What is Art?

An old and challenging question is, “What is art?” The question is probably as old as art and artists; the moment someone made a cave painting, someone else probably asked, “But is it art?”

It’s possible the question cannot be answered in any objective way; we may each have a personal definition of art. Here are some of my thoughts on the matter.

First, there are (at least) three distinct questions one might ask regarding art:

  1. Is it art?
  2. Is it good art?
  3. Do I like it?

This essay is strictly about the first question. Critical review (whether a piece of Art is good) and taste (whether you like it) are separate matters.

Second, art is hard to define because, like love, it is a fundamental concept. That makes it relatively easy to describe (one can cite the Mona Lisa or Burns & Allen), but hard to define. Definitions require concepts more basic than the thing defined. Just as buildings are defined by bricks, steel and glass; concepts are defined by basic “building block” concepts.

But what is more basic than art or love? The many forms of art (for example: paintings, dance, music, movies), show its enormous range and scope. As with love, the fundamental nature is demonstrated in the variety of ways we express it. Any definition we pick must be equally large in scope.

Third, art seems to be a form of communication between the creator and those that consume it. (As an aside, art is one of those things that, once created, is consumed by many and is sometimes consumed repeatedly by individuals. And after any amount of consumption, the original is still untouched.)

In any event, the duality between artist and consumer complicates finding a definition, since it must apply to both. It also begs the question of whether art is art if created strictly for the artist and never consumed. If the answer is that consumption is not a part of art, then art need be defined strictly in the context of the artist.

Which brings me to my personal definition.

For me, the answer to the question is pretty simple: Art is that which is created by an Artist. Which, of course, just moves the question to, “Okay, smartass, then what is an artist?” (The Zen reply would be to define an artist as “one who creates art,” but that would make this a much shorter article.)

But my definition of art—that it is created by an artist—does one very important thing: it narrows the scope down to products of the mind. It draws a definite line between that which is simply beautiful or appealing and that which was made in a creative act. A sunset or a landscape is not art, no matter how beautiful it is. The Grand Canyon, despite the fact that its sheer breath-taking beauty and majesty always make me weep (seriously, literally) is not art.

But depictions of beautiful things, photographs, paintings, perhaps even written accounts or songs, can be.

Now what about, say, a shuttle launch? Here’s another thing where the beauty, power and majesty (not to mention the implications behind it) also brings me to tears. The shuttle is a human-made thing; the launch is done by humans. When I saw the IMAX presentation of a shuttle launch once I was so profoundly affected I could not speak without sobbing for many minutes. (My lady friend at the time, who was with me, completely did not understand, and I could tell she looked down on me for it. Just one of many reasons she’s ancient history now.)

I’m going to say that the shuttle launch comes close to being art, but doesn’t quite cross the line. Explaining why is difficult, though. Basically, it has to do with the purpose behind the making. Which brings me to trying to define what I mean by artist.

An artist is one who is driven to create an interpretation and expression of their perception of reality. Artists have a deep need to express themselves, and that expression takes the form of a representation of some aspect of the world around them. There are two major components to this:

Perception & Interpretation: Art interprets some aspect of the artist’s perceived reality. The reality may be completely imaginary, partly imaginary or based fully on reality. A novel might have imaginary aliens on an imaginary planet. A photograph of a sunset can be an artistic vision of a real thing.

Expression & Medium: Art is the expression of the artist’s interpretation. That expression can take many forms (mediums): music, paint, sculpture, cinema, dance, literature. There is always some medium of expression to Art. Expression is the bridge between artist and consumer; it is how the artist, and the art, speaks to us.

Artists are those who are driven to express their interpretation of reality. Artists are people who have a need to create Art.

As mentioned above, there are some very important lines to draw with regard to art:

  1. What is art, and what is not art.
  2. What is good art, and what is bad art.
  3. What is art you like, and what is art you don’t like.

These are all separate questions. They all can be difficult—perhaps impossible—to answer objectively. The last one is obviously entirely subjective and subject to your personal tastes (and not at all the topic of this article). But there might be some objective criteria that help us answer the first two.

If something can be objectively identified as art, perhaps we can also find objective criteria to distinguish between what is good and what is bad. The line can be blurred by artists with great artistic soul, but who have poor technical skills (or meager resources). In such cases, sometimes the inner artist shows through (or not).

We see this if we go back to the earliest art among humans: cave paintings. These artists were re-creating reality as they perceived it. That they are evocative still shows the soul and heart put into these works. This seems to remove technical skill as a criteria for drawing a line between good art and bad art. (But the second question is also not the topic of this article!)

As mentioned above, I define art to be created by a mind. This eliminates sunsets and the Grand Canyon, but might allow shuttle launches. What eliminates those is that a shuttle launch has a utilitarian function. The reason behind its design and construction are utilitarian. It is not intended as a work of art. My definition of art requires it be intentionally created as art.

Is paint thrown a distance onto a canvas art? How about a painting of a Campbell’s soup can? Is a “sculpture” consisting mostly of a urinal with an ironic title art?

I think the answer lies in the intent and expression of the artist. Randomly applied paint can be intentionally selected for its color. The application of each color may be random, but the overall expression may not be. Consider Jackson Pollock‘s work, for example. Repeatedly applying random splashes may result in something the artist intends.

Andy Warhol‘s famous soup can paintings had a specific message; they were intentional statements. The artist had a perception of his reality, and he expressed that using his command of his tools. Definitely, the soup cans were art.

Weird sculptures also can be an interpretive expression of an artist’s reality. A difficult trick here may be determining whether the statement is genuine or banal. The oddness of the medium can distract from the content. If the perception, interpretation and expression brings something new to light, then maybe even that urinal is art.

There has been a bit of a battle between film critic Roger Ebert and lovers of video games as to whether video games are art (as Ebert perceives film to be). I think there’s no question that these games contain visual and musical art. The question really boils down to whether the game itself is art. I am increasingly of the opinion that they can be.

Ebert’s point, perhaps, is that no matter how artistic the chess pieces might be, the chess game is not art. I think that the video game itself may be the chess pieces (and therefore art). Playing the game is no more art than playing chess is.

In the end, we may simply return to the beginning: Art is in the mind of the creator and the consumer. Is it art? That’s up to you. Some things clearly are not art, but there seems to be plenty of gray area that leaves it up to personal choice.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

24 responses to “What is Art?

  • ranjannarkar

    wind has no colour but u can taste it with your feelings and touch ART IS WIND

  • Lady from Manila

    I used to have a qualified definition of the word when I could only equate art with beauty. It had been difficult for me to consider something unpleasant to the senses as art. What’s more, anything way too easy to create I find it hard to accept as art. Now I ain’t sure anymore.

    The expressions “the art of conversation” or “the art of the game” have not been easy for me to grasp precisely. A good exchange between people is always the better art, I suppose?

    I’m also (simply) curious as to how you would respond to the blogger’s comment above.

    Have a great week, my dear pal. Take good care.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, “beauty” and “art” are two completely separate things with no necessary connection. Many, perhaps even most people, tend to conflate the two. Some even equate “what I like” with “art” (there’s even less connection there)!

      I like your idea of factoring in effort as a consideration, but a good artist can create art simply and easily sometimes. The degree of effort may have a closer correlation with “good” versus “bad” art. As a trivial example, blog articles usually improve the more you polish them.

      Talking about “the art of X” is a metaphor (simile, actually) that refers to the presumed skill (and/or talent and/or experience) necessary to do “X” really well. “She’s an artist,” sometimes just means someone is so good at something that they raise it to the level of being art.

      As you see, the idea of equating effort (and skill) with art is a significant part of its definition. The key part, at least for me, is the intent of the artist (as I discussed in the article).

      As for the comment above, I don’t believe in “bumper sticker” conversation or analysis.

      • Lady from Manila

        Eh, your first-rate mind and eloquence often make me fall off my chair – from admiration… 🙂 See ya again soon. Mmwah 😉

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’ll warn you: flattery will get you almost anywhere with me! 😕

        Don’t work too hard this week; see you next weekend!

