top of page

The  Arts

Artwork by Jennifer Escamilla

adapted from


So what can we say about the Arts as Knowledge?  One way we can orientate our thinking about this is to try and tackle one of the Arts central concepts straight away - what is beauty?  Use the different images contained in the article by clicking on the images above, arrange in order of beauty and then complete the googledoc available on the right hand side of the photos in the book image..

What does the activity demonstrate on an individual level; a group level; a class level?

What does this tell us about the Arts as Knowledge straight away?

Take some time to research about the woman behind the photos, Esther Honig, and what she was hoping for when she launched this experiment by accessing her interview by clicking on the question mark on the right....


What is Art?

  • "Art is what you can get away with." (Andy Warhol)

  • "Art is meant to disturb, science reassures." (Georges Braque)

  • "The only end of writing is to enable the readers better enjoy life or better to endure it." (Samuel Johnson)

  • 'Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art." (Oscar Wilde)

  • "We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth." (Pablo Picasso)

  • "Without music, life would be a mistake." (Friedrich Nietzsche)

  • "By words one transmits thoughts to another; by means of art, one transmits feelings." (Leo Tolstoy)

  • "Art is not a handicraft, it is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced." (Leo Tolstoy) 

  • "Art has to move you and design does not, unless it's a good design for a bus." (David Hockney)

  • "Filling a space in a beautiful way. That's what art means to me." (Georgia O'Keeffe)

  • "Art is something we do, a verb. Art is an expression of our thoughts, emotions, intuitions, and desires, but it is even more personal than that: it’s about sharing the way we experience the world, which for many is an extension of personality." (Philosophy Now).....(courtesy of IB Mastery)

Is there Good Art and Bad Art?

There is no getting away from the fact that the arts is a subjective area of knowledge. This means that views on what is good art and bad art vary from individual to individual. Societies, too, have differing traditions of art, meaning that music, literature, and fine art can have a radically different form depending on which country you are in. And our tastes also change according to which historical era we are looking at.


It took a long time in England, for example, to recognize Shakespeare, as a great writer, with critics ranking other playwrights and poets – for example John Fletcher and Ben Jonson – far above him in talent. Now he is almost universally regarded as the greatest writer who has ever lived, not just in England, but throughout the world.

This is very unlike the more objective areas of knowledge, such as mathematics and natural sciences, where it is much easier to access the truth, or at least get close to it. It is also difficult to frame in just one question, so we’ll try to do it in two. These will look at the extent to which our idea of beauty is universal (ie, across cultures and time), and whether or not we can say that artistic conception and technique can be quantitatively assessed.

Is our idea of beauty universal?

The idolisation of beauty is not a modern phenomenon. Beautiful people have always been seen as desirable, and lauded by society. The most famous early example of a beautiful woman, and still the name that is used proverbial to express someone beautiful, is Helen, whose abduction by Paris led to the decade-long war between Troy and Greece. The story of the Trojan wars is more than 2500 years old. Since then, a continuous theme in art has been that of beauty, and you don’t need to look far to see its depiction in modern society.

Beautiful people – and beautiful things – are everywhere, on billboard posters, magazines, fashion shows, films, photographs, and the internet. But to what extent do we all see beauty in the same way, and what might affect the way we view it differently? There are two schools of thought:

Beauty is not universal - those who say that our aesthetic appreciation depends on our cultural conditioning

Beauty is universal - those who believe that judgements on this issue are more instinctive, based on genetic programming.


Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence for both, so it’s hard to arrive at a certain position.

Beauty is not universal - our aesthetic appreciation depends on our cultural conditioning

If we look throughout history, and across different cultures, it seems that ideas of beauty vary so much that they do depend on the culture in which we are brought up. The example of Shakespeare is given above, but there are plenty of others. The representation of women in art has changed radically, and has gone from being voluptuous (we might even say, fat) during the era of artists like Titian (c. 1488 – 1576) to being stick like during this century, as seen in some of the twentieth century’s most famous faces, like the British model Twiggy.

Changing tastes over time also indicate that beauty isn’t universal, and here the evidence is also in abundance. Fashion is built on the fact that the clothes we choose to wear are constantly subject to development, and the music industry is predicated on new sounds, which are promptly discarded when the new big thing comes along.

