On the nature of art, a definition

"Art is that human endeavour which illuminates the contiguous nature of reality. Momentarily breaking us free from our illusion that the Universe has a dual nature." Writes Basho. Find out why...

All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. – Oscar Wilde

Nature is a great concept, but we are never satisfied with it. Nature is always shown in conflict against nurture and not just in the sciences (who recently came to same conclusion as I below; that this is an illusion), but also in the creative worlds where form is always shown versus function.

Why do we do this?

Man, viewed from afar, must surely be classified as the creature who splits the world into dual opposites. Everything suffers this surgery, from good being torn from evil, light being rendered from shade, man’s very nature being divided from that which nurtures it and in his art the maddening habit of splitting the form of things from their function.

Perhaps it comes from our dualist experience of reality, for the human lives in a world resplendent with physical doubles; two eyes to see with, two legs to walk upon and two hands with which to work. Through the use of these physical tools we discover his mind as, however you believe he came across these gifts, it is in his language that the true nature of his rank obsession with division appears most prominently (language, writing and speech remain always the illuminating torch in the dark cave of the human mind). Human language refers endlessly to the division and duality of man’s physical experience. Take the conceptual word, “hands”. Here we have phrases such as, “on the other hand”, “The left-hand path”, “right is right” and so on. Even the root of the dark word “sinister” is derived from “sinistra”, the Italian word for the left-hand path.

This doesn’t end here as not just left and right divide the human perception of the world. His speech also demarcates inner and outer worlds; his very experience of the world entirely split into inside his head and outside in what is called “reality”. This notion of “reality” is itself only a label given solely to the outside, the part of the experience outside the self, as though he were not an enclosed and conjoined part of this reality.

The external human concept of “reality” then is the final weight to tip the scales of evidence (scales which go up and down, another duality) that this is a very deep rooted and indicative behaviour. If the concept of “reality” is that which is not the personal ”subjective” experience then there is a serious mental problem in explaining how the “I” of that experience fits into “reality”, is the mind itself only a figment? Of what? Of itself? A figment of a figment?

How typical of Mankind to be the creature who splits the world in two and then places himself on the side of illusion!

Not much escapes, what I have named, the Duality Effect. Take science, the engine that built and powers the human world around us, even it does little to assist in highlighting the absurdity of this dichotomy. The scientific method breaks things down into measurable and predictable chunks, adds them back up and forms “systems” of behaviour (that is “predictable” behaviour). These systems, these models, for the functioning of the universe are called “understandings based on observation“. Mainly because predictable knowledge is easily communicated, and indeed that is its point, but in breaking down the universe two types of things (two again!) happen:

1. We confuse the map with the territory. So you have those who proclaim that if anything is experienced that cannot be explained by our “measuring” then it literally doesn’t happen. There are all sorts of worrying evidences that this is not the case of which the Placebo effect is but the tip of the iceberg. Science is a model for the external reality, not that reality itself. Its current methodology presumes the inside/outside division and rejects all “inside” concepts as subjectively unmeasurable. Hence therefore, there are things that work in a practical way, but are rejected because there isn’t an explanation for them that fits into the preconceived notions. Consequently, for example, there is no science that can explain the mind itself. Indeed there exists some interesting excuses for this lack of definition:

“Oh, we will one day,” says Professor Cox confidently on The Infinite Monkey Cage (no doubt looking wistfully off into the sky at the time). Well, science as we know it now, focussed on “external” observation, will not ever be able to do this and when it has reached a level to truly be able to understand the mind, you would not recognise it as science.

2. We demean the “inside world”


Wait a moment…

So, here is the problem, the trap we regularly fall into. Duality is so insidious, alluring and addictive, and humans so love the current order of scientific notation, that simply by putting the above into numbered bullet points, into a list, we suddenly feel far more comfortable.

Did you buy it?

Do you really believe that there exists an inside and outside world? Distinct in this way?

That is the mistake. The split between you and the Universe is false as there isn’t such a dichotomy in nature. The Universe is of one order (it has to be by definition) and your “mind”, your inner thoughts as well as your outer movements, your notion of time, your notion of life and of love are no different from the rock you stub your toe on (“I refute you thus!”), the light highlighting the buildings as you pass, the music in your ears and the world around you.

That the Universe is one is not “the Universe is one, apart from the bit that is me“. In a very real sense any man is physically connected to everything else and everything happens in the same Universe. The problem of “Other Minds” is an illusion arising from our incorrect insistence that we, me and I are separate.

