On Art


“Art is anything you can get away with.”  ~ Andy Warhol

“An artist’s concern is to capture beauty wherever he finds it.”  ~ Kazuo Ishiguro, An Artist of the Floating World

Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences. (Roy Ascott’s phrase.) That solves a lot of problems: we don’t have to argue whether photographs are art, or whether performances are art, or whether Carl Andre’s bricks or Andrews Serranos’s piss or Little Richard’s ‘Long Tail Sally’ are art, because we say, ‘Art is something that happens, a process, not a quality, and all sorts of things can make it happen.’ … [W]hat makes a work of art ‘good’ for you is not something that is already ‘inside’ it, but something that happens inside you — so the value of the work lies in the degree to which it can help you have the kind of experience that you call art. ~ Brian Eno


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.

Maria Papova 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.


  • “The artist’s life cannot be otherwise than full of conflicts, for two forces are at war within him [or her]—on the one hand, the common human longing for happiness, satisfaction and security in life, and on the other a ruthless passion for creation which may go so far as to override every personal desire … There are hardly any exceptions to the rule that a person must pay dearly for the divine gift of creative fire.” ~ Carl Jung
  • “Art is something out of the ordinary commenting on the ordinary.” ~  Camille Paglia
  • “What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is only related to objects, and not to individuals, or to life.” ~ Michel Foucault
  • “The one thing the world will never have enough of is the outrageous.”  ~ Salvador Dali
  • “Artists need to create on the same scale that society has the capacity to destroy.”
  • “Art is our only salvation from the horror of existence.” ~ Martin Bell
  • “An artist must be ruthlessly selfish.” ~ W. Eugene Smith
  • “Life is like music. It must be composed by ear, feeling, and instinct, not by rule.”  ~ Samuel Butler
  • “I once taught art to adults in a night course. I had a woman who painted her back yard, and she said it was the first time she had ever really looked at it. I think everyone sees beauty. Art is a way to respond” ~ Minimalist Abstract Painter Agnes Martin, 1998
  • “A work of art does not need an explanation. The work has to speak for itself. The work may be subject to many interpretations, but only one was in the mind of the artist. Some artists say to make the work readable for the public is an artist’s responsibility, but I don’t agree with that. The only responsibility is to be absolutely truthful to the self. My work disturbs people and nobody wants to be disturbed They are not fully aware of the effect my work has on them, but they know it is disturbing.”  ~ Louise Bourgeois
  • “Art is not a luxury for any advanced civilization; it is a necessity, without which creative intelligence will wither and die.” —Camille Paglia, ‘Glittering Images’
  • “Hardening of the categories causes art disease.” ~ W. Eugene Smith
  • “I don’t think we can separate art from overall human dignity and hope.”  ~ Adrienne Rich
  • “To make people free is the aim of art, therfore art for me is the science of freedom.” ~ Joseph Beuys
  • “Who but the artist has the power to open man up, to set free the imagination? The others – priest, teacher, saint, statesman, warrior – hold us to the path of history. They keep us chained to the rock, that the vultures may eat out our hearts. It is the artist who has the courage to go against the crowd; he is the unrecognized “hero of our time” – and of all time.”  ~  Henry Miller, Stand Still Like the Hummingbird
  •  ‘Art should be vulnerable, says Duane Michals, who believes that images should be about what something feels like as well as what it looks like.’
  • “Well, art is a means of expression, of course. But it’s also a means of record. If you look at the earliest artists, their art was a way for them to say: ‘I was here.'” ~ via Humans of New York
  •  “Without magic, there is no art. Without art, there is no idealism. Without idealism, there is no integrity. Without integrity, there is nothing but production.”  ~  Raymond Chandler
  • “Art is the perpetual motion of illusion. The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do? What else can you do for anyone but to inspire them?” ~ Bob Dylan
  • “The only important elements in any society are the artistic and the criminal, because they alone, by questioning the society’s values, can force it to change.” ~ Samuel R. Delany
  • “I discovered that you could always find your own life reflected in art, even if it was distorted or discolored.  There was a sentence, for example, in a book on Surrealism that stuck in my mind:  “Beauty is the chance meeting, on an operating table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella.”  ~ Anatole Broyard, Kafka Was the Rage:  A Greenwich Village Memoir 
  • “Art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him.” ~ Chinua Achebe

  • “He is not simply looking into the mirror because he is transfixed by what he sees. Rather, the artist’s success depends as much as anything on his powers of detachment, on de-narcissizing himself… Freud… studied his own dreams not because he was a “narcissist,” but because he was a student of dreams. And whose were at once the least and most accessible of dreams, if not his own?”  ~ Philip Roth, My Life as a Man
  • “The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them.” ~ Anton Chekhov

  • “Art is an experience, not an object.”  ~ Robert Motherwell


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