The Impressionists were an artistic movement that were initially reviled when they first appeared (the name itself was given to them as an insult), but we now view the work of Monet and co. to be masterpieces. The Victorians considered African art ugly when the European colonization of that continent was in full swing; a few decades later, the Edwardians viewed the same pieces with admiration and respect.

In terms of cultural comparisons, those radically different traditions mentioned above also seem to provide us with evidence that beauty is a subjective concept. The structure and melodies of Japanese and Chinese music are virtually impossible for a Western ear to discern. Traditional styles of dress vary massively from one country to another. Architecture in one part of the world is very distinct from that in another.






But there are challenges to this assumption that beauty is not universal.

Beauty is universal - judgements on this issue are more instinctive, based on genetic programming


First of all, globalization seems to be blending ideas of what is beautiful, leading to more consensus than ever about beauty. Architectural and artistic movements now draw on many different influences, and the faces of models are becoming more culturally diverse, as we become more attracted to all races – not just our own.


There are few places in the world where the music of bands such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and U2 have not enjoyed massive popular and critical success.

Some academic studies also support the idea of universal ideas of beauty.  A 1993 study carried out by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, two Russian artists based in New York, revealed some very interesting results about cross-cultural ideas of beauty. They investigated the artistic preferences of people from ten different countries, and discovered some fascinating shared tastes.


People liked realistic paintings. They liked landscapes. And – here it got interesting – they also liked the colour blue to figure prominently.  They also liked wide open areas, water scenes, and human figures and animals to be present. It didn’t matter whether they lived in urban or rural areas, that was the overwhelming preference for the ideal image.


Melamid himself offered this explanation:

Maybe the blue landscape is genetically imprinted in us, that it’s the paradise within, that we came from the blue landscape and we want it… We now completed polls in many countries – China, Kenya, Iceland, and so on – and the results are strikingly similar. Can you believe it? Kenya and Iceland – what can be more different in the whole fucking world – and both want blue landscapes… The blue landscape is what is really universal, maybe to all mankind.

There are also rules for aesthetic beauty like the Golden Ratio. This is a mathematical formula applying to two quantities (the sum of the quantities to the larger quantity is equal to the ratio of the larger quantity to the smaller one) which can be turned into a rectangular representation.   This rule can then be applied to art and architecture, examples of which appear in the works of many artists and architects, notably Leonardo da Vinci, Salvador Dali, and Le Corbusier.

As with all TOK issues, this is clearly not cut and dried....however, with this particularly AOK, it seems as if there is even more complexity than usual.

Objectivism and subjectivism

Objectivism is the idea that value judgements can be applied to art.  In other words, some art is ‘good’ and some art is ‘bad’.


Objectivists have a fairly strict definition of what constitutes art, regarding it as something that has been produced after a demanding process.


First, art is generally the preserve of an individual who has received training. This person – the artist – then develops a concept, applies his or her technical skills, and produces an end-product. This can be a piece of music, a painting, a film, or whatever. This product can then be judged according to how well-conceived it is, its level of originality, and the technical skills employed to create it.

Subjectivism sees art rather differently. Subjectivists argue that a broader definition of art is necessary, and training is not a necessity.


For strict subjectivists, almost anything can be regarded as art, as the most important element in the process of artistic expression is the role of the viewer or audience. In other words, if we feel something as we look at a bag of rubbish arranged in a gallery, it is art.

Where you stand on this debate fits in with your whole outlook on life, and spills over into the other ways of knowing and areas of knowledge.


If you are someone who believes in moral relativism – ie, that ethical standpoints can never be absolute, and vary from person to person, place to place, and throughout history, then you will probably have more sympathy for the subjectivist standpoint.


If you are someone who believes that we can access the truth by using reason, the coherence theory of truth, then you may well incline towards the objectivist school of thought.



A misleading question?

But perhaps it is a mistake to try to judge pieces of work as good and bad. Why should we feel the obligation to do so? Partly this is the result of the age in which we live, where everything must be assessed and ranked. Can we really say that one artist is ‘better’ than another, or one piece of music ‘superior’ to another?  If we can, then the arts can be regarded as a type of knowledge, an area in which we can rank and judge with objectivity.


