Defining what an artist is can be quite difficult to do. Some would suggest that it is subjective, while others may believe it is not worth overthinking or labeling one’s creative act. However, I often wonder what is the nature of art and the artist.
According to Plato’s The Republic, art is an imitation of the nature and the things around us. According to the Plato’s vision, there exists a perfect form of everything and what we paint, or draw, are only imitations of that perfect thing. As someone who has read the entire work, I do not agree entirely with his philosophy, but I do believe his work is an essential read. Although, his vision of the art, but really literature, is difficult to grasp in a time where arts purpose is currently identified as self-expression rather than pointing to something ideal, it is worth considering what that means.
Most art in fact imitates something, whether it be from the imagination, something real, or something abstract. The artist is like a scientist in that they seek to test ideas out, and explore them. The artist then seeks to perfect something. Defining what that something is what may be difficult to do. Maybe it is making something appear realistic, maybe it is finding the perfect combination of colors, maybe it is depicting a concept, or an idea perfectly, or maybe includes more than one thing. Either way, they are imitations of something perfect, and this perception is innate in humans.
How do we reconcile this view of being imitators with the idea that we are unique individuals? Perhaps the answer to this can be found in exploring what a human is and understanding what Plato means by “imitation.” An artist has the power to depict things in their perfect form. A painting, therefore, serves as windows to the soul of the artist, but also serves as a window to something more and something unseen with the naked eye. It is the search for some truth that allows the artist to become creative.
I have been reading Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s book Man’s Place in Nature and he proposes that to understand our place in nature, we must accept our place as the most complex living thing and act accordingly. Accepting this place allows us to understand how other living things relate to one another. Creativity comes with the knowledge and acceptance of our unique place amongst other living things.
In the end, I believe art’s purpose is to allow the artist to find meaning in their own lives, but also to bring others to something transcendent. What about art that is not “meaningful?” Well, even something that is said to lack meaning is attributing a meaning. In a world that is saturated with cheap things, and cheap thrills it is difficult for the artist to lose sight of what is important. It is important that the artist stay true to the notion that they are a part of something greater than they know.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject.