About Art:

art theory, art history, art criticism, and famous artists

Contemporary figure painting.

Quotes about art by famous artists and other commentators.  Subjects include: the definition and purpose of art, the artistic spirit, reality and abstraction, the creative process, style, beauty, and the artist in society.

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About Art:
A Conversation in Quotes

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Contents

What is Art?
The Purpose of Art
The Artistic Spirit
Reality and Abstraction
The Creative Process
Style
What About Beauty?
Responding to Art
The Artist in Society



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What is Art?



Art is the imagination expressed through the senses. --
unknown

Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together. --
John Ruskin, critic

Art is thought expressed through the hands. --
Indonesian artist

A work of art is a world in itself reflecting senses and emotions of the artist's world. --
Hans Hoffman, artist

A work becomes a work of art when one re-evaluates the values of nature and adds one's own spirituality. --
Emil Nolde, artist

We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth. --
Pablo Picasso, artist

Art is what reveals to us the state of perfection. --
Ku-kai (774-835), speaking of Buddhist art

All great art is a visual form of prayer. --
Sister Wendy Beckett, Catholic nun and art history commentator

The work of art itself is . . . a vibrant, magical, and exemplary object which returns us to the world in some way more open and enriched. --
Susan Sontag, essayist, On Style

Art renders accessible to men of the latest generations all the feelings experienced by their predecessors and also those felt by their best and foremost contemporaries . . . [Art] is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feeling . . . Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by those feelings and also experience them . . . A real work of art destroys in the consciousness of the recipient the separation between himself and the artist, and . . . also between himself and all whose minds receive this work of art. In this freeing of our personality from its separation and isolation, in this uniting of it with others, lies the chief characteristic and the great attractive force of art. --
Leo Tolstoy, writer, What is Art?


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The Purpose of Art



Art is a union between the physical and the spiritual, between the human and the divine. That is the very purpose of art. --
Michael Jackson, singer, in a television interview

The function of the artist is the mythologization of the culture and the world. In the visual arts there were two men whose work handled mythological themes in a marvelous way: Paul Klee and Pablo Picasso. --
Joseph Campbell, interviewed in The Power of Myth

[The vegetative/agricultural traditions manifest] the notion of an identity behind the surface display of duality. . . . All [aspects of life and death] are manifestations of the One; the One radiance shines through all things. The function of art is to reveal through the object the radiance. And that's what you get when you see the beautiful organization of a fortunately composed work of art: You just say "Aha!" Somehow it speaks to the order in your own life. It's a realization through art of the very thing that the religions are concerned to render . . . that you have to have a balance between death and life; they are two aspects of the same thing, which is Being/Becoming. --
Joseph Campbell, interviewed in The Power of Myth

What a work of art does is to make us see or comprehend something singular, not judge or generalize. This act of comprehension accompanied by voluptuousness is the only valid end, and sole sufficient justification, of a work of art. --
Susan Sontag, essayist, On Style

The aim of art, so far as one can speak of an aim at all, has always been the same: the blending of experience gained in life with the natural qualities of the art medium. --
Hans Hoffman, artist

But the purpose of art is always, ultimately, to give pleasure . . . --
Susan Sontag, essayist

You might read volumes of contemporary art theory and never guess that pleasure is the big reason the arts exist. --
Kenneth Baker, art critic

To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts. --
Henry David Thoreau, writer and philosopher


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The Artistic Spirit



Art is nature seen through a temperament. --
Emile Zola

We don't see things as they are; we see things as we are. -- Anaïs Nin, writer

I have never exchanged my childhood for my maturity. --
Ruth Bernhard, photographer

It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep [your unique expression] yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. --
Martha Graham, dancer and choreographer

The strength of imagination lies precisely in its friction with a sense of reality that is equally strong. --
Robert Grudin, professor of English, The Grace of Great Things

Artists are people who are not at all interested in the facts -- only in the truth. --
Ursula K. LeGuin, writer

In art one is concerned with the condition of the spirit for three quarters of the time; one must therefore care for oneself if he wishes to make something great and lasting. --
Paul Gauguin, artist

Inside, there is an inner patron with whom the artist is communicating, and I think that this is the unseen audience that every artist has. If an artist becomes overly concerned about a true external audience, then his work will deteriorate and have a hackneyed quality, or a practiced quality or a contrived quality: so it's a very delicate balance, which is why there are so few artists. --
Jerome Oremland, psychoanalyst

[Artistic spirituality is] the emotional and intellectual synthesis of relationships perceived in nature, rationally, or intuitively. Spirituality in an artistic sense should not be confused with religious meaning . . . There are two kinds of reality: physical reality, apprehended by the senses, and spiritual reality created emotionally and intellectually by the conscious or subconscious powers of the mind. --
Hans Hoffman, artist

What interests me most is . . . the human figure. It is through it that I best succeed in expressing the nearly religious feeling that I have towards life. --
Henri Matisse, artist

Although the dream is a very strange phenomenon and an inexplicable mystery, far more inexplicable is the mystery and aspect our minds confer on certain objects and aspects of life. Psychologically speaking, to discover something mysterious in objects is a symptom of cerebral abnormality related to certain kinds of insanity. I believe, however, that such abnormal moments can be found in everyone, and it is all the more fortunate when they occur in individuals with creative talent or with clairvoyant powers. Art is the fatal net which catches these strange moments on the wing like mysterious butterflies, fleeing the innocence and distraction of common men. --
Giorgio de Chirico, artist

At ninety I shall penetrate the mystery of things; at a hundred I shall certainly have reached a marvelous stage; and when I am a hundred and ten everything I do, be it a dot or a line, will be alive. --
Hokusai, artist, preface to "A Hundred Views of Fuji"


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Reality and Abstraction



Art is the opposite of nature. --
Edvard Munch, artist

Some advice: do not paint too much after nature. Art is an abstraction; derive this abstraction from nature while dreaming before it, and think more of the creation which will result than of nature. Creating like our Divine Master is the only way of rising toward God. --
Paul Gauguin, artist

A picture should be a re-creation of an event rather than an illustration of an object; but there is no tension in the picture unless there is the struggle with the object. --
Francis Bacon, artist

Both Plato and Aristotle were aware that art ought not to imitate individual things and actions so much as to imitate their underlying ideas. . . . Artistic creativity is a vision of the ideas that brood behind the surface of human experience. --
Robert Grudin, professor of English, The Grace of Great Things

Formerly we used to represent things visible on earth, things we either liked to look at or would have liked to see. Today we reveal the reality that is behind visible things, thus expressing the belief that the visible world is merely an isolated case in relation to the universe and that there are many more other, latent realities. --
Paul Klee, artist

Recognizing Pablo Picasso in a train compartment, a man inquired of the artist why he did not paint people "the way they really are." Picasso asked what he meant by that expression. The man opened his wallet and took out a snapshot of his wife, saying, "That's my wife." Picasso responded, "Isn't she rather small and flat?" --
of Pablo Picasso, artist, cited by Rosamund Zander

It is a poverty-stricken convention to place animals into landscapes as seen by men; instead, we should contemplate the soul of the animal to divine its way of sight . . . It's the doe that feels, therefore the landscape must be "doe-like." . . . How infinitely more subtle must the painter's sensitivity be on order to paint that! --
Franz Marc, artist

[Modern] art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible. --
Paul Klee, artist

It is well to remember that a picture -- before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote -- is essentially a plane surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order. --
Maurice Denis, artist

There are, however, many who imagine that they are too fond of life, particular reality, to be able to suppress figuration, and for that reason they still use in their work . . . figurative fragments . . . [But] to love things in reality is to love them profoundly; it is to see them as a microcosmos in the macrocosmos. Only in this way can one achieve a universal expression of reality. Precisely on account of its profound love for things, nonfigurative art does not aim at rendering them in their particular appearance. --
Piet Mondrian, artist

One might truthfully say that abstract art is stripped bare of other things in order to intensify it, its rhythms, spatial intervals, and color structure. Abstraction is a process of emphasis . . . Nothing as drastic an innovation as abstract art could have come into existence, save as the consequence of a most profound, relentless, unquenchable need. The need is for felt experience -- intense, immediate, direct, subtle, unified, warm, vivid, rhythmic. --
Robert Motherwell, artist


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The Creative Process



Talent is a paradox: If you don't have it, it means everything, and if you have it, it means nothing. --
anonymous art teacher

Art lies in the continual struggle to come near to the sensory side of objects. --
Francis Bacon, artist

Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement. --
Jackson Pollock, artist

When I paint my goal is to show what I have found and not what I am looking for. --
Pablo Picasso, artist

You are lost the instant you know what the result will be. --
Juan Gris, artist

One does not imitate appearance; the appearance is the result. --
Georges Braque, artist