This is doubly true for your connection to everything else in spacetime and through gravity. You literally have a gravity (a small one) and should remember that when you jump, and the Earth pulls you back down, that your gravity pulls the Earth up as well (albeit only a tiny bit). So, in every respect, in every way and in every proper sense “Reality” is consistent and so are you with it, like a fish is consistent with the river it swims through.

One should never “rest on one’s laurels” in science, the arrogance of the “popular” science speakers, the kind that get on TV, is galling. Scientific progress should follow the evidence wherever it leads and some scientists already know that things need to change. Science should therefore be humble.

A hint of this coming change was discovered with the effects of Quantum Theory, which showed that by “merely” observing something we change that thing.

How strange that day of realisation must have felt for those mired in the dual nature, raised in it, and focussed utterly on the current ”outside” scientific notion.

“But, but,” he must have gibbered staring at his electron detecting instruments, “How can I be changing the results? I’m all the way over here!”

Scientists’ struggles aside, many many people have known this truth for a seriously long stretch of spacetime. The Buddha certainly knew it, the Daoists know it, the Hindus know it.

We all know it, we just cant escape our natures enough to realise it all the time.

We can only know it by feeling it in “bursts”.


Ah, so, the plot appears…

Art is made to disturb. Science reassures. There is only one valuable thing in art: the thing you cannot explain. – Georges Braque

We know it because there exists a method of feeling it, of tasting it and experiencing it, that wholeness called the “oneness of the Universe” if only for a moment.

Well, actually there are many ways, some of which are definitely illegal, but I am interested here in one particular way that is accessible to anyone and involves an actual human endeavour to create.

So, not the purely “other” experience found in churches (the transcendental), not the cold hard precision of definite mathematics (and not just staring out of the window at the night sky – what I call “having a Cox moment”). It is between those two things, it is the meeting of the two sides. This thing is at once a human endeavour, created by us, and yet necessarily beyond the hand that wrought it. It is reaching out to some new natural place bringing the light and dark together as one.

It is art.

I found I could say things with colour and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for. Georgia O’Keeffe

No wonder then that the nature of art is a struggle to understand. We try so desperately to place it within our dualistic (mis)understanding that we only discuss it within the boundaries and perceptions that we place on “reality”. We do this while all the time aware that this is to only explain half of the experience, to ignore an entire half, whichever half that be.

We talk of form, or we talk of function.

So, having highlighted and outlined the human tendency to distinct what is really whole, let us discuss this version of that trait in breaking up the form and the function of artistic works. In this argument I will be sticking very closely to art as defined as “the human endeavour”. Nature can exhibit artistic feelings in humans and indeed this is the seed from which many religious experiences (not to mention joyful walks/BBC Science series’) are born. However, in order to be able to define “art”, we must include that it is necessarily a creation of the human or we suffer the argument that our definition includes everything.

Of course it does, but that’s not the point.

This intrinsic link to nature is a clue to the true definition of art, the argument for which I am going to forward:

“Art is that human endeavour which illuminates the contiguous nature of reality.”

In our habitual dichotomous discussion of art, “form” is what something looks like or sounds like and “function” is what something does.

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. Thomas Merton

So, when we are talking about chair design, we often say that the function of a chair is well known and defined and that the form is how this function has been chosen to be expressed. In other words, if we focus our energies on function we will build sturdy, strong chairs that don’t break; that are all steel and thick wood, but are perhaps not so aesthetically pleasing. On the other (more sinister?) hand, if we focus on form we will make glowing-neon-light covered chairs that are beautiful to behold, but perhaps easy to break and not at all comfortable to sit upon.

We see these things as different, as ends of a magnet pushing in different directions, but also like magnets, the poles touch in the middle. Various movements have been created that land at various points on these poles and I am using the design world in my example to highlight my favourite.

There exists a group that have a very interesting approach to this problem. They totally focus on function to the exclusion of form. By doing this a new form naturally arrises, a stark form of startling simplicity, an anti-form, that quite catches the mood, making spaces and objects designed in this way alike blank pieces of paper. This way of designing creates contrasts that make living in such space like red paint flung at a blank canvas, bringing the immediacy of life into sharp focus against the blank background.

It is Zen: the religion that is about pointing out the “unseen” obvious.

Anyway, aside from this group it is commonly taken to be true that where form and function meet is the perfect balance point of design (or at least that is what Jonathan Ives says). The point where something is of great use, but also the point where such a thing becomes the most pleasant to use. However, as you come closer to the point of combination then the more refined and difficult it becomes to divide the two from each other. Eventually our language, our toolset of communication, breaks down; unable to divide form from function in any meaningful way and we find ourselves beyond our language, beyond our ability to split the universe.