      • Lady from Manila

        Hmm…you always dismiss my sincere praises as “flattery” so I checked on its meaning using my favorite Longman and Oxford dictionaries. They both define the particular term as insincere praise in order to obtain sth from sb. (Sad face by me now :-() 🙂
        But, my dear Wyrd, I can’t think of any purpose I might possibly have in coming here and flattering you. 🙂 Besides, that has never been my style. Reading (really good) blogs has become a favorite pastime of mine since last year. So I come and spend time here simply because your blog and your words make me happy. I’m sure your other readers feel the same way.

        “flattery will get you almost anywhere with me!” My reply: (giggles) “With pleasure.” 😉

        I just went online tonight. Yeah, another hard week at school has ended. And I’m here to indulge myself on your interesting thoughts and delectable words once again. I hope you’re doing quite alright these days.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Heh, heh! Wiktionary says it is, “excessive praise or approval, which is often insincere and sometimes contrived to win favor.” Often and sometimes, but not always! 😀 (How’s that for wriggling off the hook! :lol:) See, thing is, an attractive single woman apparently blowing me kisses after I’ve knocked her to the floor with my excellence… well, that could give me all sorts of wrong ideas. I didn’t want it to get to steamy in here! 😕

        Anyway… welcome to the weekend! Put your feet up, have some wine, read some blogs, make some comments. I’m having a B.L.A.S.T. (double exclamation mark), and it’s really hard to stop grinning all the time. I’ve goofed off (mostly) for a month, and now I’m starting to get back into hobby project work — something that used to vie for my limited free time! (Weather has been awesome lately, too!)

      • Lady from Manila

        Ooh, all sorts of wrong ideas are welcome…coming from you, Wyrd. Especially if you whisper them very softly to my ears while your fingers “artfully” run through my…Ooops, I almost forgot…your mom is reading your blog. Please pardon (Miss Naughty&Playful) me…hi hi 😉

        It’s good to know you’re into some hobby project work that’s keeping you happily preoccupied these days. Congrats on the weather, too.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        ..run through your… pocketbook? … sock drawer? 😈

        How sad is that? Old enough to be retired, and mom is still walking in at the wrong time! 😆

        [sigh] And how ironic, too! A lovely Lady with whisper-able ears and a finger-able sock drawer (I’m guessing). Figures Miss N&P would be on the other side of the world. Hang on,… let me check Google Earth… 7,800 miles! That’s a long whisper!! 😛

      • Lady from Manila

        Ha ha ha! That’s another peachy response from you that prompts me to blow another long kiss your way. To hell with the 7,800 miles. mmwah… 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        You know, at first I thought you said, “another preachy response,” and I was all, like, “Hey, wait a minute! I’m not that bad, am I?!” Peaches and preachers; not the same, not particularly even similar. (I have known some peachy preachers (my dad was one), but I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone preach about peaches.

        Unlike most preachers, peaches are one of the sexy fruits (along with bananas)! Fuzzy, soft and juicy; I bite into a nice peach, the juice rolls down my chin, while I run my fingers down… Oh, hi, mom! 😕

        Er, um,… where was I?…

  • Lady from Manila

    Oooh, that thing about devouring a peach…steamy… (Mrs. Smythe, I promise this would be the last. Do forgive me.)
    But I agree, Wyrd. Bananas are yummy and healthy food, on top of that. 😉

    And people with sexy minds are hardly preachers, dontcha know? So, you need not worry… 🙂

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yes, watching a woman eating a banana… how healthy it is definitely is the first thing on my mind! Like watching me eat a peach… no doubt it could engender thoughts about the wonder of fresh fruit.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Someone needs to create a “leer” smiley… the “evil” ( 👿 ) and “twisted” ( 😈 ) ones don’t fit the bill (and I’m disappointed at how close “twisted” is to “evil”… wish it was more “fun” somehow). The “cool” one ( 😎 ) is about as close as WordPress comes, I guess.

  • rung2diotimasladder

    A very fascinating and difficult topic—you attack, well done. Defining such fundamental things is very hard to do, read any Platonic dialogue and you start to feel it’s impossible.

    I think you’re onto something in saying art is recognized based on the intent behind it. The shuttle was an interesting element to bring in to show just how hazy our conception of art can be.

