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What is Art? Part I.

Art is the pinnacle of our civilization, and there are very few things as malleable, unstable, yet so strongly present as art. Art is nothing. And everything at once. Somehow, it is always on the reverse side of life. Perfectly useless if you look at it that way, yet it is one of the oldest human phenomena.

In Plato's philosophy, the essence of art is mimesis, the imitation of reality. However, he also believed that the reality we perceive with our senses is only as real as shadows cast on a cave wall. Therefore, he speaks of a higher reality, the world of ideas. In other words, art, like our senses, tries to capture reality by striving to represent perfect forms.

Aristotle, a student of Plato, added that art does not just copy reality but also presents its potential, showing what reality or the world could become.

This approach is very close to us. For us, art is about how things could be. This is our special concept of art. The English word "ART" comes from the Latin "ARS", which can mean skill, manual dexterity, craftsmanship, trade, expertise. The Romans translated this word from the Greek "TECHNE", which we recognize in the modern word "technique", used in arts as well. In Greek, this word encompassed any skill or expertise, not just the ability to sculpt, but also medicine or shipbuilding.

In the English word "ART", we often sense a meaning that refers to a manner or way of doing something. The way we live, the way we see things. If this is true, then the artist shows the way the world could look. Painting absolutely speaks to this. So does literature. Both create worlds. They create a world parallel to, and different from, what our senses perceive.

Art is often considered a sort of sublime thing. This ties in with Plato and Aristotle, as in Plato's world of ideas, art strives for perfection. Just as we try to grasp the world with our eyes and ears but constantly fail, only perceiving it imperfectly, so does art. According to Aristotle, art reveals a more beautiful aspect of reality, what it could be, and the potential within it. Look at a Greek statue, each one is perfect.

What is Art? Part I.

Kant uses the concept of the sublime, which he considers to be a greatness that transcends the limits of everyday perception and understanding. Hegel also views art as the pinnacle of civilization (modestly placing himself in this category, as he defined both art and philosophy in this way), representing an incredibly high level of human nature. Art offers a glimpse into the world of the absolute, the realm of spirituality, beyond all perception.

These two elements, the sublime and technique, are also found in the Chinese interpretation of art. The reason for discussing the Chinese perspective is that their highly developed culture is considered to have evolved differently from Western culture. This includes, and especially pertains to, their language, which is another tool for representing reality.

In Chinese, the word for art is written as 艺术 (yìshù). This compound word consists of two characters:

  1. 艺 (yì), which means "art," "skill," or "craftsmanship." This character originally depicted a person kneeling before an altar, representing the concept of ritual or ceremony. Over time, its meaning expanded to more generally refer to skill or craftsmanship.

  2. 术 (shù), which means "method," "technique," or "art." Its earliest form depicted a hand planting a seed, originally referring to various methods or techniques in agriculture. Later, its meaning broadened to more generally encompass technique or method.

When combined in the word 艺术 (yìshù), it conveys the general meaning of "art," with a strong emphasis on skill and technique.

What is Art? Part I.

In Sanskrit, the word for art is "Kalā" (कला). This term is ancient, possibly thousands of years old. Its root, 'kḷ', originally signified counting or enumeration but also implies skill, understanding, and perception. When the form "Kalā" emerged, it more specifically referred to skills that require understanding, knowledge, creativity, and techniques.

In Indian Tantric philosophy, 64 Kalās are identified as skills that a wise person should possess. Among these, several relate to artistic activities:

  • Geet vidya: The skill of singing.

  • Vadya vidya: The skill of playing musical instruments.

  • Nritya vidya: The skill of dancing.

  • Natya vidya: The skill of theatricals.

  • Alekhya vidya: The skill of painting.

Additionally, the Sanskrit concept of Kalā often carries a spiritual dimension, frequently alluding to an inner transformation aimed at the fulfillment of one's innate abilities.

What is Art? Part I.

The Hungarian word for art, "művészet," is also interesting in its origin. The word "mű" as a standalone term refers not only to the result of creation but also to its "artificial" (man-made) aspect. This implies that art involves human alteration of reality.

In art, this deviation from reality often moves towards the world of ideals. However, the word "mű" also suggests another direction, implying falseness or deceit.

Interestingly, nobody perceives Csontváry's 'Lonely Cedar' as 'artificial' in the sense of being a fake tree (since it's paint on canvas); instead, it's viewed as a creation that represents a human effort (in this case, by Csontváry the artist) to represent and transform reality, endowing it with new meanings.

Csontváry's 'Lonely Cedar'
Csontváry's 'Lonely Cedar'

Despite the different developmental paths of Western and Eastern worlds, two key elements of the concept of art are found in every culture. Traditionally, skill appears to be universally important, and there's a strong connection between art and expertise, which can be described as the ability to shape reality.

Another criterion is the presence of something sublime, striving to represent ideas, the absolute, and the presence or attainment of a spiritual level.

For us, the Tantric approach is particularly appealing as it emphasizes that for a learned and wise person, the culmination of expertise and mastery in skills considered artistic is a path to understanding the world.

We feel the same about the deep roots of the Hungarian word "mű," where extraordinary abilities are naturally integrated into accepted human actions. The mastery of a craft is seen as a miraculous power, capable of shaping reality.

This notion will be revisited when discussing the institutionalist approach to art. We acknowledge that the skill to build a bridge from trees in a forest is as much a miraculous, reality-shaping force as creating a beautifully sculpted statue.

These words, whether from the East or the West, originate from a world where these two realms were once united.


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