What is Art?

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 10 min.


I have recently begun listening to Marc Maron’s smart and funny WTF podcast. Yesterday I heard an episode in which comedian Janeane Garofalo was his guest (also smart and funny). Near the end of the conversation, Garofalo brought up the question, “What is an artist?” Maron responded by saying, “To me, an artist is somebody who has put their craft in place, and uses it to express themselves.” An interesting conversation ensued, which you can listen to here. Their conversation was smart, but also casual, so it wouldn’t be fair for me to respond as though I were debating them. However, I am interested in using Maron’s response as a jumping off point because his idea is one that I run into a lot and seems to be very popular.

I don’t have a problem with Maron’s response as a component of what it can mean for some people to be an artist, but I also know that there are people for whom this description would be limiting. His description seems to imply that the definition of “art” is the product of somebody using anything that could be considered a craft as a means to self-expression. This is a narrow definition. A lot of art is conceived of as a form of imitation or exploration (John Cage, for example, had no interest in the idea of “expression,” but instead was interested in assigning to his ego a passive role in the process of invention).

The dominant view of art for most of our civilization has been that art is a form of imitation, going back at least to Plato (who was against art for this reason: indulging in an imitation of truth impedes the pursuit of real Truth) and Aristotle (he liked art). In this sense, even an emotional response to music is a response to the imitation of emotion in music.


The Western notion that art is a form of self-expression seems to have come about in the 19th century. We see in that era, for various reasons, increased emphasis on aesthetic relativism, and we see the ideas of Immanuel Kant from the previous century influencing artists (such as Beethoven) as the West enters the Romantic era. We also see the introduction of impressionism, which diverged in practice from the idea of imitation and lent itself to an explanation of being expressional (the movement actually termed “expressionism” arises at the end of the 19th century as well). As other art movements came about, new ideas about defining art had to be explored (Clive Bell’s art as significant form, George Dickie’s art as a product of the Art World, et al…).

As with many other concepts that are essentially indefinable and open to the nature/nurture question (justice, beauty, holiness, etc…), “art” is a concept that I view as being defined based on two perspectives on the part of each individual mind. This reference to the individual is important, because part of what makes the concept “art” universally indefinable is that it can only be defined at the level of the individual mind, which itself is in a state of flux. By “define,” I am referring to what the word “art” denotes, and, in a broader sense, that which can be verbally communicated between thinkers. This is distinct from a concept like “truth,” the definition of which can generally be agreed upon as a point of reference for debating the applicability of the concept itself to certain ideas. We are therefore able to argue about what is or is not true, and the relevance of truth as a concept in a certain context, but there are not categories of things that are truth (something that is true – nor collections of things that are true – does not in and of itself provide a definition of “truth;” otherwise, everything that is would be truth itself). There are, however, categories of things that are art, and there are individual examples and collections of examples of which can be said, “This is art.”

As I said, “art” is defined at the level of the individual mind. Essentially, there is my definition of “art,” and there is anyone else’s definition of “art.” These are the two perspectives that I referred to earlier. “Anyone else’s idea of art” represents countless concepts grouped into one, generalized concept. There is also a subset of the individual concept of “art,” which is the collective concept of “art.” [12/25/09 EDIT: I should change “collective” to “collaborative,” because I don’t really believe in a “collective” anything among people except perhaps a collective impetus coming from inescapable attributes of human nature, like hunger; the hunger itself, however, would not be collective.] Note that I don’t consider this collective concept to fall under the “anyone else” perspective. This is because I don’t believe that humanity shares a single mind (which is why I say “anyone else” and not “everyone else”). I believe that the individual minds with the most power impose their individual wills on humanity, thereby creating a false impression that humanity has a single will or mind. Therefore, I view the collective concept of “art” to be the synthesis of two or more individual concepts of “art.” This synthesis will never exactly coincide with the constituent individuals’ concepts of “art,” but it will be distinct from “anyone else’s” concept. My role in such a synthesis would be to contribute my individual concept of art to the collective concept, not to conform to the apparent product of the synthesis itself, because to attempt to adopt the synthesis would be to contibute to its destruction (here we see the beginnings of a paradox, which I’ll avoid going into). At any rate, I’m concerned here with two perspectives that exist within my own mind: my definition, and anyone else’s definition.

