'I'm always looking for the Hows and the Whys and the Whats,' said Muskrat, 'That is why I speak as I do. You've heard of Muskrat's Much-in-Little, of course?'
'No,' said the child. 'What is it?'
- The Mouse and his Child. Russell Hoban.

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Sunday, 23 November 2008

What is Art? Suggestion #2.

Leon Battista Alberti wrote 'Della Pittura' ('On Painting') in 1435.
He thought that art is the perfect combination of three things; 
The humanistic-based means and aims - istoria, 
the sensory detection of the play of light on a surface  ie, the visible reality - la piu grassa Minerva,
with mathematics - la mathematica - as the means of controlling this  visible reality.

Alberti does not present the painter with a rigid set of formulae, but puts the final outcome of the work of art in the hands of the artist.  He would say that the end result of the exhaustive decisions that strive to achieve the elusive mean, is well worth the pains.

Addressing the patron/purchaser as well as the painter, he says:
'The istoria which merits both praise and admiration will be so agreeably and pleasantly attractive that it will capture the eye of whatever learned or unlearned person is looking at it and it will move his soul'.

Thus, the art will not only please the beholder but also touch him or her.  It is to be effective, making a direct link between itself and the beholder. It is to affect both the art-educated and the uneducated.   Alberti believed art is addressed not just to an elite; it is to reach everyone by the universality of its appeal.  And should not be 'reserved for the bedroom of a merchant prince or petty tyrant' but is to be made public where all can see it.

It will make the painter's contemporaries 'judge him another god and will give him perpetual fame'; it will give the dead life, aid religion, and by its example raise the humane level of all men.
At the same time it is a profoundly humanist art, capable of expressing and satisfying the intellectual aims of both the princely patron and the artist.


  1. I think his definition ring fences a limited 'pretty pretty' type of art - the subject of art is broader than just the superficiality of surfaces - art tries to speak the truth whether that truth pleases us or not, or is even pleasing to the eye. E.g. Francis Bacon’s difficult insights into the Auschwitz of our souls, Brugels insights into hell, which are insights into mental illness, or Picassos famous painting depicting the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish civil war.
    Trying to define what art is, is a difficult task, akin really to trying to bite your own teeth.

  2. Yes. Absolutely, Alden. Alberti's ideas of making art lasted *only* for 200 years, pretty much until the end of the Renaissance. Then of course, it was superseded. Many believe art should not be defined at all. I was coming to that. You are onto it.

  3. I would agree with Alden, however anything that uplifts of informs the human spirit should fall in to the same area, or playing devils advocate here, art could be defined as anything that has no practical use......

  4. I can't think of anything MORE practical than, as you say: informing or uplifting the human spirit - what an absolutely wonderful practical application! :-)

  5. Art (including music) does have that ... tricky ... aspect, that of not seeming to be *absolutely essential* to life. Not like, f'rinstance, finding food or finding a mate ... or even living with others, ie our need for companionship/ social interaction.
    The difficulty arises from needs probably having a hierarchy... only when the lower one is met, do we even feel the next need 'up' the scale. I think I recall Maslow inventing a pyramid...

    But most would also argue that the arts are one of the crowning achievements of an advanced civilisation, even an indication of such.

  6. Art like architecture will reflect any given period of time though when we are in the middle of a particular cultural phase, it is so hard to see the wood because of the trees. However, I wonder what commentators of the future will make of Damien Hirst's successes and what they have to say about this particular decade. Thank you for summarising Alberti's perspective on Art - most interesting.

  7. Yes YP! Art - the appreciation of it, and the big question "What is GOOD art?" always has to take into account the context. The context in which it is viewed, and the context in which it was created...
    I was going to make that exact 'wood-for-the-trees' metaphor myself. :-)