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What is Art? The Meaning to You and Me

Art is like humanity. Art comes in different colors, different shapes, different sizes and from different countries. There are also different traditions.

by Dr Laksiri Fernando

What is art? What is the meaning of art to you and me? These are the themes that I would like to discuss in this essay. In general terms, art includes paintings, statues, dramas, operas, dances, music, songs, and poetry. However, I am here going to focus on paintings. Therefore, when I mention art, I mainly mean paintings. 

Let me at the outset introduce a broad concept. Art is like humanity. Art comes in different colors, different shapes, different sizes and from different countries. There are also different traditions. However luckily, there are no different languages! There is only one language. That is the language of humanity. That is the beauty art. Art speaks in one ‘language,’ or no language. 

There is another important beauty of art. All productions of art exist without conflict or animosity. Therefore, art represents not just humanity, but ‘common humanity.’ In that sense art represents peace and harmony.   

Background to My Interest

Before coming to stay at the Bruce Sharp Lodge (BSL), I have never touched a brush, after my grade ten exam. That was in Sri Lanka in 1960. At that exam, I had only an ordinary pass and I believe I am better now! I came to BSL with my wife on 23 December 2019, after a long (near death) illness in hospital. I was invited for an art class, somewhere in mid-January, where around eight people attended. It is important that it was at the BSL Chapel.  

I was given a partly drawn canvass with a printed picture by the art therapist. Therefore, I was rather copying! But I made some changes and that is what is now called the “Light for Fishers” (See 4th in the first row). I managed to finish it within two days. It was like a miracle. Can miracles happen in the process of art? I believe it is the case. It is true that within my spare time during my working career (in some periods) I have taken interest in collecting art works from different countries. The collection included a cavass reproduction of Francisco Goya’s ‘la Mujer’ bought from Madrid museum. I gave them away after retirement (2010) to our son and relatives. At the end of my career, I have also taken interest in promoting artwork of others. I have written one article and given two speeches. Therefore, the ‘miracle’ in this case is not without a background. 

What is Art? 

Let me ask this question. Why do we appreciate art? I believe people in general appreciate art because of the beauty. That is what I did when I was collecting art of others. When we appreciate art, I believe we also appreciate the meaning. At BSL, among what I painted initially, my wife appreciated mostly what is called “Bushfire Disaster” because of its meaningfulness. That is about the recent bushfire disaster that we faced, with the possibility of it repeating in the future. Therefore, the meaning or the message is also important in appreciating art. Now we have the disaster of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The above answer is basically from the point of view of the spectators, or art fans, or art-lovers. 

But what about from the point of view of artists or art critiques? It can be different, and also different from one artist to the other. Art critiques are more complicated! As you know, art critiques have invented or identified different schools of artists. Some have obscure names. Some have meaning. What are they? Eastern and Western art are very broad two schools or categories. Ancient and modern art are two other categories. Then you have the schools or categories of Renaissance Art, Modern Art, Realistic Art, Abstract Art, Cubism, Impressionism, Surrealism, Romanticism, Pop-Art, Post-Modernist Art etc. 

But for me, (assuming I am now an artist!), art is a means of communication. On this matter, my view goes along with Leo Tolstoy in general. He said, I quote:  

“The activity of art is a most important one, as important as the activity of speech itself and as generally diffused. Art is the transmission of an emotion felt by the artist.” (What is Art? Translated by Aylmer Maude, 1960, Cambridge, p.52). 

In speech, we communicate or transmit our thoughts. This is what we do even in writing. Before starting painting at BSL, one of my main preoccupations was writing. There, I always wrote down my and/or other’s thoughts on various matters. 

But at my age and under health conditions, I have more feelings than thoughts! Therefore, I paint. I think this is important for anyone in my condition. That is one reason I believe why painting is introduced as a Therapy at our Uniting aged-care centers. When you communicate your feelings and emotions in the form of drawings or paintings, it helps you, I believe, to calm down yourself. You become more and more content about life. I am not a specialist on this subject, and therefore I leave further discussions to others on this matter. 

Further Meaning and Form of Art? 

Apart from therapy to oneself, there is another broader purpose in art. I think that is what the professional artists engage in. They communicate meaning to life, of course depending on the artist. At least they communicate beauty to life in this ugly, hectic, and violent world. Beauty brings calm and peace to people’s mind. Especially under the present coronavirus restrictions (if not lockdowns) art can bring therapy, engagement, meaning, peace, and harmony to the minds of the people. 

It is not only beauty that art could communicate. It could communicate thoughts or meaning. That is one reason why from the beginning I opted to select a theme, or after painting, to give a title to a painting. It gives meaning. There are artists who do not do that. They leave up to the spectators to figure it out or give an interpretation. I respect that view as well.  

Art generally uses three or four methods or means. (1) Colors. (2) Shapes. (3) Lines. And in the case of Aboriginal Art, (4) Dots. The synthesis of these three or four things is an art. It is normally said, colors give feelings, shapes give substance or meaning, and lines some mental rhythm. This is the case whether it is a realistic art or an abstract art.  

In the case of Aboriginal Art, instead or in addition to lines, dots are used. This is the special beauty of Aboriginal Art in my opinion (first two drawings in the first row). Why? Because the dots resonate more effective rhythm in our minds than lines. That is why I appreciate Aboriginal Art, in addition to other merits (i.e. story telling). 

Concluding Remarks 

Art from an objective point of view is ‘imagined realities.’ I do not have much time to elaborate on that matter. Art is not completely real, even in the case of realistic art. They are largely or partly imagined. In the case of abstract art, they are primarily imagined, but on some reality. 

All art in common or in general, in my opinion (as I said at the beginning), represents the humanity and more correctly, ‘common humanity.’ As common humanity, we have one origin and a common destiny. 

To the extent art represents the common humanity, that is the beauty of art. And that is something we particularly should emphasize at the present juncture of human history, to promote peace, reconciliation, conflict resolution and harmony among humans. And also with the other species and the nature. Art is also spiritual. It could promote spiritual awareness, ethical behavior, moral integrity, and finally spiritual awakening.    

(This was an essay submitted to Uniting aged care residents, NSW, Australia, August 2020)     

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