I cannot work without a model. I won't say that I don't turn my back on nature ruthlessly in order to turn a study into a picture, arranging the colors, enlarging and simplifying; but in the matter of form I am too afraid of departing from the possible and the true. --
Vincent Van Gogh, artist

It is well for young people to have a model so long as they draw a curtain over it while they paint . . . It is better to paint from memory. Thus your work will be your own; your sensation, your intelligence and your soul . . . --
Paul Gauguin, artist

The only problem in art is to achieve a balance between the subjective and the objective. --
Piet Mondrian, artist

Ideas and emotions will in the end be prisoners in [the] work. Whatever they do, they can't escape from the picture. They form an integral part of it, even when their presence is no longer discernible. --
Pablo Picasso, artist

My friends, works of a personal vision alone will live. One must create a personal pictorial science, and be excited before beauty as before a woman one loves. Let us work with love and without fear of our faults, those inevitable and habitual companions of the great qualities. Yes, faults are qualities; and fault is superior to quality . . .; it is human, it is everything, it will redeem the work. --
James Ensor, artist

So if you believe that the subconscious has wonderful patterns, and if you allow it to form its designs, if you just trust to that design, in the end all these clusters form a pattern, sometimes a very unexpected one. --
Anaïs Nin, writer

But though the nonlogical, instinctive, subconscious part of the mind must play its part in his work, [the artist] also has a conscious mind which is not inactive. The artist works with a concentration of his whole personality, and the conscious part of it resolves conflicts, organizes memories, and prevents him from trying to walk in two directions at the same time. --
Henry Moore, sculptor

Reason is the enemy of art. Artists dominated by reason lose all feeling, powerful instinct is enfeebled, inspiration becomes impoverished and the heart lacks its rapture. At the end of the chain of reason is suspended the greatest folly . . . --
James Ensor, artist

I would rather be sure that I had placed two colors in true relationship to each other than to have exposed a wealth of emotionalism gone wrong in the name of richness of personal expression. --
Marsden Hartley, artist

All good art has contained both abstract and surrealist elements, just as it has contained both classical and romantic elements -- order and surprise, intellect and imagination, conscious and unconscious. Both sides of the artist's personality must play their part. And I think the first inception of a painting or a sculpture may begin from either end. --
Henry Moore, sculptor

I want to reach that state of condensation of sensations which constitutes a picture. Perhaps I might be satisfied momentarily with a work finished at one sitting but I would soon get bored looking at it; therefore, I prefer to continue working on it so that later I may recognize it as a work of my mind . . . Nowadays I try to put serenity into my pictures and work at them until I feel that I have succeeded. --
Henri Matisse, artist

When you begin a picture, you often make some pretty discoveries. You must be on guard against these. Destroy the thing, do it over several times. In each destroying of a beautiful discovery, the artist does not really suppress it, but rather transforms it, condenses it, makes it more substantial. What comes out in the end is the result of discarded finds. Otherwise, you become your own connoisseur. --
Pablo Picasso, artist

In the old days pictures went forward toward completion by stages. Every day brought something new. A picture used to be a sum of additions. In my case a pictures is a sum of destructions. I do a picture -- then I destroy it. In the end, though, nothing is lost; the red I took away from one place turns up somewhere else. --
Pablo Picasso, artist

I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. --
Jackson Pollock, artist

But there is one very odd thing -- to notice that basically a picture doesn't change, that the first "vision" remains almost intact, in spite of appearances. --
Pablo Picasso, artist

Every creative act requires elimination and simplification. Simplification results from a realization of what is essential. --
Hans Hoffman, artist

. . . Then a moment comes when every part has found its definite relationship and from then on it would be impossible for me to add a stroke to my picture without having to paint it all over again . . . --
Henri Matisse, artist

To me a work is finished when all parts involved communicate themselves, so that they don't need me. --
Hans Hoffman, artist

How do I know when a work is finished? When it has taken away from me everything I have to give. When it has become stronger than myself. I become the empty one and it becomes the full one. When I am weak and it is strong the work is finished. --
Saul Baizerman, sculptor

The most important tool the artist fashions through constant practice is faith in his ability to produce miracles when they are needed. Pictures must be miraculous: the instant one is completed, the intimacy between the creation and the creator is ended. He is an outsider. --
Mark Rothko, artist

