What Is Art? A Few Famous Definitions, From Antiquity to Today

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Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Francis Ford Coppola, and more attempt to answer one of the ultimate questions.

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Russian writer and occasional philosopher of the arts, Leo Tolstoy (Wikimedia Commons)

After the recent omnibus of definitions of science by some of history's greatest minds and definitions of philosophy by some of today's most prominent philosophers, why not turn to an arguably even more nebulous domain of humanity? Gathered here are some of my favorite definitions of art, from antiquity to today.

Henry James in his short story The Middle Years:

We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.

Leo Tolstoy, in his essay "What Is Art?":

Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man's emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity.

Frank Lloyd Wright, writing in 1957, as cited in Frank Lloyd Wright on Architecture, Nature, and the Human Spirit: A Collection of Quotations:

Art is a discovery and development of elementary principles of nature into beautiful forms suitable for human use.

Steven Pressfield in The War of Art, one of five essential books on fear and the creative process:

To labor in the arts for any reason other than love is prostitution.

Charles Eames, cited in the fantastic 100 Quotes by Charles Eames:

Art resides in the quality of doing; process is not magic.

Elbert Hubbard in a 1908 volume of Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Teachers:

Art is not a thing—it is a way.

Oscar Wilde in The Soul of Man Under Socialism:

Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.

Thomas Merton in No Man Is An Island:

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

Francis Ford Coppola in a recent interview:

An essential element of any art is risk. If you don't take a risk then how are you going to make something really beautiful, that hasn't been seen before? I always like to say that cinema without risk is like having no sex and expecting to have a baby. You have to take a risk.

André Gide in Poétique:

Art begins with resistance—at the point where resistance is overcome. No human masterpiece has ever been created without great labor.

Friedrich Nietzsche, made famous all over again by Ray Bradbury in Zen in the Art of Writing:

We have our Arts so we won't die of Truth.

Michelangelo Pistoletto in Art's Responsibility:

Above all, artists must not be only in art galleries or museums—they must be present in all possible activities. The artist must be the sponsor of thought in whatever endeavor people take on, at every level.

Federico Fellini in a December 1965 piece in The Atlantic, not currently online:

All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster's autobiography.

Hugh MacLeod in Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity:

Art suffers the moment other people start paying for it.

The Greek philosopher Aristophanes, writing in the 4th century B.C.:

Let each man exercise the art he knows.

And, lastly, my own take in a recent piece I wrote for the National Endowment for the Arts:

This is the power of art: The power to transcend our own self-interest, our solipsistic zoom-lens on life, and relate to the world and each other with more integrity, more curiosity, more wholeheartedness.

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This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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