Here’s my current definition of “art”:

The deliberate creation, caused manifestation, or assembling of ideas into some combination that results in an object, which is transmitted with the intention to stimulate the intellect and/or emotions of an experiencer.

Key words here are “idea,” “stimulate,” and “intention.” An “idea” can be anything, such as an environment, sound, painting, movement, frame, or context (importantly, itself a combination of ideas). By “stimulate,” I mean something more than “to experience.” By “intention,” I am referring to the idea that an artist intends to create art, intends to stimulate, and is conscious of the activity being engaged in. I am not sure about including “and/or,” because removing the emotional component would seem to make this definition applicable to, for example, an interesting math problem (which I’m sure many enthusiasts would indeed consider an art form of sorts, and one that features an emotional experience). However, there is a difficulty with not having that “or” in there. Consider Igor Stravinsky’s (and others’) ideas about the role of emotion in the creation and experience of music. There are those who would argue that art should be a purely intellectual pursuit. This sort of thinking makes me want to integrate into my definition something to the effect of, “…the creator of such a subject intends that subject to be a work of art.” Or, perhaps I could change the word “subject” to “artwork,” but I worry about creating a tautology that says, “Art is art.” My definition is in progress, but that’s appropriate because my understanding of my experience of art is in progress (or at least in flux), as is my very experience of art. Art itself, of course, is also in a constant state of change.


This change is a very important attribute to keep in mind when defining “art” because it reminds us that before a philosopher or artist can define something as “art,” that something must first be created (even if only in the imagination of the artist). Whoever creates that something, by definition, is an artist.

Moving along, my definition of “art” for anyone who is not me is, “Whatever someone calls art.” If I were to tell someone, “What you have made is not art” or, more importantly, “The thing that you are moved by and are calling art is in fact not art,” I would be presuming that “art” can be defined in the general sense. If it can be defined, then it is not my place to tell someone what is or is not art according to my own definition of “art,” but instead I should be looking to the, let’s say, Absolute Definition of “art” in order to determine what is or is not art. Because there is no Absolute Definition of “art,” I should outwardly accept someone else’s definition of “art” as their own, and, when appropriate, engage in a discussion about the differences between my definition and someone else’s. Inwardly, however, I am not obligated to accept the other person’s definition of “art.” This secret unacceptance may, of course, lead to the sort of contrived tolerance that often arises when one embraces cultural relativism, which I would recognize as being potentially socially problematic, but less so than were I to make a practice of outwardly rejecting others’ definitions of “art.” Also, most importantly, note that this approach doesn’t require that I accept a definition of “art” that excludes works that I consider to be art.

One could argue, then, that this rule of outward acceptance would, in practical terms, render everything to be art. I don’t believe it would, for a number of reasons, though it would arguably make it possible for almost anything to be art, which is, in fact, the current state of things. It is this state that I am attempting to describe.

With this in mind, we see that once those who considered something to be art have ceased to exist, the art itself ceases to be art (perhaps being marginalized into the category of “cultural artifact” depending on the extent to which the artifact’s role has been documented and accepted during its era and subsequent eras), and things that were not art, become art. Consider that the ancient Egyptians had no word for “art,” nor did the contemporary concept of a humanistic aesthetic exist in ancient Egypt as far as we know, yet current museums and the public have no qualms about designating Egyptian statuary, pottery etc… as things to be called “art.”

Another thing I would like to point out is the obstacle one runs into when one’s definition of “art” is really just a definition of “good art.” This starts to get into the area of taste, which I’ll avoid here because taste should not have any place in defining what art is. To ignore this need for neutrality of taste can lead to a fallacy of denotation, which reminds me of a story:

Someone once told me that he loved all music. I put some music on, which, disgusted by what he heard, he ran over to turn off. I said, “I thought you said you love all music.” His response: “Yes, I do, but this is not music.”

A definition of “art” should allow for the experience of two pieces of art that are similar in form to provide significantly distinct experiences. For example, two songs by the same artist might use similar devices and sound quite similar. Both songs are unquestionably examples of music to fans of the artist, but one song might be generally held in high esteem while the other song is generally considered dreadful. If we were to say that an essential feature of the definition of art is “that which moves us,” then only one of these songs would be art (meaning, arguably, that only one of them would be music, for how can something be a form of art, but not be an example of art?).

I’m tempted here to address ideas that I have encountered that are attributed to art philosopher Arthur Danto, famously knownandy_warhol_brillo for arguing that art has come to an end (following Andy Warhol’s 1964 Brillo Box installation), and that artists have become more concerned with the philosophical question of “What is art?” as opposed to creating art. I will save addressing these ideas until I’ve read more of his work. I’m also still planning to read the book The Art Question by Nigel Warburton (who has a great podcast called Philosophy Bites). I’m very interested in the role of philosophy in art, and would like to see the two camps working together on ideas as opposed to trying to outrun one another (Danto’s claim that artists have become philosophers makes it seem as though he’s trying to level the playing field so that he can assert some kind of authority in the art world; one that is ultimately impotent, however, because it is the artist who creates art, not the philosopher; again, I’ve seen such claims of Danto’s out of context, but will eventually go to the source).

The next topic in this vein that I’d be interested in writing about is taste, especially the question, “Is all taste valid?” I believe that it is.

Note: The two above art pieces are, respectively, Claude Monet’s Sunset, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Portrait of Ross).

Enjoy or find this post useful? Please consider pitching in a dollar or three to help me do a better job of populating this website with worthwhile words and music. Let me know what you'd like to see more of while you're at it. Transaction handled by PayPal.
Or click the banner to shop at Amazon (at no extra cost: it just gives me some of what would have gone to Amazon).

Further Reading

15 Replies to “What is Art?”

  1. I like your definition of art, but I would change the following:
    “stimulate the intellect and/or emotions”
    to this:
    “stimulate the senses and the mind”

    Intellect and emotions can be stimulated by a great speech, which we generally don’t consider as art. I think the word “senses” is really important to include. Art is often categorized based on which sense it was made to stimulate (but not always).

    Also, I wouldn’t say “and/or” because that broadens the definition too much. There are many things that were intended to stimulate one or the other without generally being considered art. I think art requires the stimulation of both, otherwise it can be philosophy or design, but not art.

    …Which now leads me to think: is art just a synthesis of these two? Or is it something that grows out of the synthesis, an Emergence or Gestalt effect that doesn’t always happen (which would explain why it’s difficult to define).

  2. I like your ideas, Vesna, and especially like that you bring the idea of “senses” into the mix. Also, we usually think of sight and audition when it comes to art, but of course some artists have chosen to explore the other senses as well.

    One thing I’m not clear on is what it means to stimulate the senses in a way that’s separate from the mind. We must experience a sound through our senses for it to reach our mind. Where is the separation between stimulation of the sense of audition and the mind itself? It would seem here by “mind” you are referring not necessarily to the intellect or physical brain, but to a mental system that is triggered by the heard sound (a system consisting of memories, knowledge, cultural conditioning, language etc…).

    Having said this, are there not some artist who intend their work to have a purely emotional effect, and consider the intellectual component of their work to be dependent on the shape of human nature? I’m thinking of composers (such as Arnold Schoenberg, whose work was highly intellectual but considered himself hyper-romantic) who accept that consonance and dissonance are products of natural schemes in the human mind, and therefore do not have to be learned or intellectually considered. In this way, the composer does not have to rely on cultural musical cliches to get an emotional message across to a listener. This would seem to open up a an epistemological debate on human nature, and might even spawn an argument in which taste factors into defining art (such as with the idea that there is natural beauty in the world, which it’s art’s job to imitate).

    Anyway, I would definitely agree that the intellect plays an important role in forming our taste, and that taste can drive individuals to create art, but is there not also an important emotional aspect to all of this? Or would you say that stimulation of the mind and senses (the synthesis you refer to, which is really cool) would naturally induce an emotional reponse? I’m suspicious of artists who claim that their work should only be experienced intellectually.


  3. Dan asks: Where is the separation between stimulation of the sense of audition and the mind itself?

    I don’t think any such separation exists, and that points up my frustration with discussions like these, in which one attempts to create superfine distinctions and force reality to fit language. I don’t mean this as a lazy cop-out, but as a sincerely held belief: Any attempt to define a concept like “art” is doomed to failure because it assumes that a human-made word/concept (”art”) can be adjusted and defined to correspond exactly to something that doesn’t actually exist in the concrete world.