A work of art is finished, from the point of view of the artist, when feeling and perception have resulted in a spiritual synthesis. --
Hans Hoffman, artist

Although art is fundamentally everywhere and always the same, nevertheless two main human inclinations, diametrically opposed to each other, appear in its many and varied expressions. One aims at the direct creation of universal beauty, the other at the aesthetic expression of oneself, in other words, of that which one thinks and experiences. The first aims at representing reality objectively, the second subjectively. Thus we see in every work of figurative art the desire, objectively to represent beauty, solely through form and color, in mutually balanced relations, and at the same time, an attempt to express that which these forms, colors, and relations arouse in us . . . Both of the two opposing elements (universal-individual) are indispensable if the work is to arouse emotion. . . For the artist the search for a unified expression through the balance of two opposites has been, and always will be, a continual struggle. --
Piet Mondrian, artist

I think the idea of a "finished" picture is a fiction. I think a man spends his whole lifetime painting one picture of working on one piece of sculpture. --
Barnett Newman, artist


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Style



Style is the perfection of a point of view. --
Niemann Marcus spokesman

Whatever the artist depicts -- saints, robbers, kings, or lackeys -- we see only the artist's own soul. --
Leo Tolstoy, writer, from What is Art?

A work of art is like a crystal -- like a crystal it must also possess a soul and the power to shine forth. --
Edvard Munch, artist

Great art is the play of the relative on the ground of the absolute. --
anonymous, from a lecture on music and spirituality

Fig leaves, no matter what fantastic shapes they assume, are always unmistakably fig leaves. --
Henri Matisse, artist

Since art is timeless, the significant rendition of a symbol, no matter how archaic, has as full validity today as the archaic symbol had then. --
Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko, artists

All the arts derive from the same and unique root . . . Since the enigmatic but precise laws of composition are the same in all the arts, they obliterate differences. --
Wassily Kandinsky, artist

Philosophically, every work which possesses intrinsic greatness is at once decorative and symphonically focused and integrated. --
Hans Hoffman, artist

I think that man has certain moments of playfulness, and infantile things, far from being injurious to his serious work, endow it with grace, gaiety and naiveté. --
Paul Gauguin, artist

It can only do you good to be forced to decorate. But beware of modeling. The simple stained-glass window, attracting the eye by its divisions of colors and forms, that is still the best. A kind of music. --
Paul Gauguin, artist

Actually, you work with few colors. But they seem like a lot more when each one is in the right place. --
Pablo Picasso, artist

Think also of the musical role color will henceforth play in modern painting. Color, which is vibration just as music is, is able to attain what is most universal yet at the same time most elusive in nature: its inner force. --
Paul Gauguin, artist

Can you analyze the difference, in fact, between paint which conveys directly, and paint which conveys through illustration? It's a very close and difficult thing to know why some paint comes across directly on to the nervous system and other paint tells you the story in a long diatribe through the brain. --
Francis Bacon, artist

A painting must have form and light unity. It must light up from the inside through the intrinsic qualities which color relations offer. . . When it lights up from the inside, the painted surface breathes, because the interval relations which dominate the whole cause it to oscillate and to vibrate. --
Hans Hoffman, artist

I have turned to bas-relief, which allows one to reunite technically many contrary elements and to assure their interaction. The undulation of the relief can unite form and background. It also gives a spatial sensation without perspective; light makes its way across the surface little by little. --
Etienne Hajdu, artist

The whole arrangement of my picture is expressive. The place occupied by figures or objects, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, everything plays a part . . . All that is not useful in the picture is detrimental . . . for superfluous details would, in the mind of the beholder, encroach upon the essential elements. --
Henri Matisse, artist

I envy the Japanese the extreme clearness which everything has in their work. It is never tedious, and never seems to be done too hurriedly. Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure in a few sure strokes with the same ease as if it were as simple as buttoning your coat. --
Vincent Van Gogh, artist

A drawing must have a power of expansion which can bring to life the space which surrounds it. --
Henri Matisse, artist

There is a right physical size for every idea. . . .[And] the very small or the very big takes on an added size emotion. --
Henry Moore, sculptor

It will be seen that stylistic decisions, by focusing our attention on some things, are also a narrowing of our attention, a refusal to allow us to see others. But the greater interestingness of one work of art over another does not rest on the greater number of things the stylistic decisions in that work allow us to attend to, but rather on the intensity and authority and wisdom of that attention, however narrow its focus . . . The most potent elements in a work of art are, often, its silences. --
Susan Sontag, essayist, On Style