    One grey area might be architecture. Buildings can either be viewed as just some utilitarian function—like Walmart—or it can be considered art and function. But this feels like opening up a can of worms.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Thanks, and mos def! Ultimately we may only be able to provide our own definitions for those fundamental things in hopes that others may agree or at least understand what we mean. Most serious discussions seem to involve a period of agreeing (or agreeing to disagree) on semantics before they get to the real meat of the concepts. (I had a discussion with someone recently where we needed to be clear on what we respectively meant by “objective” since we both used it differently.)

      Agreed; architecture is a good example of a boundary condition. The overall intent of a building is utilitarian (almost always), but a design can reflect an artist-architect’s sensibilities. (In the Breaking the (Art) Rules comments you mention breaking rules just to break rules, and some architecture seems to fall into this area: Hey, look at what a weird building I designed! Isn’t is different?!)

      I had a similar relationship with the software I designed and wrote. It had, primarily, a utilitarian function, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t apply my artistic sensibility to how I executed that function. One consideration might be that the building, or the software, would be fine without the artistic flourish, so in that sense the “art” is definitely secondary. Whether that disqualifies the subject as a “work of art” is probably a subjective take (I personally incline towards yes, it does disqualify it as a “work of art”, but it may well be very artfully done).

      I tend to think that, to be a “work of art,” it has to be primarily an artistic work. (But that’s just me.)

      • rung2diotimasladder

        I guess I had in mind churches, cathedrals and the like. Of course, those serve so many purposes. Then there are those historical tourist attractions which once served a specific purpose but now are viewed as art (and serve only that purpose now). So I wonder if the intent of the designer/the original purpose is most important or the function for which it’s accepted?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        You bring up two very good points! Had to think about it… I think the functionality of a thing is a separate property from the art of a thing. There are intentionally functional objects — some of which are realized artistically (buildings, software, musical instruments). There are intentionally artistic objects — some of which are functional… maybe such as cathedrals? (Or Classics Illustrated Comics? 🙂 )

        One can argue they were built to express an interpretation of reality. Many of them are in the shape of a Latin Cross and filled with coded architectural references to parts of the Bible (in addition to carvings and statues). At the very least they seem a combination of utility and art. The stained glass windows alone are art!

        I think, too, that “tourist attraction” and “art” are distinct. Grand Canyon seems strictly the former; Picasso’s work was originally strictly the latter, but is now both. The consumer definitely has a say in things, but I think (at least for me) the idea of the artist’s intent predominates the category of art.

        (Which — duh, of course — since I define “art” as “what an artist does.” But it raises an interesting question: “So, what makes an artist?” Maybe I’ve just moved the problematic parts elsewhere. ❓ )

      • rung2diotimasladder

        I definitely agree about the Grand Canyon. Calling it art would seem more than a bit of a stretch, even if you want to call it the art of the divine creator.

        Your definition of the artist’s intent certainly helps when viewing found objects (such as toilets and mundane or even ugly things) installed in a museum. I suppose, though, that it would include graffiti, but only graffiti which was made for the purpose of being art (not just some way of getting in trouble). Of course, there’s no way to distinguish graffiti as art from graffiti as troublemaking, since it all depends on the artist/perpetrator’s intent. In other words, we might be forced to ask the person who did it.

        Of course, we like to assume that the ugly stuff under the bridge is just kids acting out and the other stuff that obviously took effort and design are made for different purposes, but here we’re getting into sticky territory.

        I love these kinds of discussions…trying to define things is a very difficult thing, but an enjoyable activity, at least for me.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “In other words, we might be forced to ask the person who did it.”

        Which, in my view, is entirely appropriate given my definition of art! 🙂

        Of course art and beauty are separate properties, but degree of effort is an interesting criteria. It “feel like” art should take some degree of effort. (Although I suppose it could be the effort of learning to be a really good at something and being able to produce new work quickly. I’m amazed at what sketch artists can do with a few simple strokes.)

        I also love these kinds of discussions, so you’re welcome company around here!

        (Sorry for the delay responding; I’ve been off on a bender.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Actually, looking back at the post I see I did touch on what makes an artist, but I’d bet trying to really nail it down could get sticky.

      • rung2diotimasladder

        For sure. I would’ve dodged it too. Besides, “what is art” is sticky enough.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Tonight I’m going to focus on: “What is pizza and beer?” XD

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