The claim in the question reflects the philosophical theory of art as representation, in which it is argued that good art should illuminate our experience, reveal ‘truths’, articulate a ‘vision’, be epiphanic, portray authentically or at least imitate or represent its subject convincingly.
This theory has been influential throughout the ages, dating back to the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who argued that good art can convey truths about the world through representation. This was in contrast to his teacher, Plato, who argued that art is twice removed from reality, being a copy of a material object, which itself is a copy of a transcendental ‘Form’. However, Aristotle rejected this, instead arguing that art can play a valuable role in allowing the audience to encounter truths of reality. He used the example of tragic drama, through which the audience is able to face up to the tragic nature of life but in a distanced way – we are always aware that it is a drama, not real, and so we avoid becoming overwhelmed by despair or grief. This connection with the truths of life, according to Aristotle, provided a healthy and dynamic appreciation of life.
The history of art also shows that many works have been used to reveal moral truths. This is evident in the fables of Aesop – an example is the story of the ‘fox and the crow’, in which the fox deceives the crow through flattery, enabling him to steal a piece of cheese. It is clear in this case that there is a moral core to the story. Similarly, moral truths have been embodied in stained glass illustrations in medieval churches with ordinary people being able to access these moral teachings through exposure to the art.
Finally, some artists have used art to reveal not grand truths, but truths about the ordinary, everyday things in life. This can be found in the painting of Van Gogh’s chair in which he seems to be drawing the viewer’s attention to the overlooked detail of the simple objects which occupy our world, here and now.
However, there are some philosophers who would argue that the claim in the question is mistaken. Supporters of expression theory claim that good art is moving or captures a mood or feeling. This is reflected in the fact that we describe and judge it using an emotional vocabulary.
The Russian novelist and philosopher, Leo Tolstoy, argued that art is good if it is able to infect the audience with the emotions and feelings of the artist. For Tolstoy, good art is universally accessible and conveys moral feelings to the audience. Expression theory does seem to be a strong explanation for why we value art. After all, don’t we appreciate art when it is able to move our emotions, feeling joyful listening to Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ or sad when watching a film such as ‘Schindler’s List’? Perhaps this is more important to the value of a work of art than simply whether it looks like or represents an object in the world?
However, expression theory faces its own problems. Firstly, the genetic fallacy can be used to criticise the theory as it seems to value the art on where it came from (the emotions of the artist) rather than on its own merits. Does it really matter where the work came from? Secondly, there seems to be an a priori assumption that all proper art has its origin in the emotions of the artist, when this is not obviously the case, e.g. Michelangelo was paid by the Church to paint the Sistine Chapel. Thirdly, it is very difficult to identify an over-riding emotion in some very complex works of art, e.g. Thackeray’s ‘Vanity Fair’, and, fourthly, some forms of art such as architecture appear to have little to do with emotions.
Another position, which would reject the claim in the question, is that good art is good because it gives the audience an aesthetic enjoyment of ‘form’: balance, structure, proportion, harmony, wholeness, or ‘significant form’.
This emphasis on form rather than content can be found in the philosophies of Kant, Hanslick, and Bell. Kant argued that to truly appreciate a work of art, it was important to approach it with ‘disinterestedness’ – a manner in which you cast aside any personal feelings or emotions you might have towards the content or subject of the work of art, instead focussing entirely on the arrangement of the component parts of the piece. Hanslick agreed with Kant, with his analysis of the value of music, and Clive Bell introduced the concept of ‘significant form’. He argued that ever object in the universe has some kind of form but it is only with the successful arrangement of component parts that form becomes ‘significant’ and can then stir in us an aesthetic appreciation of this form.
However, the theory of form also has problems. Critics have pointed out that the qualities of form such as elegance, harmony etc. are vague and ambiguous, whilst others have branded the theory elitist – there are those who ‘get’ the form and everyone else. As such, Nigel Warbuton argued the theory was unfalsifiable, i.e. there would be no possible situation in which the theory could be shown to be false.
In conclusion, the claim that the value of art lies in its ability to represent is subject to the challenges of expression theory and form theory. However, these theories have themselves faced unresolved criticisms. When considering the three criterion of representation, expression, and form, it does seem that they all have appeal. With this in mind, it may be more productive to consider the perspective that it is a combination of all three, which frequently gives value to a work of art, rather than the futile attempt to prove that it is one of the three which gives art its essential value.