Another unsettling element in modern art is that common symptom of immaturity, the dread of doing what has been done before. --
Edith Wharton, writer

I can't understand . . . how one is supposed to be devoid of all influence. I never heard of or saw anyone who was. Picasso himself had as many influences as Carter has pills . . --
Stuart Davis, artist

This whole question of "imitation" has not nearly the significance which is again attributed to it by the critics. What is living remains. What is dead disappears . . . Only the genuine artistic beings remain, that is, those which possess a soul (content) in their bodies (form). --
Wassily Kandinsky, artist

Western art is built on the biographical passion of one artist for another . . . That something new in art cannot come into existence despite influence is a ridiculous idea, and it goes hand in hand with an even more ridiculous idea: namely that something totally new, not subject to any influence, can be created. --
Elaine de Kooning, artist

I am less and less interested in exploration. I don't want to show, in my work, what can be done; I do that in my teaching. I want to make simple declaratory statements in a visual language I can control. --
George Rickey, sculptor

I believe that it is more significant to keep one's painting in a condition of severe experimentalism than to become a quick success by means of cheap repetition. --
Marsden Hartley, artist

I want to cry aloud, when I see the work of the young men for whom painting is no longer an adventure, and whose only goal is the impending first one-man show which will first start them on the road to fame. --
Henri Matisse, artist

As for myself, I don't know whether I am in or out of step -- either would be dangerous -- or with what. I have plenty to occupy me without that worry. --
George Rickey, sculptor

I feel very strongly the bond between my old works and my recent ones. But I do not think the way I thought yesterday. My fundamental thoughts have not changed but have evolved and my modes of expression have followed my thoughts. I do not repudiate any of my paintings, but I would not paint one of them in the same way had I to do it again. My destination is always the same but I work out a different route to get there. --
Henri Matisse, artist

The artist [overcomes tedium] by the invention of new formal combinations and by more daring advances in previously established directions.  These advances obey a rule of gradual differentiation because they must remain as recognizable variations upon the dominant memory image. The differentiatons are bolder among young designers and their tempo becomes more rapid as a style approaches its end.  If a style is interrupted early for any reason, its unused resources become available for adaptation by participants in other styles. --
George Kubler, The Shape of Time

The form is the outer expression of the inner content. Therefore one should not make a deity of form. And one should fight for the form only insofar as it can serve as a means of expression of the inner resonance. Therefore one should not seek salvation in one form . . . Since the form is only an expression of the content and the content is different with different artists, it is then clear that there can be many different forms at the same time which are equally good . . . [But] individual artists are subjected to the spirit of the time which forces them to use particular forms which are related to each other and, therefore, also possess an external similarity . . . And as no salvation is to be sought in the form of a single artist, it is not to be sought in this group-form . . .
      And so, as a last conclusion it must be established that it is not more important whether the form is personal, national, or has style; whether or not it is in accordance with the major contemporary movements; whether or not it is related to many or few other forms; whether or not it stands completely by itself: but rather the most important thing in the question of form is whether or not the form has grown out of the inner necessity . . .
. . . The fearful clinging to one form leads finally and inevitably into a dead end. The open feeling leads toward freedom. The former is to restrict oneself to the material substance. The latter is to follow the spirit: the spirit creates one form and goes on to others. --
Wassily Kandinsky, artist

Style is like a rainbow. It is a phenomenon of perception governed by the coincidence of certain physical conditions. . . . Whenever we think we can grasp it , as in the work of an individual painter, it dissolves into the farther perspectives of the work of that painter's predecessors or his followers, and it multiplies even in the painter's single works, so that any one picture becomes a profusion of latent and fossil matter when we see the work of his youth and his old age, of his teachers and his pupils. Which is now valid: the isolated work in its total physical presence, or the chain of works marking the known range of its position? Style pertains to the consideration of static groups of entities. It vanishes once these entities are restored to the flow of time. --
George Kubler, The Shape of Time


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What About Beauty?



