The Philosophy of Art


When students learn about art history they often think of paintings and sculptures. But art isn’t just about images, it’s also about ideas and concepts. Art can communicate ideas about how the world works and about the people in it.

The ideas that art can convey may be abstract and philosophical, political, moral, or scientific. They can also be social or personal. For example, a painting can show how a particular person felt at a specific time and place in history. It can also show a specific culture or community’s beliefs and values. Art can also help us understand past events, such as war or natural disasters. Art can even be a record of a person’s life and death, such as a portrait or a memorial.

Artists have been thinking about and discussing art for centuries. Some philosophers, like Plato, have thought of art as a means to understand the world and our experience of it. He believed that what a painter created was only a “semblance of existence.”

Other philosophers, like Aristotle, believe that art is the highest form of human expression. He taught that art was a way to see the beauty of nature and of things in the world around us. Artists have always incorporated elements of philosophy into their work.

More recently, artists have sought to understand how their audience responds to art. Studies have explored the cognitive and emotional effects of art. For instance, researchers have looked at how the formal features of artwork—size, shape, color, line and form—affect viewer responses. They have also examined the role of transient individual differences, such as mood or emotional state, and more sustained individual differences, such as personality, culture, or historical contexts, on art appreciation.

A recent study suggests that when viewers experience art, they may feel a connection to it and want to learn more about the work. For example, they may be moved by the idea of a hero’s sacrifice and want to understand what caused this event to occur. They might also be inspired by the hero’s story and wish to emulate him or her in their lives.

In the 19th century, industrialization brought greater dislocation to many parts of the world, but it paradoxically brought greater freedom for artists. For example, the Impressionists began to experiment with new styles, and others such as the Pre-Raphaelites turned to the past for their inspiration.

Whether they focus on the power of a slit gong or a mural depicting a historic moment, art reflects a complex tapestry of social and cultural issues that continues to evolve. What will future generations make of it?