Brain Pickings

What Is Art? Favorite Famous Definitions, from Antiquity to Today

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“Art is not a thing — it is a way.”

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 5 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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Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: Tracing the Evolution of Women’s Rights in a Victorian Lady’s Journals

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How the most private of frontiers became a public front for the gender dialogue.

If one were to purchase a leather-bound diary in mid-nineteenth-century England, the pages might have carried these instructions: “Use your diary with the utmost familiarity and confidence…conceal nothing from its pages nor suffer any other eye than your own to scan them.” The diary in its most secret form, locked with a key or hidden away under the bed, was a distinct product of the nineteenth century. The Romantics and their poetry had turned a nation inwards, and its people were ready to examine their desires in a private narrative of their own lives. Even Queen Victoria herself kept a journal, dotted with drawings from court.

The Victorians had a passion for the lives of others — biographies, memoirs, journals, and travel narratives — but the diary held tantalizing secrets of the heart, and none were so tantalizing as the writings of Isabella Robinson, whose private thoughts were publicly laid out in a London divorce court in 1858. Author Kate Summerscale explains in Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady (public library):

Of all the written life stories that fascinated the Victorians, the diary was the most subjective and raw.

Queen Victoria kept a very rigorous diary for most of her life. Here the young queen describes her wedding day and draws a picture of her headdress.

The diary of forty-one year old Isabella Robinson — a twice-married housewife on trial for adultery with a young doctor and family friend ten years her junior — revealed a woman who felt passionately while living a life of constrained dullness, monotony, and normalcy. In France, Gustave Flaubert put a name to this temperament — Madame Bovary had been published in 1856 but was considered too scandalous to be translated.

Augustus Leopold Egg, 'Past and Present,' 1858. A husband discovers his wife's adultery in a letter. This painting was part of a moralizing triptych exhibited at the Royal Academy just weeks before the Robinson trial.

The French had sanctioned divorce due to incompatibility in 1792, and one out of every eight marriages in the next ten years ended in divorce — the Revolution itself being a particularly violent form of divorce of a people from their king. But in nineteenth-century England, an Act of Parliament was required to end a marriage, and only 325 divorces had been granted since 1670, a rate of approximately two a year. In 1857, the Matrimonial Causes Act made divorce much easier to obtain — for the husband. A man had to prove adultery, a woman both cruelty and adultery. (A woman’s adultery was considered more serious because she could produce a bastard heir.)

A Victorian divorce court, c. 1870. Isabella Robinson was not allowed to appear as a witness for the defense. Her only voice in court was her diary.

In her diary, Isabella would fall deeply in love with different family friends — and once, her children’s tutor — eager to talk, read, and share ideas, yet always stymied by physical desire. She was at times anxious, frustrated, and depressed with her multitude of feeling. She wrote to her doctor:

[Women like me] exist quietly who bring up families…to tread in the purposeless steps of those who went before them — what motive — what hope may be found strong enough to enable them to bear up against trials, separations, old age, and death itself?

Her doctor cautioned that she should think less about herself and more about others:

Intellect alone does not fill the vacuum of human desire.

The world 'diarist' was first used in 1818. Published diaries doubled in the 1820s, and by the 1850s blank diaries were sold in the thousands.

In her trial, the prosecution used this flightiness as a condemnation:

[This diary is] the product of extravagance, of excitement, and of irritability, bordering on, if not actually in, the domain of madness. There never was a document which bore on the face of it marks of so flighty, extravagant, excitable, romantic, irritable foolish and disordered a mind as this diary of Mrs. Robinson.

George Elgar Hicks, 'Woman's Mission: Companion of Manhood' 1863. (Tate Britain)

Isabella won her case, but the winning was bittersweet. Now friendless, she retained her allowance from her husband and access to her children — all because she remained married. The public judgement placed on her private passions was a first rough step towards an understanding of women who wouldn’t conform socially or sexually, making Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace a fascinating chronicle of an ordinary woman’s life exposed in extraordinary circumstances.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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Against Positive Thinking: Uncertainty as the Secret of Happiness

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Exploring the “negative path” to well-being.

Having studied under Positive Psychology pioneer Dr. Martin Seligman, and having read a great deal on the art-science of happiness and the role of optimism in well-being, I was at first incredulous of a book with the no doubt intentionally semi-scandalous title of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (public library). But, as it often turns out, author Oliver Burkeman argues for a much more sensible proposition — namely, that we’ve created a culture crippled by the fear of failure, and that the most important thing we can do to enhance our psychoemotional wellbeing is to embrace uncertainty.

Besides, the book has a lovely animated trailer — always a win.

Burkeman writes in The Guardian:

[Research] points to an alternative approach [to happiness]: a ‘negative path’ to happiness that entails taking a radically different stance towards those things most of us spend our lives trying hard to avoid. This involves learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity and becoming familiar with failure. In order to be truly happy, it turns out, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions – or, at the very least, to stop running quite so hard from them.

The American edition (once again with an uglified, dumbed down, and contrived cover design) won’t be out until November, but you can snag a British edition here, or hunt it down at your favorite public library.

Thanks, Natascha

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A Brief History of Alchemy, Pseudoscience & Transmutations, from Ancient China to Craig Venter

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What Richard Nixon has to do with cinnabar and diamonds.

As if you need another reason to love Lapham’s Quarterly — after tracing the origins of famous words and mapping the history of robots in a matrix of creepiness vs. intelligence — here’s a Brain Pickings exclusive from the summer edition of the magazine, titled Magic Shows and exploring “all things magical, around the globe and throughout time” — a visual history of alchemy (and pseudoscience) through famous transmutations, real ones and shams, from cinnabar to gold in 133 B.C. China to artificial meat in the present-day Netherlands.

Find more articles from the Magic Shows issue online, or just treat yourself to the real deal by subscribing today.

Thanks, Michelle

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.