It is easy in our world to see what mankind is doing wrong. So to see even small places where man is doing something right is very inspiring. That is why every work of beauty is important. -- unknown

Painting is the most beautiful of all arts. . . Like music, it acts on the soul through the intermediary of the senses: harmonious colors correspond to the harmonies of sounds. But in painting a unity is obtained which is not possible in music . . . The hearing can only grasp a single sound at a time, whereas the sight takes in everything and simultaneously simplifies it at will. --
Paul Gauguin, artist

Beauty is . . . the natural and necessary consequence of the proper interaction between subject and object or, if you will, between mind and reality. . . . We cannot understand beauty without participating in it, or participate in it without subsuming its principles. . . . As a kind of intellectual eroticism, moreover, the enjoyment of beauty implies a unison of reason and emotion. --
Robert Grudin, professor of English, The Grace of Great Things

The work of a man is the explanation of that man. Hence two kinds of beauty: one that results from instinct and another which would come from studying. The combination of the two, with its necessary modifications, produces certainly a great and very complicated richness . . . -- Paul Gauguin, artist

The only difference between "kitsch" and "beautiful" is time. --
unknown


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Responding to Art



One good picture with ten holes in it is better than ten bad pictures with no holes. --
Edvard Munch, artist

And [the viewer] should not approach the work with the question: "What has the artist not done?" or put differently: "Where has the artist allowed himself to neglect my desires?"; but he should ask himself: "What has the artist done?" or: "Which of his inner desires has the artist expressed here?" --
Wassily Kandinsky, artist

The effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art . . . --
Susan Sontag, essayist, Against Interpretation

. . . to quote Mallarme: "A critic is someone who meddles with something that is none of his business." --
Paul Gauguin, artist

The ideal art critic, then, would not be the critic who would seek to discover the "mistake," "aberrations," "ignorance," "plagiarisms," and so forth, but the one who would seek to feel how this or that form has an inner effect, and would then impart expressively his whole experience to the public. Here, of course, the critic would need the soul of a poet . . . --
Wassily Kandinsky, artist


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The Artist in Society



What is important now is that we recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. --
Susan Sontag, essayist

The West, at the very moment of its triumph, has reached that point which comes to all civilizations: when, if they're not to decline, they must transform themselves by learning from others. -- "
Legacy," television documentary, 1999

It is the social function of great poets and artists to continually renew the appearance nature has for the eyes of men. --
Guillaume Apollinaire, poet and critic

A great work of art is never simply (or even mainly) a vehicle of ideas or of moral sentiments. It is, first of all, an object modifying our consciousness and sensibility, changing the composition, however slightly, of the humus that nourishes all specific ideas and sentiments. --
Susan Sontag, essayist, On Culture and the New Sensibility

A really artistic production cannot be made to order, for a true work of art is the revelation . . . of a new conception of life arising in the artist's soul, which, when expressed, lights up the path along which humanity progresses.--
Leo Tolstoy, writer, What is Art?

What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which might be for every mental worker, be he businessman or writer, like an appeasing influence, like a mental soother, something like a good armchair in which to rest from physical fatigue. --
Henri Matisse, artist

The unfriendliness of society to his activity is difficult for the artist to accept. Yet this very hostility can act as a lever for true liberation . . . Both the sense of community and of security depend on the familiar. Free of them, transcendental experiences become possible. --
Mark Rothko, artist

The artist's life is the best in the world, if you can get through the first forty years. --
Thomas Hart Benton, artist

Man Ray, at age eighty-one, attending a lavish exhibition of his own work in a wheelchair: "If this had only happened forty years ago, I might well have been encouraged." --
Man Ray, artist, quoted in Robert Grundin, The Grace of Great Things

We painters, we who are condemned to penury, accept the material difficulties of life without complaining, but we suffer from them insofar as they constitute a hindrance to work. How much time we lose in seeking our daily bread! The most menial tasks, dilapidated studios, and a thousand other obstacles. All these create despondency, followed by impotence, rage, violence. --
Paul Gauguin, artist

Surely art is not merely decorative, a sort of unrelated accompaniment to life. In a genuine sense it should have use; it should be interwoven with the very stuff and texture of human experience, intensifying that experience, making it more profound, rich, clear, and coherent. This can be accomplished only if the artist is functioning freely in relation to society, and if society wants what he is able to offer. --
Holger Cahill, "The Federal Art Project"

It is not the solitary genius but a sound general movement which maintains art as a vital, functioning part of any cultural scheme. Art is not a matter of rare, occasional masterpieces. The emphasis upon masterpieces is a nineteenth-century phenomenon. It is primarily a collector's idea and has little relation to an art movement . . . [O]ne is struck by the amazing quantity of work which was produced in the great periods . . . In a genuine art movement a great reservoir of art is created in many forms, both major and minor . . . --
Holger Cahill, "The Federal Art Project"

