What is Art?

People like art. They find it improves their lives. Well, some of it.

When you think about it, you realize that not everything called art could be art. Anything you can think of is called art by somebody. Either the word means nothing in particular, or else it means something that needs to be defined.

To do that, consider what makes art a value. Why does it improve your life?

Reality is not organized. You see things, hear things, touch things at random—unless you deliberately organize things in your mind. You survive by doing that: you sort things out so you can see relationships and make changes. You hear a cacophony of noises, and organize them into traffic sounds, weather sounds, and so on. You organize traffic sounds into cars, trucks, horns, bells, sirens—so you can avoid being run over.

Now you go into a concert hall. Suddenly you hear sounds that sort themselves out. All you have to do is listen, and by some miracle, once you get used to it, the sounds make you want to dance, or laugh, or cry, or contemplate deep meanings. You are not listening to noises which have to be thought about; you are listening to the thoughts.

Outside is a statue. It looks like a real person, but it gives you more pleasure, because it brings universal ideas into your mind. It is not just a hero; it is heroism. It is not just a resolute woman; it is resolution. It is not just an official; it is office.

To survive, you must see the particular and figure out where it fits. Art is thrilling because it shows the particular and also where it fits.

To see what real art is, think of a photograph and of an abstract painting. The photo shows a particular thing. The painting tries to show no particular thing but just a universal idea about things. What real art does is combine the two into one: it shows a universal as if it were a particular. Mona Lisa looks real, and her enigmatic smile embodies the mystery of womanly allure. Venus de Milo looks real, and embodies an ideal of womanly beauty. Michelangelo's David is very real, and also very much the indomitable spirit of all mankind.

To add artistic elements to a photograph, one would include things that suggest a broader meaning. To add artistic elements to an abstract painting, one would include recognizable subjects. To pick out what things to call art, look among man-made presentations, and find the ones that please by combining the particular with the universal. You like photos because particulars are good. You like designs because universals are good. You like art more because it combines both. It presents you with something real, wrapped up in the artist's vision. That is, it conforms to the way your mind works.

That is why Ayn Rand defines art as "a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments." Since the art presents a subject you recognize, you can compare the artist's judgments to yours. Then you are seeing directly into another mind.

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