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Why Art? - James Gurney's Assertions & The Aesthetic Movement

A few months ago I read an article (or rather, a post) on the blog of the illustrator James Gurney, written by him, that talked about Nicolas Chernyshevsky’s Philosophy on Art. Nicolas Chernyshevsky was a Russian painter who lived in the 19th century, who wrote an important essay called “The Aesthetic Relations of Art to Reality”, which influenced many artists during that time. Basically, this essay was a kind of manifesto for the Russian Realism Movement, and the “Aesthetic Movement”, and was a particularly significant influence on its leaders, such as Ilya Repin, Ivan Shishkin and Kramskoy. So, on his blog post, Gurney talked about how the Russian realist painters advocated the importance of studying reality for the arts. So the post was a kind of an argument for Realism, at the end. I will, indeed, use

Gurney’s blog post as a topic for another argument for Realism, in another opportunity, but I am going to, in here, use some interesting assertions that came out on his post to talk about the importance of art itself.

James Gurney wrote:

“Regarding the question ‘what is the purpose of art?’, Tolstoy is pretty clear in his definition of art that the purpose of art is for the artist to transmit a truly felt emotion to a fellow human, and so express feelings of brotherhood. In the way he talks about it, that's a pretty universal purpose that stands above any particular political philosophies or lifestyles. But Tolstoy, and perhaps Chernyshevsky and Stasov and other Russian intellectuals at the time, seemed to be against the highly artificial creations like grand opera.“

“Here are some excerpts of Chernyshevsky:

  • The essential purpose of art is to reproduce what is of interest to man in real life.

  • Reality stands higher than dreams.

  • Art expresses an idea not through abstract concepts, but through a living, individual fact.

  • A reproduction must, as far as possible, preserve the essence of the thing reproduced; therefore, a work of art must contain as little of the abstract as possible.”

These artists had a beautiful idea about the purpose of art, but were, in fact, one may say, limited, by the idea that art and reality should always be closely related. I do agree with them, to a certain extent. I agree in terms of technique – that a work of art should be based on nature, and therefore, look ‘real’ -, but I do believe that art can express abstract ideas and inner most feelings of the human mind, that are simply not necessarily connected to our sense of reality.

Gurney continues:

“Asher Durand's writings talk about the purpose of a painting being a kind of a window to another world that can bring pleasure to another man at the end of his workday. A painting could, for example, bring the viewer back to memories of childhood. Durand beautifully expresses the joys of picture gazing, mixed with a reverence for the divine quality of nature, like going to church, but in the sanctuary of Nature.”

And I, Rafael, agree with Durand. So these artists that Gurney mentioned were talking about the importance of realism, but, nonetheless, their assertions about the purpose of art are, to me, remarkable. Even though it may sound just like another excuse for realism, to me, is an excuse for art itself. But, to me, art should improve nature, on a given picture, and create beauty, in a way that talks to the public, making the public connect with a given theme or message. Even if it means to get away, a little bit, from reality.

Nonetheless, I finish with this paragraph by James McNeill Whistler on the Aesthetic Movement, that, again, Even though it may sound just like another excuse for realism, it is also a great argument for art itself.

"Nature contains the elements, in color and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful - as the musician gathers his notes and forms his chords, until he brings forth from chaos glorious harmony. To say to the painter that Nature is to be taken as she is, is to say to the player, that he may sit on the piano. That Nature is always right is an assertion, artistically, as untrue, as it is one whose truth is taken for granted. Nature is very rarely right, to such an extent, even that it might almost be said that Nature is usually wrong; that is to say, the condition of things that shall bring about the perfection of harmony worthy of a picture is rare, and not common at all." From James McNeill Whistler, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, 1894, pp. 142-143.

So I guess he means that it’s our obligation to create beauty, to beautify our world, even more that what already is.


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