What Is Art? — For Andrey Tarkovsky

Flickr: Festival de Cine Africano Tarifa Tánger- FCAT

The Russian Filmmaker Andrey Tarskovsky in his book Sculpting in Time (translated to English by Kitty Hunter-Blair) describes and discusses a few important things about art and cinema. Here I want to paraphrase some ideas I found relevant and write-worthy.

He begins the second chapter (Art — a yearning for the ideal) trying to answer the following metaphysical questions about art:

  • Why does art exist?
  • Who needs it?
  • Indeed, does anybody need it?

By doing so he takes us into the absolute root of the artistic yen.

Anyone remotely interested in art and at the same time of contemplative nature would have surely asked these questions at some point of their life. These are relevant questions anyway. Especially in today’s time when art is mostly perceived as an archaic activity done and consumed by people who didn’t have high-end technologies and ‘market’ driven content.

The goal of all art, he then says, which is not aimed at a consumer like a saleable commodity is:

To explain the artist himself and to those around him what man lives for and what is the meaning of his existence

To explain to people the reason for their appearance on this planet; or if not to explain, at least to pose the question.

Here he establishes a functional role of art:


Truth is an inevitable human urge, says he.

It is with man’s help that the Creator comes to know himself. This progress has been given the name of evolution, and it is accompanied by the agonizing process of human self-knowledge.

Man has this urge and longing to become one with the ideal that lies outside of him but the incapability and unattainability of the becoming, is what causes man dissatisfaction and pain.

For him art is like science, as it too is a means of assimilating the world, an instrument for knowing it in the course of man’s journey towards what is called ‘absolute truth’. But, while by the means of art man man takes over reality through a subjective experience, in science man’s knowledge of the world makes its way up an endless staircase and is successively replaced by new knowledge with one discovery often being disproved by the next for the sake of a particular objective truth.

This way, there two are two distinct forms of knowing: scientific and aesthetic.

An artistic discovery occurs each time as a new and unique image of the world, a hieroglyphic of absolute truth which appears as a revelation, as a momentary, passionate wish to intuitively grasp and stroke all the laws of this world.

Art can also be looked upon as a symbol of the universe, says he, being linked with the absolute spiritual truth which is otherwise hidden from us in positivistic and mundane activities.

Art addresses everybody and aims to make feel. Art does this not by trying to win over people by incontrovertible rational arguments but through the spiritual energy with which the artist has charged the work.

Criticising modern art for taking a wrong turn in abandoning the search for the meaning of existence to serve the individual, he says: true art is actually born and takes hold wherever there is a timeless and insatiable longing for the spiritual. In artistic creation the personality does not assert itself but rather serves higher communal idea

The artist is always a servant, and is perpetually trying to pay for the gift that has been given to him as if by a miracle.

Critiquing modern man, he says they do not want to make any sacrifice although the true affirmation of self can only be through sacrifice.

Coming back to the ideal that art pursues, he warns us it doesn’t imply an artist has to ignore the realistic or non-ideal of the world. He considers artistic image as a metonym where substitution occurs: smaller for the greater. The image is crucial as it is the only way to bring the infinite into the senses. Otherwise there is no way infinite can be made into matter. This way he places the arts that use images higher than those which use other forms.

Onto the aesthetic side of things, he has equal place for hideousness and beauty. It is in art that harmony and tension are unified. It is the image that does this task. This way it is different from words as in words the idea of the infinity can never be expressed or described.

The absolute is only attainable through faith and in the creative act.

In regards to the requirements for an artist, read this fascinating paragraph:

The only condition of fighting for the right to create is faith in your own vocation, readiness to serve, and refusal to compromise. Artistic creation demands of the artist that he ‘perish utterly’, in the full tragic sense of those words. And so , if art carries within it a hieroglyphic of absolute truth, this will always be an image of the world, made manifest in the work once and for all time. And if cold, positivistic, scientific cognition of the world is like the ascent of an unending staircase, its artistic counterpoint suggests an endless system of spheres, each one perfect and contained within itself. One may complement or contradict another, but in no circumstances can they cancel each other out; on the contrary they enrich one another and accumulate to form an all-embracing sphere that grows out into infinity…

Another great function of art is to communicate. Spirit of communion is a crucial aspect of artistic creativity and mutual understanding is a force to unite people. In this manner too art is different from science as it has no practical goals in material sense.

This way art is like a meta-language with which people try to communicate with each other and impart information about themselves, assimilating the experience of others. The practicality is replaced by the realization of the idea of love, the meaning of which is in sacrifice which is the antithesis of pragmatism.

Self-Expression for him is a meaningless term until it meets a response. That is why an artist cannot work just for self-expression. Ultimately the goal is spiritual bond and hence it is sacrificial in nature:

But surely it cannot be worth the effort merely for the sake of hearing one’s own echo?

In regards to the epistemological side of art, Tarkovsky believes artistic image is an aesthetic acceptance of the beautiful on an emotional or supra-emotional level, distinguishing it from science which means agreement on a cerebral and logical level. While in science all types of intuition are always codes standing for logical deduction, in art (as in religion) intuition is tantamount to conviction, faith. This makes art a state-of-mind, not a way of thinking.

Art doesn’t think logically, or formulate a logic of behavior; it expresses its own postulate of faith.

Talking about the artist, he says the artist reveals the world to us and forces us to either believe in it or to reject it as something irrelevant and unconvincing.

A poet has the imagination and psychology of a child for his impressions of the world are immediate, however profound his idea of the world may be…And art flies in the face of philosophical concepts. The poet does not use ‘descriptions’ of the world; he himself has a hand in its creation.

As to the requirements to understand and enjoy art, one has to be able to be sensitive and susceptible to art — one has to be willing and able to trust the artist. But this is a difficult task at times. It requires potentiality. Just as in faith. There are those who do not look for truth. The beautiful remains hidden for them. And then there are those who condemn art and vulgarize it. They are the ones missing something special in life: they are not considering the meaning and aim of their existence in any higher sense.

Tarkovsky thinks that in the modern times there has been a complete destruction in people’s awareness in the conscious sense of the beautiful,

Modern mass culture, aimed at the ‘consumer’, the civilization of prosthetics, is crippling people’s souls, setting up barriers between man and the crucial questions of existence, his consciousness of himself as a spiritual being. But the artist cannot be deaf to the call of truth: it alone defines his creative will, organizes it, thus enabling him to pass on his faith to others.

Comparing different ‘roads’ to truth, he says the meaning of religious truth is hope. Philosophy meanwhile seeks the truth: defines the meaning of human activity, limits of human reason, the meaning of existence. Even when the philosopher leads to a conclusion that all is senseless and futile. BUT art’s function in practical domain is not to put across ideas or to propagate thoughts:


By the end of the chapter, I think he has satisfyingly managed to provide his own perspectives on these:

  • Why does art exist?
  • Who needs it?
  • Indeed, does anybody need it?

What about you? How important is art in your life? Why do you think it exists? Who needs it?




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Adesh Acharya

Adesh Acharya


Creator, Writer | Think, See and Experience Mind-Life-World with me. Subscribe to me via email. More at https://fradesh.com |