What Is Art?

Art is something that plays a part in everybody’s life. Anyone, from any walk of life, can make or appreciate art. But what, exactly, is it?

There are several ways of thinking about art.

For example, it is that stuff that you go to see at a museum. From the paintings hanging on the walls to the sculptures on pedestals, you can go and look at Art, with a capital “A”.

But it is more than that, of course. At the museum gift shop, you can buy a print of some of the pieces, and hang them on your wall at home. Surely, a reproduction of a work of art is still art, right?

You might buy a painting from an artist who is not a household name. Or you might even paint something yourself. All those are examples of artwork. So it would seem that the pedigree of the person producing the work is not what determines if it is art.

Does intention matter? If I sit down at an easel, with a paint brush, I can produce a painting. The finished product might not be very good, but it is an effort of creation.

However, let’s say I find an elaborate spider-web in the morning, glistening with dew. Is that art? The spider that spun the web did so as an act of creation, but didn’t intend to make artwork — it was just following a biological imperative. Maybe I’m so impressed, I take a picture. Does the act of photography make it more or less artistic?

Perhaps only the appreciation matters. If someone appreciates something as being aesthetically pleasing, is that thing automatically a work of art? But doesn’t that mean that anything can be so classified? And if that is true, does that devalue what the word “art” even means?

Related questions: How important is the artist to art? Art: create or consume? When did you last push the boundaries of your comfort zone?

5 thoughts on “What Is Art?”

  1. Art is the result of someone or a group’s creative expression. Great art usually, but not always, involves high creativity and skill. And while good (or bad) art is often in the senses of the beholder, greatness often comes as a result of consensus or controversy about an expression’s value.

    Using my favorite band, U2, as an example, their album, “Achtung Baby,” demonstrates artistic greatness (as determined by myself and critics alike) both in its product and how it kept the band relevant through its use of double meanings and irony. On the other end of the spectrum, their sophomore album, “October” — other than the title track — is a poor example of artistic expression.

  2. I thought about this at a list of college courses being divided into Fine Arts and Applied Arts. So, I came to think of art as things that are created – whether created to be beautiful such as a scenic painting to hang on your wall and admire, or to be useful, as an automobile or drill press, or even better if something is both beautiful and useful – like a spider web.

  3. It seems to me that “art” (whether “good” or “bad”) is all about intention. If the maker intends to provoke higher-order thought on any subject, by any means abstract (cubism) or literal (realism), then the product is “art.”

    This would leave spider webs and tableware (however beautiful) as non-art, and gives a framework for photography as well. Some photos are just snapshots, and some are art, depending on the intention of the photographer. In music you might say this divides advertising jingles and rock (or any other) music. Both may provoke emotion, but the ad is not “intended” as art, so it isn’t. Like industrial design, as well. If on the other hand, some random object makes you think higher-order thoughts about some subject/topic, that’s on you, and doesn’t mean the random thing “becomes” art.

    1. I find your definition intriguing.

      However, it seems to me that if we need to know the intention of the creator in order to determine if something is art, then we are destined to be left with ambiguity in our lives. While some things have an obvious intention, not everything does.

      If we see something and don’t know who the creator is, or the creator has chosen not to reveal what their intention is, does that mean that whatever they created may or may not be art?

      Perhaps a random object, which purpose you cannot immediately identify and whose creator you do not know, is the Schrödinger’s Cat of artistic expression: it is both art and not-art at the same time, until you discover the intention of the creator. Then the wave form collapses and it becomes one or the other.

  4. I actually agree with your extrapolations. I say Yes, there’s times you don’t know until you become informed of the intent of the creator.

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