What is Art?
Art is hard to define. People can talk for hours about the definition of art. What is it? What isn’t it? The simplest and best definition of art is this:
Ideas and emotion captured in form
Art is a powerful medium of expression and communication. Art has the ability to harness the power of the intellect while at the same time stirring the emotions. That’s why so many artists shape the culture. When we participate in someone’s art while viewing a movie or a painting or while listening to a song, we are taking in their ideas propelled by emotion.
Art is powerful because it carries the creative power of the image of God. Art connects us with other image bearers because we not only think, we also see, hear, and feel. Boring art doesn’t communicate anything of note.
If you listen to a work like Adagio for Strings (Samuel Barber, 1936), you will instantly feel the emotion of the piece. One early reviewer said it was full of pathos, the Greek word for suffering and an appeal to the emotions. As you listen to the emotion of the work, you quickly understand the reason this was played at the funerals of the Princess of Monaco and played to an empty concert hall after President Kennedy died. The chosen key of B-flat minor adds to the melancholy feel of the piece.
A look at Turner’s painting, The Fighting Temeraire, Tugged to Her Last Birth to Be Broken Up (1839), gives us a similar feel. The painting depicts one of the last sailing fighting ships of England being towed into her retirement.
With sails furled, she surrenders to the tug towing her to a final resting place. We feel the end of an era. The sunset fills the canvas with color, completing the thought–the sunset years of life–honor for a hard-fought, well-spent life laid down for the good of others. The steam ship towing her, however, gives a glimpse of the next generation, the dawning of a new era. This a great example of ideas and emotion captured in form.
Vivaldi’s opening to the Four Seasons evokes the opposite emotion. In this piece we feel the light, airy sensation of the work’s namesake, Spring. Each concerto was based on a sonnet speaking about every one of the four seasons. Below is a portion of the sonnet Vivaldi used as inspiration:
Spring has arrived and merrily, The birds hail her with happy song. And meanwhile, at the breath of the Zephyrs, The streams flow with a sweet murmur.
Thunder and lightning chosen to proclaim her, Come covering the sky with a black mantle. And then, when these fall silent, the little birds, Return once more to their melodious incantation.
As you listen to the first movement, can you hear springtime? To find a painting that matches these ideas and emotion, one can look to John Constable’s Wivenhoe Park (1816). When you take in the painting, you can almost smell the freshness of the early summer air.
What Do You Want to Convey?
As you create, ask yourself, “What ideas and emotion am I trying to portray? What forms, colors, or sounds must I use to convey the message?” Each discipline has key forms that artists have used to communicate their desired effect. Certain colors, shapes, and sounds evoke corresponding emotions and convey corresponding ideas. Learn these forms, and you will develop your artist’s vocabulary. You will become more fluent in your artistry.
The world is a rich and wonderful place. It is full of sound and fury, joy, and struggle. For the Christian artist (or the artist who follows Christ, however you prefer to label yourself), this provides a rich palette to discover and communicate the profound truths God wants us to know.