    Maybe this is because I’ve worked intimately with words all my adult life, but I have a deep sense of the limitations of language. It’s a system of symbols, and I don’t think there’s any reason to assume that a system of symbols should necessarily have anything to do with the universe. For me, the use of language requires a suspension of disbelief. Any sentence I write, including this one, should be qualified by a disclaimer like this: “Let’s just suppose for a moment that there is such a thing as a ’sentence,’ and that it can be ‘qualified’ by a ‘disclaimer.’” Obviously society couldn’t function if every bit of verbal communication had to be qualified by such an explicit disclaimer. So I don’t expect such disclaimers. Instead I tend to use language with a permanent sense of its limitations, and to take the accuracy of all verbal communication with a grain of salt.

    Most of the time this works fine, but I get into trouble when I try to delve into Western philosophy, whose practitioners have built towering edifices and reputations upon concepts and assumptions that I find highly questionable, including the assumption that the infinite complexities of concrete reality—much less abstractions like “art”—can be captured in the tangled, transitory grunts and scribbles of our ape-human language. This is probably why I find some of those “great authors” unsatisfying and even unreadable. It leads me to sympathize with filmmaker Federico Fellini when he says, “I am bored by intellectuals, because they always try to give an exact name to everything.”

    Please understand that none of this is meant to disrespect the obvious intelligence of Dan’s posts or Vesna’s comment. The inherent impossibility of a task does not mean that the attempt to achieve it is ignoble. I can read such attempts and find them very interesting and stimulating. But I believe that reason why some words, like “art,” are difficult to define is that they denote concepts that are inherently vague, and that don’t necessarily correspond to the concrete world. I don’t think that any amount of analysis can force them to become not-vague. They are words not of necessity but of provisional convenience, invented to denote certain transient concepts invented by humans. To me, the fact that many cultures, including the ancient Egyptians, have lacked a word for “art” only helps to point out that “art” as such really doesn’t exist. The concept of “art” exists only in our minds—which is one reason why any attempt to define it must deal not only with the “artist” but also with the “viewer,” without which the term is meaningless. And since the concept is used to denote a reality that itself is vague, we shouldn’t be surprised at our inability to arrive at an exact definition that can be agreed upon by everyone. As long as the vaguely defined word has a vaguely agreed-upon meaning that can be of some use in everyday social discourse, then I don’t really think there’s much of a problem. The problem only arises when one tries to engage in rigorous philosophical inquiry into the word’s definition; one is forced to recognize the futility of trying to dig a house foundation with a hand spade.

    I know that this might open me to the accusation that I’m too stupid or too lazy to apply myself to the problem of trying to define “art,” but I don’t really care. It’s quite possible that I’m too stupid. But I’ve arrived at this position after trying to wrap my feeble brain around it for a long time.

  4. Hi Renaldo –

    Thanks for the great post.

    I agree with you about the difficulties in trying to separate the senses from the mind. For example, I don’t see how we would go about stimulating hearing. Sound itself is something that only exists in the mind, of course, as an interpretation of patterns of vibration that are generally transmitted to the ear through air molecules. We have a faculty for intercepting and translating those vibrations into an idea we call “sound,” but the faculty itself doesn’t experience the art, only the mind does.

    Regarding your points about language, I agree with you and am glad you brought them up. In many ways I feel that the attempt to define “art” is not just an attempt to better understand what I create as an “artist,” as well as the relation of what I do to that of other so-called “artists,” but is also a way to reveal just how limited language is in its ability to represent the concepts that we take for granted as a representation of reality. This limitation then reveals just how subjective our idea of reality is, which helps to not get too caught up in believing that certain ideas (like that of “art”) are universally self-evident. In this way, I’m not convinced that paradoxes, for example, exist in the world, but really just seem to exist as the result of our inability to categorize a world which may very well not be categorizable in human terms. In other words, statements like “there are no absolute truths” or “everything I say is a lie” would seem to represent not a paradox of concepts that exist in the world external to humans, but instead a limitation of our language (to which our concepts of the world are inextricably linked) to describe the world. This seems to be as true of mathematical languages as it is of verbal ones.

