What is Art? Part 1 of an Essay by Ivan Ilyin

What do you think is the most common essay title in the history of literature? I don’t know. But if I were to guess, I’d say it would be “What is art?”

No one wonders about “what is art” more than artists. We can’t help ourselves. We want to know that the long hours of giving birth to our thoughts and our words are actually worth something.

In our time, when people are so concerned about what the future will bring, this is no less an important question. For those of us who want to create a vibrant Christian culture for our time, this is an indispensable question.

As always, Ivan Ilyin’s perspective on this is a challenge, a manifesto. As I read him, I feel like he is just writing down the words that are already written in my own heart. Only he writes them much better than I ever could.

What is art?

What is art? 

An essay by Ivan Ilyin, dedicated to Sergei Rachmaninoff

“There is a world inside your soul

Of mystical, enchanted thoughts…”


Art is service and joy. An artist who creates and makes servesin order to call us all into fellow service with himself. The joy of an artist, who creates and has created in his works a new manner of living, is to gift us, who are able to contemplate, an unspeakable joy.

Do people understand this? Do the nations, restless and tempted in spiritual troubles, remember this fact? Do they even know what is service and joy?


what is art?

Joy is not accessible to everyone. Modern man doesn’t seek it. It is born from suffering and overcoming that suffering. Not from boredom that requires diversion. Not from an empty soul that doesn’t know how to fill up its emptiness. Not from exhaustion and overwork that requires perpetually new irritants and evanescent poignancy.

Modern mankind, both the masses and the so-called elite, only know how to overwork themselves, how to bore themselves, and how to suffer from inner emptiness. This is exactly why everyone thirsts for action, diversion, and arousal. People want noise. They was things to crack and smash. They want their nervous systems to be tickled. They require things to arouse them. Not only from the pharmacist, but also from the artist.

What is art?
Marina Abramovic’s work, AAA AAA

Too many artists—they are, after all, children of the age—are ready to meet mankind halfway. So many invent “new art” from the dry source of their exhausted souls! They strive to break through to new, sharp sensations, so that they can then share those sensations with the public. Modern art is full of spiritual irritation and willful invention.

Who, in our time, thinks of the beautiful? Who thinks of the song that comes from deep within? Who thinks of the inspiration that comes from temperance, of great visions? Where is there a place in our time for joy?

Joy shines and sings forth. But modern man, in his modern art, only mocks, laughs, and growls. He needs bread and circuses, not spiritual joy. He wants football, parades, races, and boxing. This is the proper “art” for modern man.

Joy comes from spiritual depths. You have to suffer to reach those depths, overcome the suffering, and be illumined by the struggle. But modern art hurls every new quirk and every bit of new nonsense, put together slap-dash (according to the principle of universal tolerance) from bits of stuff and from spiritual chaos.

Joy is a spiritual state. It comes from the heavens and from God. The voices of Schiller and Beethoven (9thsymphony –NK) have never, and will never, be silent:

Joy, the spark of the divine

The beauteous daughter of the heavens…”

“What?” says modern man. “That’s just a metaphor. You’re exaggerating!”

No. This is the simple and exact truth.

(Part II of this essay will be published next week.)


  1. What a wonderful and insightful message! Brief and to the heart. A blessing to be sure.

  2. I. LOVE. THIS.
    This has been a question that has haunted me recently–what is art and more specifically with what intention do I do art? Thank you, thank you, thank you for this–, and thank God! This is helping me integrate so many pieces of thought and grace God has been giving me about art.

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