An alternative approach would be to rid ourselves entirely of such terms, and try to measure the extent to which art communicates with us. The more we know about a particular art form, or piece of work, the more it communicates with us – a far more meaningful judgement than whether it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. This approach means that – just as with natural sciences and the scientific method – the arts become more a system of knowing.

Does this mean then, that we should take a subjective view of art, and view it all qualitatively as the same? Obviously not.


Artists can still be measured in terms of how well they use this way of knowing to ‘speak’ to us; indeed, this is a fuller way to view the artistic process, as it takes into account that art has to be designed for a viewer or an audience, and the truly great artists are the ones whose art touches something inside those who witness their work.


Artists who just represent what they see or feel about the world, without being able to communicate this knowledge to other people must be seen as less successful. In other words, perhaps we should try to blend an objectivist and subjectivist approach to art.

Is art therefore much more about the means by which we can express and communicate ourselves and our artistic knowledge?

Certainly, though, this way of perceiving art would remove any hierarchy of art forms, with claims being made for fine art and sculpture at the top of the heap, and later forms such as photography and film being  towards the bottom. This is akin to ranking French or German at the top of some spurious hierarchy, and placing Arabic or Urdu at the bottom, or vice versa - clearly a pointless way of judging languages.

The fact is, we are all different, and all see the world in a multitude of ways. To lay down a blanket statement about what constitutes good or bad art is never going to allow for these differences. Art is often a personal matter, with depictions of scenes, or passages in books perfectly mirroring one person’s life experiences, but sounding foreign and alien to another who has never come across the same event.

Clark Doll experiment - 1939 + 2007
12 Years a Slave winner on beauty

What does the development of art tell us about the way we perceive the world?


To a large extent, art has a momentum of its own, and moves forward just as a result of new artists introducing new concepts and techniques to the art world, or as a result of new media being used to express their ideas. But art is also a reflection of the society that produces it, and as it changes, so does the way we represent our thoughts artistically. This means we can learn a lot about the outlook of different societies – be they different societies from historical eras, or different societies by virtue of geography – examining their artistic achievements.

Below are five different artistic movements or achievements, with some ideas on what they reflect about the society that produced them.

The change from two-dimensional art to perspective-based art

One of the biggest leaps forward in technique was the incorporation of perspective into frescoes, drawings, and paintings. This moved art from the rather two dimensional appearance – one of the characteristics of medieval art – to a much more realistic appearance – which was in turn one of the characteristics of renaissance art of the 15th and 16th century.

Although the change didn’t occur overnight, and had been attempted before – for example, rules of perspective were known to the Byzantines in the 11th and 12th centuries, and Giotto was drawing on it in the 13th century – it wasn’t until the 14th and 15th century that perspective was really ‘mastered’.

The fact that Renaissance artists relied on a careful interpretation of the laws laid down by the Greek mathematician Euclid (born around 300 BC) in order to employ perspective correctly. This re-use of classical knowledge was one of the reasons we refer to this period as the Renaissance, or ‘re-birth’, as either new knowledge (brought from Constantinople after its capture by the Turks in 1453) or rediscovered classical knowledge was turned to again.

In addition, it says much about geo-politics of the time. Perspective was first employed successfully by the artists of Italy – specifically, Florence. This indicates the cultural importance of this region at this time, as merchants and artists built up Italy as the richest series of city states in the world.

Finally, the Renaissance was the time of the emergence of the individual, after the shared sense of community of the middle ages. Works of art, such as the great cathedrals, were projects designed and carried out cooperatively rather than by one person, and people’s psychological outlooks were based on the idea of being a faceless member of the multitudes. Perspective literally allowed artists to ‘jump out’ of the page, more effectively than ever projecting their ideas into the minds of their audience.










The plays of Shakespeare

To read or see performed Shakespeare’s plays is to be given a mirror into the late 16th and early 17th century psyche. His most famous play, Hamlet, has many themes and concepts showing how people’s outlooks were changing, and often involved sophisticated ideas we usually associate with later philosophical traditions.