    So, I agree that “art” is indefinable, but I value what is exposed in attempting to define it. I think that the definition of “art” is a good thing to examine because of some of the cultural revelations that arise. For example, there exists the idea that there are the words “art” or “craft” or “artifact” which should be used to describe objects that have very similar functions in the cultures within which we find them, and may look very similar, but are categorized as one thing or another based on some cultural context. This is something I’m not a big fan of, so I don’t really differentiate between the merits of a great song vs. a symphony based on some cultural hierarchy of categorization that would call one “art” and the other “just a pop song.”

    Ultimately I can just feel that I enjoy something or don’t, but this approach too opens up a lot of issues, at least if one is interested in addressing them. For example, I referred to Clive Bell in my original post, who essentially defined a work of art as something that has significant form through the use of lines, and that also provides an “aesthetic experience.” He’s really just saying, “If I experience an object at an emotional level that I consider to be an aesthetic experience, and the object was made by one or more humans, the object is a work of art.” This is obviously problematic for a few reasons (including the language issues you bring up), the worst of which, in my opinion, is that he doesn’t allow for something that doesn’t move him to be art. For example, he uses Frith’s painting “Paddington Station” as an example of something that is not a work of art, even though he considers it to be a “masterpiece.”

    Another issue with my idea that “I enjoy something or I don’t,” has been addressed by utilitarian philosophers like John Stuart Mill, who started quantifying pleasure: the pleasure of a poem is a “better” experience than a night of getting drunk. Of course, that would depend on one’s mood as well as how good the poem is and how good the company is when drinking! You just can’t quantify these things.

    Anyway, I’m glad you mentioned the problems you mentioned. An interest in these issues is part of why I really enjoy postmodern philosophers like Derrida and Foucault. I know Foucault didn’t accept that label, but his ideas about creativity, language, history etc… bring up the kind of challenges that it seems Western thinkers should be facing. But not only people who consider themselves to be “thinkers.” It seems to me that clichéd, unconsidered ideas about art and “cultural experience” exist throughout our culture in a way that, if we examine it, we will see speaks to deeply ingrained issues with how ideas are communicated socially and even politically in our culture (I’m very interested in the idea of metaphor in this context).

    In your case, you’ve said that you thought a lot about the question and determined it to be unanswerable, which is where I stand on it as well. I would rather everyone gave this answer rather than make a claim of absolute understanding. Perhaps (paradoxically?) an explanation of why “art” is indefinable says more about what art is than any attempt at an actual definition could.


  5. Dan wrote: “It would seem here by “mind” you are referring not necessarily to the intellect or physical brain, but to a mental system that is triggered by the heard sound (a system consisting of memories, knowledge, cultural conditioning, language etc…)”

    Yes, this is what I meant. I don’t think that there is a separation between the body and the mind, but I think that one can experience an aesthetic pleasure on a more primal level, with the senses. Perhaps by “mind” I did mean intellect – but I was including all of the things listed in parentheses above, so I called it “mind”.

    Regarding the definition of art, I don’t think that we are trying to force reality to fit language. This is especially clear when you know a second language and realize that nothing can ever be translated – not fully – especially since all the other words in a language fit around the chosen word in such a different way. English is a second language for me, so I sometimes struggle with it to this day. I am definitely a fan of what I’ve read about post-structuralism (which isn’t much). I agree that language is problematic if we approach it from a single standpoint.

    But how is that relevant in this discussion? Now that we know that language is meaningless, does that mean that we shouldn’t even bother trying to communicate with each other? The word “art” exists in our culture today, and I think it’s interesting to find out why we have this word that others didn’t, and what we think it means… especially to those of us who dedicate our lives to it (not the word, the concept). Which brings us back to the question: “So what is this concept?”

    Renaldo, perhaps you were writing this as a reminder, or to see if we are keeping the language-problem in mind without trying to assign an unwavering structure to the concept?

    Having said that, I agree with everything you wrote, except for this part: “As long as the vaguely defined word has a vaguely agreed-upon meaning that can be of some use in everyday social discourse, then I don’t really think there’s much of a problem.”

    Maybe there isn’t much of a problem to people not involved in art… although most of us at least consume art and are involved in some way. But as someone who has dedicated her life to making/teaching art, I run into so many problems with this vaguely defined word on a daily basis (basically whenever I’m working or teaching)! It permeates my life. To give a random example: “Why don’t you photograph weddings? I mean, you can do it in a way that satisfies you artistically, and make some extra cash while you’re at it… I don’t get it.” Maybe it’s not the strongest example, but it’s just the first one that came to mind. This would be one instance where there is a large gap in our definitions, I think.

