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Art & Soul

by Rick Lewis

“All art is quite useless.”
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (Preface)

“The metaphor is probably the most fertile power possessed by man.”
José Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanisation of Art

Oscar Wilde’s remark about the uselessness of art is a typical Wilde thing – aphoristic, slightly paradoxical, and somehow expressing a weird kind of purity. It sounds as if he was trying to define art, and suggesting that anything useful is not art but a mere artifact. In this way he seems to be elevating art’s importance, placing it on a level above the merely utilitarian, turning it into a kind of goddess. Many of the greatest idea-wranglers from the pantheon of philosophy – Plato, Kant, Hegel – have theorised at length about aesthetics. Yet some mortals admit to a sneaking feeling that pondering paintings and musing about music is a more trivial branch of enquiry than probing the pressing existential worries of ethics or philosophy of mind. But aesthetics is neither trivial nor insulated from ethical concerns, nor disconnected from broader philosophical enquiries into the nature of humanity.

Our consciousnesses receive streams of sense-data from our eyes, our ears and our fingertips, full of shapes and colours. Full too of clues about the world in which we find ourselves, but those clues need interpreting. Our brains have had to evolve ways of managing that mass of data in useful ways, extracting and organising information that goes way beyond mere physical vibrations and excitations of nerve endings. William James said that for newborn babies the world must just be “blooming, buzzing confusion,” but they soon stop seeing wavy lines and instead see their favourite chair. They stop seeing a couple of round blobs and see the faces of their loving parents. These internal representations are very different from the raw incoming data but connected in a regular and predictable way with the external world which causes them and which they represent. In a sense they are not the world itself but a metaphor for the world.

At some point in history long, long ago, creatures not unlike us learned to represent the world not just internally but also to one another. Sometimes they used grunts and gestures and sometimes they used ochre or pieces of charcoal to convey the images from their heads to the walls of their caves. The first to take this step and represent their world and their ideas through art did so at least 65,000 years ago, this being the estimated age of cave paintings discovered in Andalusia in 2018. So far as we can tell, modern humans hadn’t yet arrived in Spain at that point, so it is believed that these revolutionary young artists must have been Neanderthals. Oxford archaeology professor Tom Higham argues in a recent book (The World Before Us) that early humans engaged in cultural exchange with Neanderthals, and not just the ever-popular genetic exchanges. If so, there may be a direct line of artistic succession from Neanderthals to Damien Hirst. But in the last century or so, as artists have tried to convey more abstract subjects, they have had to rely not on direct representation but on various kinds of metaphors – adding a whole new layer of metaphor on top of the original layer of metaphorical mental representation. Art lovers have learned like little babes that a few abstract, coloured shapes can represent a chair, or a woman, or an ideal. Honestly, it is amazing that this ever works at all, but clearly it sometimes does, and through an abstract painting or sculpture complex ideas and insights and emotions from the brain of one human somehow make their way into the brain of another. It is an astonishing story and a process full of mysteries worth probing. In this issue we bring you therefore a few articles about the nature of art.

Jessica Logue writes about the ethics of art – should we judge the artist before judging their work? Atika Qasim looks sceptically at the motives of photographers and Peter Benson examines a very recent trend in painting. Greg Stone has a new approach to a very old question: What is Art?

In asking that question, Greg stands in a tradition so hoary that again it might have been originated by some Neanderthal. Aesthetics often tries to decide what art is, and what should count as art. This is certainly a fruitful way to broaden artistic understanding and appreciation, and only encourages artists to tangle with abstract notions, to the extent that the great Arthur Danto even thought that art was collapsing into philosophy. Most artists though are wise enough to listen to philosophical theories with tolerance and curiosity rather than being overly guided or constricted by them when it comes to actually producing art. For as the painter and essayist William Hazlitt wrote back in 1839, “Rules and models destroy genius and art.”

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