I have been recently thinking about the idea of art as being defined by the conveyance of strong or specific emotion as opposed to being created with simple “loving care.” Are these ideas in opposition or in agreement?
There has been the argument that true art should convey or inspire emotion. After all, it was Cezanne, the father of Modern art, who once famously stated, “A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art.” Tolstoy took up this refrain with his book “What is Art.” In it he states, “To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling – this is the activity of art.”1 Tolstoy attempted to broaden the idea of what art is. He felt that the concept of art covered a range of human experiences that directly transmits an emotion from the artist to the audience. Tolstoy’s example was the story of a boy who has a frightening experience with a wolf and then relates the story to an audience, filling the audience with the same fear that he felt. For Tolstoy, this is the essence of art. The message is clear and expresses a specific emotion. This would then seem to imply that art which does not evoke feelings/emotions is not art. Can this be true?
I am thinking of the Greeks who chose to imitate nature with their sculptures. If you look at early Greek sculpture from the Archaic era, you notice the works are not full of emotion. The expressions are flat and the stances are stiff. Is this then not art? Is it simply to be categorized as craft or artifact? What of a well constructed hand thrown burl bowl? Is it so hard to imagine and describe this work as a piece of art? The same could be said of a fine handmade chair or a blown glass vase or even a pleasant landscape painting. None of these things seem to convey or express great emotion, but neither are they simply pretty objects. There is more to them than that. When done well, they call to us and beckon us towards a greater beauty that resides within them. I may not feel passion or rage, jealousy, love, or any other definable emotion when viewing such works, but my eyes do linger on the curves, textures, and other visual elements in order to experience their beauty. Often, in doing so, I am able to connect with the creator of the work and experience a sense of humanity in a way that I don’t when viewing other, more mundane things. Despite a certain lack of emotion within the work, I feel certain I am nonetheless experiencing art.
I submit that for an object or thing to be called art, it need not express a specific strong emotion, as Tolstoy would have us believe. Rather, objects or things that are to be considered art may exhibit two qualities to earn that title. That is, the quality of conveying a sense of being done “with loving care” and the quality of having been completed with the intent to create art. If the work follows such criteria, a more subtle form of emotion is transmitted to the work.
We are all familiar with the term, “done with loving care.” It conveys a sense of having completed an action with deliberation or concentration beyond the ordinary. It denotes a level of presence, concern and craftsmanship by the person performing the operation that is beyond simply that of attempting to finish a task. A parent may prepare a soup for the family dinner. A gardener may tend to a bed, or a sculptor may carve a piece of stone, all with loving care. In doing so, the human spirit is transmitted through the action and into the thing being acted upon. The fact of that transmission is that it can be witnessed and experienced by those who come upon the finished work. The soup contains a flavorful quality and beauty that is savored by the family. The garden acquires a peaceful aspect to it, and the vegetables grow well. The sculpture holds within it a sense of form, texture, and line that the gaze lingers upon and calls to the viewer to engage it.
Of course, cooking a soup or gardening is not the same as creating a piece of art. One may say the soup tastes wonderful or the garden is very pretty, but one would not, generally, say that either are works of art (although I do not rule out that either could be considered art under the proper circumstances). This is where intent comes into play. Intent is the desire and purpose in making a work of art, or rather to make something that can stand alone as a beautiful creation. It is the deliberate actions taken to make art. For example, a wood carver when creating a bowl intends to create a beautiful bowl and to create it with as much beauty as he is able. The carver shapes the bowl and decorates it with loving care along with the intent of creating a work that can stand alone as a beautiful object. Thus, when we see the finished work, our eyes linger on it, and we feel a sense of wellbeing in doing so. We relate to the bowl beyond its utilitarian purpose and see it as art. We are able to sense the artist’s loving care and his intent.
This leads back to Cezanne’s statement, “A work of art that does not begin in emotion is not art.” What does it mean to both create a work with loving care as well as with the intent to create art? Is that not the expression of emotion? The term, “with loving care,” assumes that love is part of the activity, and love, after all, is certainly an emotion among other things. An artist may have love for his materials or his subject. He may find that, in working with his hands, he becomes more aware of himself or his humanity. This type of emotion, however, is subtle, and the word “love” in this sense is not so easily classified. Love in this instance is not the same as the love we have for a spouse, nor is it the love we have for a child. Neither is it the all-fulfilling love one feels from a religious perspective. This love is a quieter emotion. Perhaps the best way to describe it is as the quiet joy of creating. The making of art often requires repetitive movements and is an absorbing experience. It generally requires a calm and thoughtful mind. I myself feel at peace when making art. It becomes a quiet and meditative moment in an otherwise busy day. That quiet joy, however, is emotion, and, as stated above, the act of creating with this sense of loving care transmits itself into the thing being created. One could then say that the Greek Kouros, the wooden bowl, the handmade chair, the vase, and the painting did all begin with emotion. In being present while working and investing the work with loving care, one is working with emotion, and perhaps, after all, it is that aspect which we are responding to when a work calls to us as art.
Footnote: This argument does not attempt to address all art. A cursory look at art history can identify art forms that are considered art, but do not easily fit within the category of being made with loving care or with the intention of being art. Duchamp’s ready-mades come to mind, as does Nauman’s “Fountain.” It may be that a definitive definition of art requires categories of art. However, the notion that a work of art should begin with emotion does not exclude those objects that are made to be beautiful and express the simple joy of creating.