    I can give a thousand other examples – funny conversations I’ve had with art students, my grandma, gallery owners, etc. What’s more important is that the vaguely defined word affects my life in very concrete ways. It affects what I can/can’t apply with to a particular gallery (depending on how they define art), it affects how I am perceived and treated in various communities: the scientific community, the college community, the “art” community (what is that?), etc. It even affects how I do my taxes:

    My pottery has to be inventoried and reported as value (because the IRS automatically calls pottery craft/goods) whereas “artwork” is not considered surplus or anything of the sort, and doesn’t need to be reported. So I have to “pay” for pottery that’s sitting around, but not my art…? Which is extremely problematic for me because some of my pottery cannot be used, and is intended as a commentary or deconstruction of the “vessel” form… in other words, I would definitely call it art. But I wouldn’t call all of my pottery art, only some pieces… And then some pieces do “cross over”, etc. So how do I report this on my taxes? It’s almost comical.

    This is my life, constantly encountering problems with the differing definitions of art. It’s important to me that I figure out my own definition, if anything just for the sake of my sanity… even knowing that it can’t be defined. Outside of that, I like to see how other people define it, so I can learn more about them and about myself, especially if their definitions somehow affect mine and change it.

  6. That’s a great point, Vesna, about pottery as “craft” vs. “art.” Government classifications of “art” is not something to be ignored. I’ve received grants from the city of Chicago as a composer that probably wouldn’t have been as easy to get as a “songwriter.” We also have the NEA, which has a responsibility to stay within the bounds of a popular notion of what art is. I don’t believe it’s the state’s responsibility to “keep art alive,” but I do think it’s in the best interest of artists to concern themselves with whatever is influencing the government’s ideas about what is and isn’t “art.”


  7. But how is that relevant in this discussion? Now that we know that language is meaningless, does that mean that we shouldn’t even bother trying to communicate with each other?

    I brought it up because it was the first issue that jumped into my face as I read Dan’s original post, and also because it’s the only thing I could contribute. But I certainly don’t consider language to be meaningless. I consider it an essential tool that, like all tools, has limitations. And it seems to me that those limitations must always be kept in mind when trying to communicate, or trying to define words. When discourse get too subtle and abstract, there comes a point where to me it seems less like communication and more like a game.

    I would naturally expect a working visual artist to have a view of the word “art” that’s very different from my own. Even at the most elementary level, one must wrestle with the distinction between “art” in the sense of traditional visual art and “art” in the more inclusive usage of “artistic” work in any medium. And I certainly don’t doubt that in teaching art, you’re going to get into a lot of trouble with the word. I’m glad I don’t have that problem. Over the years I’ve occasionally tried to read contemporary art journals and books on art theory, and frankly I find most of them incomprehensible. I am not smart enough to understand them, and most contemporary gallery art leaves me mystified.

    If I were to ask you why you don’t do wedding photography, and you were to reply that you simply didn’t like doing it, I’d be satisfied with that answer without wanting delve into any definitions of “art.” As for the IRS, I would assume that in cases where it was difficult to decide whether a given piece was “artwork” or “craft/goods,” one would simply choose the option that offers the best tax advantage. Rather an obvious comment, I’m sure. But that’s the level at which I tend to operate.

  8. Sure. So it would be useful to know in advance how the IRS draws that distinction. Come to think of it, I used to know a CPA who (if I remember correctly) did a lot of tax preparation work for independent artists. She must have had to deal with the issue often.

  9. Yeah, we have an accountant who does that as well. That’s the person who advised Vesna about the “craft” issue. It determines not only how she reports inventory, but also how she can market, exhibit and sell her work. Also, as I pointed out in my example with the NEA, the government notion of “art” is determined to a great extent by popular notions of what art is, which is what we are concerned with here. The government doesn’t just come up with an idea of “art” separately from all the other things that drive government. So, someone has to come up with a functional definition of “art,” a definition that has consequences for artists and the culture/society within which they live, and therefore I think it’s in the best interest of artists and the rest of society to be concerned and involved with what these popular notions of art are.