This “region”, this “uncanny valley” does have a name, it is a name we give to the feeling rather than any inside or outside definition, that name is “art”. This is the word for the unknown maelstrom where our ability to divide the universe fails and for a brief moment, all too brief, everything joins back up and we feel whole. This can be through any form of art: music, painting, sport, anything.

This feeling for art is useful in one sense as we can communicate the “feeling” succinctly, but we cannot communicate the thing in itself. That is why any normal definition of art is dry enough to be soulless and by definition cannot be this thing. It must, by virtue of our language, fall on one side of the “magnetic poles”. That is why “art” frustrates scientists and philosophers. They complain that art becomes subjective and, by trying to define it in split terms, it does. However, the feeling that the word “art” carries is not, it is a word for the point where you can no longer split the faces of the coin, where you can no longer separate the light from the dark, the left from the right and, most importantly, the judgement on a human endeavour that has achieved this blending sublimation.

*I love art.*

There we go. All done.

Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together.  John Ruskin


Yes, you at the back:


Q.TL:DR Can you summarise?

A. Art is that human endeavour which illuminates the contiguous nature of reality. Momentarily breaking us free from our illusion that the Universe has a dual nature.


Q. Is that it?

A. No, there is something else. It is a necessary component, but not to the argument. It is failure. To engender this sublimation requires the creation of something capable of “going beyond”. In order to do that you have to transcend the ability of people to be able to explain what exactly it is. To do that is not easy. It requires a total effort to put your mental concept down onto paper. The idea that exists in your head has to be copied into a new  form, and often this idea is destroyed in the process as the new art takes away from the mind the original idea and replaces it with itself. This is why creating art can be mentally “painful” and “exhausting”. But more than this the creation of art requires that you may screw it up. You have to have the possibility of failure or it can’t be art.

So, a computer could create art if, and only if, the program can go wrong. If the computer can paint perfectly, absolutely perfectly every time and again and again; churning out amazingly lifelike paintings – then this is not art (for a start that is exactly what computers do do when we print something) – it is rather simple “craft”.

The artists “intention” is often discussed here, but really that is irrelevant, other than it is very hard to accidentally create something that sublimes reality’s duality. That is, it is very hard for humans as nature does it all the time.

Without the chance of failure in its production, I don’t believe you can create art. This has implications for the next question.


Q. What about “modern art”?

A. “Modern art” shits on any idea of art. That’s its job. It uses the same tactic that Haiku’s use of startling the viewer in some way. Like a metal bar thrown over train tracks or a cold hard slap in the face. It is about pushing the boundaries of the truth about art by holding up a disjointed mirror. Mixing in humour, puns, distaste, blankness etc – becoming little more than a collection of metaphors.

Glad I got that off my chest!

Anyway, modern art can be art in every way, or it cannot. The decision that something is art for you is subjective, it is the nature of art that isn’t. If you look at Duchchamp’s Urinal and have the same feeling I have described above (a moment of realising the contiguous nature of reality) more power to you. I would love to read why, because it doesn’t have that feeling for me.

I once wrote that art included a timeless nature, but really this is just the feeling I described above. However, as a rule of thumb I personally use: art that we will call art in a thousand years is more likely to engender those feelings in me. Urinals will – probably – not.


Q. Your definition includes subjectiveness! We want cold hard factual definitions, objective definitions!

A. Is that a question? Yes, art is by its nature mysterious. It is a crack in our minds, like humour. Why is something funny? Why is something art? It is a human thing, caused by the feeling described above. If we were able to remove the splitting dualist nature of our existence, then I think we wouldn’t have art at all. When, if, we have evolved (or been raised) to new beings of pure energy at one with the universe, then art will lose its meaning. But, then so will personal identity and, as I explained, identity is tied up with the human experience in just the same way.

So, “art” the thing has to be subjective, where as “art” the feeling is not. This is because by its very nature the concept of “objective” not only removes the viewer, but is in itself an illusion. There is no  split of “subjective” and “objective” in this universe. At all. Ever. Some have written that math is objective (granting it a priori no less), but it isn’t. Math is a collective creation of man used to map scientific (read: external) “reality”. By that very power, it is eventually doomed.

Another way of putting this is that Science, focussing as it does on one side of the coin, is the “how” and the mental states of the viewer are the “why”. The illusion is in thinking that these things are different, they are not, they are the coin*. One day we will be able to see that truly, but until then we have human endeavours that sublime our ability to describe the split and these we call art.


