Amy Lowell’s definition of art

Amy Lowell was among the inventers and leading practitioners of Imagism, America’s first modernist literary movement.  In 1917 she wrote, “Art, true art, is the desire of a man to express himself, to record the reactions of his personality to the world he lives in.” 

If she were writing now her figure of the artist would not, of course, be male–or not solely male.  But she might very well  define art now the way she did then.  This idea of art emerged in the late 18th century and has persisted into the present.  It is, after all, a serviceable idea.  An individual acutely aware of his or her individuality reacts strongly to life, to the things and events of the world, and transforms these reactions into works of art.   

So far, so good, but this definition of art as self-expression is awfully vague around the edges.  How does it distinguish art from, say, stand-up comedy of the kind that works off the comedian’s experience?  How does it distinguish art from autobiography?

You could say that some autobiographies are works of art.  You might even want to claim the status of art for certain comedians’ monologues.  But what about a spontaneous outburst in response to a crisis?  Let’s say that it is sincere, it is detailed, and thus richly self-expressive.  Is it art?

At this point, we usually bring in the matter of formal structure and the idea that self-expression needs to be shaped in some way if it is to count as art.  So, for example, Lowell adds to her definition of art the notion that “Great emotion always tends to become rhythmic, and out of that tendency the forms of art have been evolved.  Art becomes artificial only when the forms take precedence over the emotion.” 

This is a very smooth move, one that poets have been making for a long time.  See Wordsworth and Coleridge’s “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.”  I call it a smooth move because there is something attractive about the idea that our strongest emotions make us not only expressive but, in addition, so eloquent, so formally elegant, that we become poets.  And there is a degree of truth to this idea.  Sometimes extreme feelings generate amazing turns of phrase.  Mostly, though, this doesn’t happen.  There is no reliable progression from feeling to form, and so any definition of art that depends on this progression is dubious.

Am I saying that emotion plays no part in the writing of a poem or the painting of a painting?  No, but I am saying that speculations about poets’ and painters’ emotions lack all explanatory force, especially when we focus on any but the broadest, most general matters of form. Felt emotions are subtle, no matter how powerful, but talk of emotions is ham-handed when it turns to form of any complexity.

So where does this leave me, as I approach, tentatively, a definition of art?  Not much advanced, of course, and yet I think it is of some value to note–as many have noted before me–that talk of emotions, whether those of the artist or those of the audience, doesn’t get us very far.  For talk along these lines never accounts for the differences between emotions that lead to art and emotions that do not–in other words, it doesn’t help us understand the appearance of artistic form. Nor does talk of art and emotion distinguish our emotional responses to art from our emotional responses to non-art.

Still, I should acknowledge again that I believe that the artist’s feelings are in some way generative. And I suspect that much of the artist’s most productive emotion–not all of it but much of it–is felt in the course of playing around with form . . .

A wonderful selection from Amy Lowell’s commentary on poetry can be found at





About carterratcliff

I am a poet who writes about art and everything else.
This entry was posted in Art and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Amy Lowell’s definition of art

  1. mike solomon says:

    I like this post.. the forthright clarity is refreshing.. the idealism too. and didn’t I write a comment last week about you’re question? recommending Harold Rosenberg’s The De-definition of Art or wasn’t that here.. tto much on line to keep track of. Anyway Harold spread the issues out quite nicely…

    • carterratcliff says:

      Thank you and, yes, you did recommend Rosenberg’s “De-definition of Art.” He was very important to me when I was beginning to write about art . . . trying to figure out what was at stake . . .

      • Mike Solomon says:

        Oh good then i haven’t gone crazy..yet. Harold helped me too. in essence, art could be said to be the conscious response to existence once one has heard the call of the Creator. This is from the Quran- “And when your Lord brought forth from the lions of the Children of Adam their seed, and made them bear testimony about their souls (He asked):”Am I not your Lord?” They said: “Yes, we bear witness.” (7:172)

  2. Anders Knutsson says:

    I don’t know if you gone crazy Mike, but you did drive off the road with those quotes and are heading for the Abyss.
    However, The opening quote of Amy’s holds, for me, and it is also so broad that all sorts of things can be included. Reading f ex Peter Scheldahl (in The New Yorker) can be helpful vis-a-vis defining visual art – or perhaps more appropriately; “enlightening”

    • carterratcliff says:

      “Enlightening,” illuminating . . . when art criticism is good it can be that and more. Yet art remains undefined–and, you might ask, so what? Do we really need a definition of art to guide our attempts to make sense of it, to see what it means? I’m not sure. I wrote art criticism for nearly four decades without a definition of art. In fact, I often proceeded from a rejection of the various definitions that have been on offer over the years. Nonetheless, in the course of writing about “Evidence,” a piece by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, I found myself edging toward a definition–less to say what art is than to distinguish it from illustration, documentary imagery, decoration, and all the other sorts of things that are visual but not art. The essay appeared in the November 2006 issue of Art in America. Obviously, I haven’t felt much pressure in the years since then to elaborate and refine my definition. Or not much pressure until now, when I have begun–for some reason–to be troubled by the sheer weight of non-art I see on gallery and museum walls. But I am still not rushing toward definition. To leave things open, even at the cost of deep uncertainty, is better than imposing the seeming certainties of a false and restrictive account of the nature of art.

  3. carterratcliff says:

    For Clive Bell the “significant form” that characterizes a work of art produces an “aesthetic emotion” in the viewer. This sounds pretty convincing and yet things get a bit iffy the moment you ask yourself what these terms mean. You could say that the experience of an “aesthetic emotion” shows that you’re looking at “significant form.” Or that the presence of “significant form” in some object shows that the emotion it generates in you is “aesthetic.” But don’t we need something in the way of criteria for “aesthetic” and “significant”? Lacking those criteria we end up in a loop, a circular argument to the effect that emotion is “aesthetic” if the generating form is “significant” and form is “significant” if the emotion it generates is “aesthetic.” Bell provides none of the criteria that would get us out of this loop, so, if we follow him, his argument is convincing only if we assume, prior to anything he has to say, that what we are looking at is a successful work of art. And how do we determine that?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s