This is apparent from the earliest stages of the play when Hamlet says to one of the guards on the walls of Elisore Castle:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

This allowance for different realities and perspectives on the world is developed later in the play when Hamlet says to Rosencrantz, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”, which owes its ideas to Stoic philosophy.


Hamlet’s famous ‘To be or not to be’ deals with the existential crisis typified by Jean Paul Satre in the late 20th century, likening as it does action to existence and inaction to death.

Towards the end of the play, Hamlet makes this speech:

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how

infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and

admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like

a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,

to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—

nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.

This reflects the fact that many renaissance thinkers of the time – notably the French writer Montaigne – were questioning the assumption that man was created by God in his image, and was able to choose his own nature. Instead, the characters in Hamlet are trapped by their natures, and unable to escape their instincts and personalities.  Click on the book icon for more..

In Montaigne’s words:

Is it possible to imagine so ridiculous as this miserable and wretched creature, which is not so much as master of himself, exposed and subject to offences of all things, and yet dareth call himself Master and Emperor.

Shakespeare's appeal has moreover translated over linguistic and cultural boundaries the world over - see the enduring fascination in China with the Bard's works where his ability to explore perennial personal relationships have found an eager audience who see a parallel with their own long and complex history of literary thought and  tradition.





Read the article on China's adoption of Shakespeare by clicking on the book icon top right - then using this information watch the short adaptation of Romeo+Juliet, think about why such a story has become world famous...


The poetry of the First World War

Although historians are now questioning the extent to which the ideas expressed in the ‘Great War’ poetry truly reflects the experiences of ordinary soldiers during the fighting (most poetry was written by men from the officer classes, and their outlooks were very different to those of the men), there is no doubt that this type of poetry tells us a huge amount about people’s psychological outlooks in the second decade of the Twentieth century.

Poetry written by men such as Wilfred Owen shows us how the unquestioning acceptance of orders from the ruling classes was now no longer an option – a real paradigm shift in how society viewed itself. Own and others felts that the leadership had needlessly sacrificed millions of men. He wrote bitterly, in his most famous poem (Dulce Et Decorum Est):

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est

Pro patria mori.

By using Latin, he parodies the classical education given to most upper and middle classes in Britain at that time, the words (from the Roman writer Horace) translating as ‘It is sweet and honourable to die for your country’.

Siegfried Sassoon was, if anything, more bitter about the war than Owen, turning his anger not just on the authorities, but also the people who celebrated what was happening - click the book icon for more...


In ‘suicide in the trenches’ published in 1918 he wrote:

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye

Who cheer when soldier lads march by,

Sneak home and pray you’ll never know

The hell where youth and laughter go.

For many people, Sassoon among them, the experiences of the war led to a search for a new way of running a country, with many pledging their allegiance to socialism.


The art form that most extensively personifies the desires, ambitions, fears, and overall outlook of 20th century society is film. A film can say so much about the historical era that produced it, and, by extension, the mood of people at that time. There are many examples of this, including the films of the 1940s that hoped to drum up support for the struggle against Nazi Germany (see Olivier’s version of Henry V, The Dam Busters, Casablanca, Saboteur), the alien invasion films of the 1950s that reflected the US fear of communism (see The War of the Worlds), films supporting the fight for equal rights for black people in the late 1950s and 1960s (see In the Heat of the Night, The Great White Hope, To Kill a Mockingbird), and explicit films which showed society’s newly permissive views to sex in the 1970s (see Deep Throat, Emmanuelle).

There is never one preoccupation alone that film-makers of a particular period are interested in, but there is often one that overshadows the others. The events of September 11th 2001 still loom large in the cinema today, with the aftermath (invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, etc.) still being explored in many films. Examples include Reign Over Me, Fahrenheit 9/11, Brick Lane, World Trade Center, and The Hurt Locker.

Which films/streaming platform productions from your viewing have been similar in how they are depicting the world you recognise from your perspective​?  What do they show and how?  Why is it a product of this age at this time - what relationship can you identify between it and the world around you - how did the world inspire this work and what does it want to say about the world?