Q. I have some other, well thought out and lucid, objection to what you have said and I am going to outline it respectfully!

A. Great! Step up and let’s get down to it in the comments. If you want to post a larger rebuttal, by all means email it to me and I will print it on the site with full credit.


*This is, of course, incredibly hard to describe by its very nature. I caught myself writing, “they are both the coin” until I realised that this would be to accept the dual nature and be commenting on it rather than renouncing it. They are not both, they are the coin.

Bio: Philosopher, film maker, writer and IT expert. Occupation: IT Consultant, film-maker and writer. Interests: Debate, cooking, computer-gaming, reading, writing, videoing, martial arts, air­soft, movies, diving, skiing… (The list goes on — Basho is a philosopher and therefore into everything!)

  • Basho

    Question asked on Reddit:
    Is this meant as a definition of “what I personally get out of particular works of art that I happen to enjoy”. Or do you literally think that this is the definition of “art”? In what sense does A Portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh (to take a completely arbitrary example) “break us free from out illusion that the Universe has a dual nature”? Or is this portrait simply “not art”? Why not?

    In my final degree exam we were asked a question that basically said, “What would Kant think of Duchchamp’s urinal?” I said that the Great K (as we called him, along with Big N for Nietzsche: which saved spelling his name wrong all the time) would not recognise the urinal as art and was just a likely to pee in it as stand in awe. Indeed of all the arguments we had in that course, and we had some published thinkers and religious xenophobes so this was a large number of arguments, the arguments over defining “art” were the most vocal and often continued all the way down the pub, back to someone’s house and on one special occasion onwards through copulation (although I don’t think much progress was made).

    Eventually most gave up. myself I ended up with a definition that revolved around intention and location, which said basically that if we put something into a gallery (“a place for art”) and intend it to be art, then it is.

    Very unsatisfying to say the least.

    Ever since then I have been musing on the subject, reading a lot of books and all the 13 years past wondering if something would occur to me.

    Eventually it has.

    The problem of defining “art” as a concept is not “art’s” fault, it is the fault of language. Our language is unable to use scientific/logical definitions to satisfactorily nail it down. That was my clue. Art is “beyond” our ability of our language to describe. Like humour. This means that any definition (that doesn’t address this point) will ultimately fail examination.

    Why our language is unable is something I went into at length at the start of my article. It is essentially because our definitions rely on the “outside view of reality”. That is the view of science and what we jokingly call “objective reality”. This is a joke because it supposes an “inside reality”, which I contend isn’t really there; there is only the outside. I suppose it is unfair to write about art without going into that idea itself (something I have been working on for a long time), however I guess this will have to wait for the book (should one ever get published).

    So, in a nutshell. Art is that human, creative, endeavour that sublimes (goes beyond) our ability to describe it. This obviously means that art is a “feeling”, that is a “concept” that can be communicated only in terms of a feeling. Should you try and say “why?” some particular thing is art, you immediately bring yourself into the realm of language with all its limits (limits mostly defined by our scientific phrasings and the uses of such language).

    Hence, poetry, with it’s attempt to elicit emotional reactions through the power of words to describe some concept, but at the same time hinting of something beyond those words, is never going to be scientifically described (something the film Dead Poets Society makes great fun of). Poetry mostly works through simile, but if one was to take Zen poetry as an example: here the poet, 1. Refers to nature and 2. Says something that makes you feel as though you were there. Number 2 is to take you “beyond” the words.

    The same in, say, martial arts. As instructor I can break down a sequence of moves into techniques, techniques into concepts, concepts into the underlying systems, systems into the underlying philosophies of combat and finally the philosophies into (usually) religious beliefs. However, when someone moves, fights, dances the katas or breaks the boards sometimes it simply goes beyond words. Words that place limits on the Universe that in what I have just seen have been totally sublimed.

    So to answer your question directly. “A Portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh” may illicit in you the feeling that to describe it with a limited language would be to describe only one side of a coin. All you can say is, “that is Art”. Of course you may feel it more than others. I was moved almost to tears by the Art on display during my first visit to Florence, others may say, “meh”. However, most would agree that there are occasions in life when you look at the creations of others and simply are speechless. All you can say, “that is Art”.

    So, I have attempted to define art by acknowledging that it cannot be defined by our limited language mired in the Duality Effect. However, rather than finding this frustrating as I did in class, I now recognise it as a symptom of a greater truth we are not fully aware of/ ready to accept.

    Yes, Big N was my favourite at Uni and I hated Great K. Still do.