  10. PS – Of course, there are two questions being addressed here, which are the two major concerns of Aesthetic Theory. The first is “What is art?” and the second is “Why should we care about attempting to define art?”

  11. I would like to point out one thing (among many others) that I really enjoyed about this post. I very much like that you made a distinction between art to you and art to “anyone else”. This eliminates the problem (which you also talk about, but in the comments, I think?) of your definition limiting “art” to being what moves you personally.

    I would also like to comment on the bit about defining “art” as…well, “art”.

    You said:

    “This sort of thinking makes me want to integrate into my definition something to the effect of, “…the creator of such a subject intends that subject to be a work of art.” Or, perhaps I could change the word “subject” to “artwork,” but I worry about creating a tautology that says, “Art is art.””

    Usually it would be a problem. (I should mention that I don’t think you should change “subject” to “artwork”. Only that you should add to the definition.) I think this seems to be a bit of an exception. Often when we define something, we are defining something that we believe exists inevitably. Do we decide to MAKE “truth”? Perhaps, but I definitely think many would feel that this is an inevitable concept of humanity. While there are also many who would feel the same way about the concept of “art” (mostly artists, probably), I do not think there would be as much of a consensus as there would be for a concept like “truth”. Because art is something that we imagine and seemingly choose to physically bring into the world for questionable “purposes”, I think it might be important to go with your instinct of including in the definition that “art” is indeed something that happens when someone intends to make “artwork”. However, I think it is important to make the distinction that just because a person did not intend to make a piece of artwork, does not mean that they didn’t. Here we run into “art to me, and art to anyone else”. To that person, what they created is not art, but to others, it might be. It seems that we can (and should) define art in a way that manages to still allow it to be a subjective process.

  12. Hi Nikki –

    Perhaps I’m worrying too much about a tautological trap when really what’s being said is “art is the product of the intention to create art.” To break it down more, “art is the effect of a certain kind of intention.”

    Having said that, I like your idea about having a definition that allows us to call something “art” that wasn’t made by someone claiming to be an “artist” (which, we often do), and would like to look at this idea a little more closely. Could you give an example of something that someone who is not an artist created, yet someone else would call “art”? I can think of an obvious example, perhaps of an “outsider artist” or someone who just doesn’t like the label “artist,” which I myself struggled with as a composer in my early 20s.

    Another kind of example is a little less complicated, I think. I’m thinking here of found art, starting, it seems, with Marcel Duchamp. If someone designs and manufactures an item (I’m being careful not to use the word “object” for various reasons), and I get a hold of it and declare it “art,” who is the artist there? In the case of Duchamp, as with most found art, it’s the context of putting it in a gallery (or similar environment, including hanging it on a wall in one’s house) that ultimately confirms the item to be part of a greater idea of an art experience. In other words, there is a combination of ideas that come together to create “art,” a combination put in motion by the artist and that confers to the item the quality of being an “artwork,” though without this greater context (initiated by an artist) the item is just a urinal or piece of wood or rock or whatever.

    So, with the above idea of intention in mind, it seems that even though the person (or natural causes) that created the item didn’t have the intention of creating art, the person who found the item and called it “art” and put it in a frame of sorts did have the intention of creating art. So, for something to be “art,” it seems there must be this intention on the part of at least one person, the artist, at least in this second kind of example.

    In the first example, however, when a person doesn’t want or is unaware of the label “artist,” I think things get more complicated because we have to look at each individual to try to get an understanding of what their situation is, including how they view themselves and ideas about “art” in the context of their culture (I’ve known people to make excellent art, for example, but not consider themselves to be a “real” artist; I’ve known others who just thought it a pretentious label or a label that doesn’t apply to the kind of creative work they do etc…).

    What I’m describing here speaks to a common issue we run into in cultural relativism, which is the natural inclination for us to think that our ideas of culture are “right,” and that people who subscribe to differing ideas from our own only think they are doing what’s best for themselves, but in reality the are the victim of some kind of propaganda. In other words, if someone says what they are creating is not art, who am I to say that they are wrong? Well, I can say that they are right in terms of their experience, and I’m right in terms of my own experience. But where do we draw the line with this kind of thinking?