Punk music – the existential crisis of the modern age

Punk music first appeared in the United States and Great Britain in the late 1970s. Punk was about a rejection of what rock and roll had become, with punk musicians feeling that it had been sold out by people compromising its original revolutionary philosophy. It also rejected mainstream culture and authority, coinciding in England with events such as the winter of discontent, the rise of inflation, and the general consensus that the government was ineffective and distant.

In the States, the most famous punk rock band was The Ramones, whose drummer, Tommy Ramone, said:

In its initial form, a lot of [1960s] stuff was innovative and exciting.

Unfortunately, what happens is that people who could not hold a

candle to the likes of Hendrix started noodling away.

Soon you had endless solos that went nowhere.

By 1973, I knew that what was needed was some pure, stripped

down, no bullshit rock ‘n’ roll.




In the UK, one of the most ‘authentic’ voices of the punk movement (the word ‘authentic’ is a critical one in punk, being far more important than judgements of technical ability) belonged to The Clash, a highly politicised band whose lyrics tackled issues such as racism and unemployment. In 'London Calling', the band sing:

Come out of the cupboard, all you boys and girls

London calling, now don’t look at us

All that phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust

London calling, see we ain’t got no swing

‘Cept for the ring of that truncheon thing

This includes classic punk rock elements, such as an attack on

authority and the fakeness surrounding (though not necessarily

created by) a previous musical band – The Beatles.


Can art change the way we interpret the world?

- Film and society

Having just discussed how film can mirror society, film and cinema can also have key roles to play

in creating what that society sees as valuable, or even more directly, what that society needs to

jettison.  Just consider the role that some of the films featured in the article via the book icon on

the right have played in creating and enacting societal values, mores  and trends......

- Infographics and action

The feet at the top of the page are an example of art  reflecting the society within which its made - these feet were drawn by IB student Jennifer Escamilla who as part of her CAS was part of a team of students who produced an art exhibition highlighting the plight of the homeless in Baltimore and the impact that homelessness can have on people.  They studied the impact that art can have on on changing people's minds by capturing their attention and inspiring empathy, and then produced a series of infographic based artworks to raise awareness amongst their peers and their community.  the techniques used by infographics such as these are at the very heart of many current charity and NGO campaigns which attempt to target contemporary social issues such as homelessness.

In this way, we can see how artistic knowledge can be measured by the impact it has on people and the support that various causes receive politically, financially, socially....  What social justice campaigns can you recall that have raised your awareness both on a personal level, and on a local, national, global level?  How did the campaign use artistic knowledge to try and inspire empathy and therefore action?

- Speech writing of Martin Luther King



While Artistic Activism is particularly well suited for the contemporary moment, throughout history the most effective civic actors have married the arts with campaigns for social change, using aesthetic approaches to provide a critical perspective on the world as it is and imagine the world as it could be. In the struggle for Civil Rights for African Americans in the US, for example, activists drew upon the stories and songs and participatory culture of the black churches, staged media-savvy stunts like Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus, played white racist reaction against peaceful protesters as a sympathetic passion play during the campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama, and, most famously, used imaginative imagery (and popular cultural references) in a speech to call America to task for its racist past and articulate a dream of a better future. While Martin Luther King Jr is now largely remembered for his example of moral courage, social movement historian Doug McAdam’s estimation of King’s “genius for strategic dramaturgy,” likely better explains the success of his campaigns. 


Watch the speech above and note down how MLK uses any of these following techniques of literary composition to inspire and engage his audience:

Check your examples with those included in the article at the side of the speech by clicking on the question mark


- Installation art of Theaster gates as activism and action

The next level of course is to create art that in itself constitutes action on a social, financial or political level.  The installation art of Theaster Gates in the South side of Chicago is one such example.  His community inspired artwork is not only an expression of what his love for where he lives, but can also be interpreted in its own right as action taken to address some of the variety of issues facing this area which has seen increasing economic depravation, white flight and urban blight in recent years.  How he has managed this and what he hopes to do with it are the subject of the video clips, TEDtalk and article below.































Then section on technology and art - AI as art?


Van Gogh's last supper message...

Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915)

Photography as activism

The art that Hitler hated BBC documentary

bottom of page