The Beatles

What is Art?



HOME < Think for yourself > Essays > The Beatles

It is more than 30 years since they dissolved their group. Many musicians lamented the disappearance of the group and the death of John Lennon. It has come home to me that an epoch was certainly over. It goes without saying that the Beatles had a great influence not only over music, but also over other walks of life.

It was in 1960's and 1970's that they did their musical activities. This coincided with Vietnam War and world-wide unrest by so-called New Left political movement. This multiple effect made them all the more famous and influential. Much has been said on their way of life, political attitude, and most of them was now taken for granted by young generation; "revolutionary" was turned into "ordinary" as time went by. We in the 21st century are no longer surprised at their message because almost all of their ideas were instilled into the young people's mind, at least superficially. For better or worse, the Beatles has become "part" of Western civilization.

One of the most striking features the Beatles has left us is the waning distinction between "art" and and "popular entertainment". Due to the increasing availability of various means of mass-media, we tend to forget the once-distinct borderline between them. What is "art"? What is "popular entertainment"? Which does the Beatles music belong to? Or anyway, who makes distinction between them?

Before the turn of the the 20th century, art and entertainment had been clearly defined; art used to belong to aristocrats and the rich, while popular entertainment to the have-nots. This does not mean that the latter is less sophisticated than the former. But many people growing up before the World War Two tended to see them as such. This is a persistent view derived from the 19th century.

We have now come to a point where the re-definement of art should be made by the very existence of the Beatles. Among more than 120 songs of their own composing, some have lasting charm and popularity. Some were made very elaborately. Others have unforgettably beautiful melodies. Should they be called "the works of art"? Now I'd like to put all the cards on the table and see.


Many conventional people regard works of art as something beautiful. Beauty is a very subjective concept, thus it is next to impossible to tell what is beautiful from what is not. Moreover, the concept of beauty is often confused with natural beauty, such as mountains and rivers, minute structure of cells and crystals. They are no less beautiful than the greatest of masterpieces.


The works of art are not too simplistic to appreciate. The minute mosaic of European architecture in the Middle Ages does not always give us lasting impression. Elaborate design and structure may be sometimes regarded as a proof of great effort, but this does not always follow that they are worthy of receiving highly artistic evaluation.


According to the late Taro Okamoto, known as a radical modern sculptor, what distinguishes art from non-art can be found in its unpredictable factors. When we say in surprise, "What's that? I've seen it for the first time!", it's a typical work of art, he said. Indeed, when "Taiyo no To ( The Tower of the Sun God )" ,which was his own making, first appeared at the entrance gate of Osaka Exposition in 1970, people were stunned. Some artists even call their own accomplished works "happenings" or "non-everyday-life situation". But the mere queerness does not attract the lasting attention of people so long. People get easily bored. In fact, many followers of modern art who pursued only the novelty sank into oblivion.


Since ancient times, the works of art have been in the hand of kings and aristocrats. Without the help of his patrons, Michelangelo could not have completed his marvelous sculptures, let alone glorious cathedrals. Would art be impossible if it were not for time and money? Could only the affluent people afford to enjoy the essence of art? For so many years ordinary people were left outside of the artistic development. But as we see on the walls of Lasko, Spain, primitive people apparently had chances to express their artistic drives on the wall. Their works were firmly combined with religious rites or incantation.


It is very dangerous to set the standard of art by the degree of popularity. It is true that many masterpieces won great admirers, but in this age of mass media, being popular is a far less reliable indication of being a work of art. We cannot tell short-sighted fad from established reputation in a short run. Even the respect for centuries-old works of art may be overturned overnight. That a work is defined as art in one era does not necessarily mean it is so in another. As preference changes, so the styles of art change. Even the greatest works of the time cannot escape from being forgotten. "Art is not eternal".


Greatly influenced by the theory of evolution, which suggests clear direction of biological changes, some people adopt this term in the world of art. The essence of evolution is a development with the merits accumulated in the past. Man cannot exist without the precedents of mammals, reptiles, fishes, amoebas etc... Can the same idea be applied to the definition of art? When we look back to the history of art, this seems feasible. Modern art was born with the result of the denial of concrete paintings. Renaissance broke out in the heaps of ancient ruins. But the history of art is quite similar to that of humanity. History repeats itself! We cannot find whatever clear-cut direction of the future, either better or worse, simpler or more complicated etc... Art can be created under an utterly isolated circumstance as long as there exists mankind. The evolution of art does not account for the huge variety of it today, but its random and irrelevant creations all over the world does.


This is also a very important and also controversial concept ,and no imitation deserves the title of art. But it is evident that there is no such things as creation in a real sense of the word except in the case of God. Our "creation" is merely a new combination of what have already existed. This fact makes quite difficult to draw the borderline between what is original and what is not. Notwithstanding, originality is indispensable to defining art.


We may well define art in a much broader sense of the word. None of these 7 discussions have a decisive point in defining it. Art is expressions; in a lasting form of picture, sound, shape etc... What we have in our mind sometimes takes shape; this is art, whether visible, audible or touchable. Art is also communicable. It is not until others appreciate it that the work of art has raison d'être. In this sense of the word, a hammer is not a work of art. But only if the hammer was expressed in a form of real extension of a human soul, it can be called art. Aesthetic standards do not correspond to artistic standards, because giving sensual pleasure does not always express the state of mind. The most important criterion as to whether something is art or not depends on whether the work is a genuine product out of the artist's mind; it must have "the screaming of a soul".


Nowadays most popular music and art tend to be deficient of "the screaming of a soul". In this light, many of the Beatles songs seem to have their strong soulful messages. Since the coming of the Beatles we have learned that so-called popular entertainment includes not a few artistic factors.

First Written in March 1986
Rewritten in March 2000

HOME < Think for yourself > Essays > The Beatles

© Champong

inserted by FC2 system