sense a lot of emotion through a subtle interplay of our visceral and somatic senses; for example, we might feel anger as a combination of flushed cheeks, a tight chest, and a nagging pain in our stomach. It's safe to say that were we somehow born with absolutely no sensory input going to our brain, we would not have a well-defined understanding of objects. However, there are objects where the involvement of our senses is limited. Memories are an example. We may "see," "hear" or "smell" a memory, but that memory is a ghost of the real experience. Our way of intuiting our thoughts is similarly vague. We may have a thought in our head, but are we really seeing (or hearing, or smelling etc.) it? Sort of... kind of... but in a very hard to pin down way. Nonetheless, we recognize thoughts as objects; indeed they are some of the most powerful objects we can experience.

What does this all have to do with art? I posit that one purpose of art is to represent (or at least "suggest") objects. This is hardly a breathtaking statement; we understand that a lot of paintings are about mimicking the real world, often as perfectly as possible. We appreciate writing that brings a crystal-clear image into our mind. Movies are probably best at perfectly capturing reality. We look at a movie screen and instantly recognize the elephant lumbering towards us. But, let's pause for a moment and remember that there is absolutely no elephant anywhere near the movie theater. The onscreen image is only a representation of the object.

But art doesn't just represent physical objects; it also tackles harder to define objects. Emotions. Concepts. Philosophies. Ideas. The history of Western visual art was largely a move from representational art (which attempted to show the world as it appeared) to representational art integrated with symbolism (which started to add in hazier objects like emotions and ideas) and then towards non-representational art (which attempts to convey objects so vague that they may not even have names. What does the work of Jackson Pollock convey, for example? You'd be hard-pressed to find a room full of people who could even agree on the terms.)


Music is a little different from the visual arts. Because of its fundamentally amorphous nature* music has always been better at suggesting non-physical objects, particularly emotions. Nonetheless, Western classical music has followed a path similar to the visual arts, moving from the very structured, interlocking music of Bach, towards more the more free-form flowing styles of Ravel and Berlioz and ultimately disintegrated the rules of tonality altogether with composers like Schoenberg and Stravinsky.

* Rapper Violent J from the Insane Clown Posse once noted about music, "you can't even hold it, it's just there in the air."

In general, I think you can say that Western art and music (and other disciplines) have, over the course of time, moved from representing the world of physical objects towards representing the world of mental objects (e.g. emotions, thoughts, ideas).

Let's ask a few questions here:

Is good art art that accurately describes objects? Is it art where we find ourselves saying, "Yes, that perfectly captures the essence of elephants/anger/communism/déjà vu"? (Basically, we're talking about art that represents the "outer or inner truth" mentioned by Rodin" at the top of the page.)

Or, is good art art that reveals heretofore unknown "objects?" Does good art challenge us, and make us feel/sense things we've never felt/sensed before? (This is one goal of science fiction writing: to described the alien and foreign. It's also related to the appeal of art from different cultures which exposes us to different ways of looking at the world.)

I don't think there's a right answer to these questions. But thinking about them can help a person get a sense of what they like or dislike in various art forms.

Here's another interesting question to explore about objects. Why do we sense them at all? It might seem a foolish question - one is tempted to say we sense objects simply because they are there - but I'm reminded of a story I've mentioned in other "Wacky Brain" articles: that of famed brain doctor Oliver Sack's patient Virgil. Virgil was a 50-ish man who had been blind for most of his life until he had his sight restored. At that point, he could see the world, but he could not really "see" it--- he struggled to separate the shapes and colors before him into individual objects. It seems that at least some part of recognizing visual objects is a learned skill, one which without there would be no way to appreciate visual arts. And certain elements of our visual classification system are clearly built into the brain. Take face recognition. People with certain brain deficiencies (either there from birth or caused by accident or stroke) cannot recognize the faces of friends and family. Other people have strokes and lose the ability to recognize words or hear language*. These abilities, so important to our ability to understand art (and simply navigate the world) are tied to specific chunks of brain tissue. Damage the tissue and these abilities disintegrate.

* Or music. For people who suffer from a condition called amusia, music sounds like meaningless noise.

Neurological deficiencies don't just inhibit grand object recognition like the ability to recognize faces. Take a look at the following comments from neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran.

I am reminded of patients with right hemisphere stroke who, when asked to draw an object (say, a horse) will create a reasonable likeness, often containing all the required details. But what's missing is the essence of the horse; the drawing seems almost too detailed but lifeless. This suggests that what we call "the artistic sense" is normally in the right hemisphere - which is damaged in these patients - and the left hemisphere doesn't quite "get it" even when it tries hard.
Is something as ethereal as the ability to recognize an object's "essence" the result of specific functions of the (right hemisphere) brain?

As promised, I don't have answers to these questions. But I think they are worth contemplating.


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