There's the old idea [of "Volksdichte"]: that the art and ideas of a culture come out of the "Volk." They do not. They come out of an elite experience: the experience of people particularly gifted, whose ears are open to the song of the universe. And they speak to the folk, and there is an answer from the folk that is then received. There's an interaction, but the first impulse comes from above, not from below, in the shaping of traditions. --
Joseph Campbell, interviewed in The Power of Myth

Despite the inventor's solitary appearance he needs company; he requires the stimulus of other minds engaged upon the same questions. . . . The artist requires more than patronage; he also needs association with the work of others both dead and alive engaged on the same problems. Guilds, côteries, botteghe, and ateliers are an essential social dimension of the endless phenomenon of artistic renewal, and they cluster by preference in permissive environments having both craft traditions and proximity to power or wealth. --
George Kubler, The Shape of Time

Each man's lifework is also a work in a series extending beyond him in either or both directions . . . To the usual coordinates fixing the individual's position -- his temperament and his training -- there is also the moment of his entrance, this being the moment in the tradition -- early, middle, or late -- with which his biological opportunity coincides. Of course, one person can and does shift traditions, especially in the modern world, in order to find a better entrance. Without a good entrance, he is in danger of wasting his time as a copyist regardless of temperament and training. . . . [Climactic entrances] occur at moments when the combinations and permutations of a game are all in evidence to the artist; at a moment when enough of the game has been played for him to behold its full potential; at a moment before he is constrained by the exhaustion of the possibilities of the game to adopt any of its extreme terminal positions.
. . . By this view, the great differences between artists are not so much those of talent as of entrance and position in sequence. . . . [And] of course many other conditions must reinforce talent: physical energy, durable health, powers of concentration, are a few of the gifts of fortune with which the artist is best endowed. --
George Kubler, The Shape of Time

Each great branch of art calls upon a different temperament. Painting and poetry more than all others invite the solitary nature. . . . Probably all important artists belong to this functionally lonely class.  Only occasionally does the artist appear as a rebel, as in the sixteenth and in the nineteenth centuries. More commonly he has been a courtier, a part of the household of the prince, and entertainer, whose work was valued like that of any other entertainer, and whose function was to amuse more than to disquiet the audience.
      Today the artist is neither a rebel nor an entertainer. To be a rebel requires more effort away from his work than the artist wants to make. The entertainers have formed professional guilds in those many categories of public amusement from which the artist is now almost completely excluded. Only the playwright still functions both as an artist and as an entertainer. More lonely than ever, the artist today is like Dedalus, the strange artificer of wonderful and frightening surprises for his immediate circle. --
George Kubler, The Shape of Time

I think that abstract art is uniquely modern . . . in the sense that abstract art represents the particular acceptances and rejections of men living under the conditions of modern times. If I were asked to generalize about the condition as it has been manifest in poets, painters, and composers during the last century and a half, I should say that it is a fundamentally romantic response to modern life -- rebellious individualistic, unconventional, sensitive, irritable. I should say that this attitude arose from a feeling of being ill at ease in the universe, so to speak -- the collapse of religion, of the old close-knit community and family . . . But whatever the source of this sense of being unwedded to the universe, I think that one's art is just one's effort to wed oneself to the universe, to unify oneself through union . . . If this suggestion is true, then modern art has a different face from the art of the past because it has a somewhat different function for the artist in our time. I suppose that the art of far more ancient and "simple" artists expressed something quite different, a feeling of already being at one with the world . . . --
Robert Motherwell, artist

. . . [Since the mid-twentieth century] changing socioeconomic conditions have dramatically narrowed the scope of art. Gone are the great patrons whose courts supported whole artistic communities and ensured intimate communication between art and politics. Instead we have a vast art bazaar . . . in which art is marketed as a "product" and beauty considered a form of packaging.
Serious artists, of course, still abound, but alienated from a unified social context, they abound as a class unto themselves, a group whose vision and technique evolve independently rather than interfacing with its culture . . .
These changes in ideology and market conditions have had inevitable effects on the quality of art. The Romantic mandate for self-expression, dutifully observed by generations of artists, long ago succeeded in exhausting the potentialities of Western individual "self" and is now condemned either to endless repetitions or evasive ironies. . . . --
Robert Grudin, professor of English, The Grace of Great Things


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Updated 2016
Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco Bay Area, East Bay, northern California