    These sorts of issues are among the reasons I think there’s value in examining “the art question.” To my mind, it’s important in the same way that it’s important for us to be concerned with popular ideas about the media through which ideas are disseminated, as well as the sources that determine the nature of those ideas, especially those dealing with the distribution of justice and justice itself (itself a vague concept). It seems to me that a lot of people in society would benefit from examining – and hopefully reaching a better understanding – of how they’ve been assigned to the roles they play in the cultural hierarchy within which they find themselves. In this way, a discussion of “What is art?” inevitably leads to questions of ethics and society, and often to politics.

    Regarding the question of making truth, I think there is something to that. In most cases we would consider ourselves engaged in the process of seeking or uncovering truth, or in opening ourselves up to allow truth to reveal itself to us, or in proving that there is no real truth (which itself requires an understanding and agreement on the concept of truth) etc… That’s an interesting distinction to look at when comparing how we apply concepts like “truth” and “art.” We may attempt (consciously or unconsciously) to make something true, but we don’t consider ourselves to have made truth itself. Well, that’s a whole other topic, of course. The reason I chose “truth” and not “dog,” for example, was because I like the comparative challanges of the two ideas.


  13. Haha, yes, I won’t even begin to talk about the idea that “truth” is floating out there somewhere, independent of humanity, just waiting to be figured out by us.

    The idea of “found art” or anything of the sort didn’t occur to me at all. I would have to think about that for a bit. I was actually led to think about the idea of someone not purposely creating art by your mentioning the Egyptian artifacts in museums, that we call art, but that were not apparently created with any such thought. Also, I would say people who don’t consider their work “art”, like perhaps a chef, or someone who writes jingles, might not consider it art while others do. Likewise there are people who consider what they do to be art while others don’t. I would also like to point out that you say:

    In the first example, however, when a person doesn’t want or is unaware of the label “artist,” I think things get more complicated because we have to look at each individual to try to get an understanding of what their situation is, including how they view themselves and ideas about “art” in the context of their culture.

    The thing is that we have to include in the definition that people might be unaware that they are creating something that others are going to label as “art”, simply because we very rarely can know that much about the creator of artwork we are experiencing, especially in the case of ancient art, or artwork whose creator is dead but that is enjoyed/appreciated by current society.

    What you’ve said about found art, and who the artist is, also is interesting to me. I haven’t seen or heard much of anything about found art. I’m just vaguely aware of it. So I’d like to look at it more. I would say I agree with your view – that whoever “frames” it, or manipulates it into something with the intent of creating artistic value, would be the artist.

    As far as drawing the line when it comes to, “I’m right to me, and they are right to themselves”, I don’t know that you can draw a line with that sort of thinking. Do we disregard it because it makes drawing a conclusion more difficult? It’s true. However, you are coming up with a definition for yourself, and you’ve made that clear. I think it’s good that you are trying to make it as accurate as possible by taking in opinions from other people, and once again, facing the challenge of creating a definition that opens itself to the subjectivity of art. I think considering subjectivity might be even more important in defining art than in defining many other things, because subjectivity and perspective are crucial in art.

    Is there a reason to discuss what art is? Is it important to? Is it helpful for a society to examine itself? Is it helpful to try to define abstract notions with our language, which is flawed? I would say so. I can’t say that I’m sure. But I don’t mind trying.

  14. Hi Nikki –

    Thanks for sharing your ideas on this. I’ve enjoyed reading them!

    To clarify, when I referred to drawing the line with this sort of thinking, I was talking about tolerance for other kinds of ideas that are prone to cultural relativism (I’m using “culture” in a sense that includes the culture of a neigborhood, family, or even individual). So, if we accept anyone’s idea of what art is, do we also have to accept anyone’s ideas about race and gender roles? Are these things connected? I believe they are. We live in a society that encourages cultural tolerance, which is distinct from “acceptance,” and is itself a whole field of thought. The question of where to draw the lines between acceptance, tolerance, and intolerance is perhaps impossible to answer conclusively, but is a question that I think has to be viewed as part of a bigger picture when considering “the art question.” As I mentioned before, discussions about what art is (or should be etc…) tend to lead to discussions about ethics, society, and culture in general.


Share your thoughts:

Deprecated: Directive 'allow_url_include' is deprecated in Unknown on line 0