Tagore questions how we value art, saying that the influence of the Western world has invaded the world of India's art. The West wants to value art for reasons extrinsic to the work of art itself, for its use value, for its didactic purpose, as instrument that can teach us. This, writes Tagore, is like valuing a river for how well it functions as a canal. Pragmatic use value and rational problem solving belongs in the realm of science, says Tagore, a realm distinct from art. Art is valuable intrinsically, as a river ought to be, not for its functionality, but for itself. Art, to Tagore, is a mysterious expression of the human spirit and an expression of an individual's emotional, not rational, self. Evaluating it on another basis misses the point of what it is.
Rabindranath Tagore' essay "What is Art?" fuses two sets of influences, western Romanticism and traditional Indian philosophy. In this essay, he explicitly refuses to define art, but instead approaches it two ways, by a sort of via negativa in which he discusses what it is not and by discussion of its effects and situation.
The essay "What is Art?" begins by establishing a hierarchy of human needs and ways of connecting to our world. On the most basic level, we need food and drink, and they connect us to the world physically. We share with animals an ability to interact with our environment in ways needed for our survival, but we also have a surplus beyond what is needed for our immediate survival, and art is located in the realm of that surplus.
Our mind too has its needs, beyond those of the body. Its needs are intellectual ones which connect it to the world via understanding (science) and via the spirit and emotions (the arts). Art belongs to the realm of the emotions, not dealing with the physical world, as does science, but a mysterious world to which we are connected by emotions, spirit, and a sense of mystery.