There has always been a huge amount of debate with regards to the definition of art. What is art? What makes art? And why does one person say something is art and another revile it? This topic of debate is also not something that is new to the artistic world. Throughout the centuries in Western culture from the 11th century on through to the end of the 17th century, the definition of art was anything done with skill as a result of knowledge and practice. Along with this, all throughout history people have been criticising others over the work they’re creating and denouncing it as ‘not real art’ or not even art at all. So we must ask, how do you define the creation or production of art?
Some say art is beauty but then what is beauty? Beauty is much more than cosmetic. It is not always about prettiness. There are plenty of opportunities to find artistic works of artistic expression that we could agree are not necessarily pretty but are beautiful. Beautiful art may be the artist successfully portraying their artists intended emotions, whether they’re pretty and bright or dark and sinister, or something in between. But neither the artist nor the observer can be certain of successful communication in the end, so beauty in art will always be subjective.
One of the initial reactions to this approach of breaking down what art is is that the categories seem overly broad. Within even just the confines of fine art, you are able to explore painting, drawing, sculpture, printmaking, performance art, photography, and video amongst many more. And one could say that you could make or do anything and if you call it art, then it is. Arguably, that has to be true. Art does not have to be beautiful and that’s the key idea here. Art is an expression and how we create that expression is important. So the fundamental difference between art and beauty is that art is about who produced it whereas beauty depends on who’s looking. There is no one universal definition of visual art but there are ways of defining it! All throughout history these definitions have shifted and changed slightly. For example, a painting by Jean Basquiat that sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s auction in May 2017 would have had trouble finding an audience in Renaissance Italy. But art evolves and if it didn’t we would indeed live in a very bland world.
The definition of art has generally fallen into three categories: representation, expression, and form.
Art as Representation: Plato developed the first ideas into art. That is, he was one of the first to start thinking of it as something more. He developed the idea of art as “mimesis”, which in Greek means copying or imitation. For this reason, the primary meaning of art was for centuries defined as the representation or replication of something that is beautiful or meaningful. Until roughly the 18th century, a work of art was valued on how faithfully it replicated its subject. The definition of “good art” has had a profound impact on modern and contemporary. If people place such high value on very lifelike portraits such as those by the great masters, it raises questions about the value of ‘modern’ art. While representational art definitely still exists today and it has value, it is no longer the only measure of value.
Art as Expression of Emotional Content: Art as expression became more important during the Romantic movement where artworks began expressing a definite feeling as in the dramatic or sublime or suspenseful. The response of the audience was important as the artwork was intended to evoke an emotional response. This definition still holds true today, as artists look to connect with and evoke responses from their viewers.
Art as Form: Immanuel Kant was one of the most influential of the early philosophers and theorists toward the end of the 18th century. He believed that art should not have a concept but should be judged only and purely on its formal qualities because the content of the art is not of aesthetic interest. Formal qualities became particularly important when art became more abstract in the 20th century and the principles of art and design (balance, rhythm, harmony, and unity) were then used to define and assess the quality of art.
There are a number of quotes that in some sense shed a bit of light on the artists’ opinion on what art is. There are a few that we really like that we feel epitomises the sense of what we’re speaking about. Some of our favourites include:
Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.
– Thomas Merton
The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.
– Pablo Picasso
Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.
– Edgar Degas
Art is the signature of civilizations.
– Jean Sibelius
And then lastly, this one which reminds us that humans are the only creatures on earth (that we know of) who are capable of stepping outside of utilitarian needs to create something that expresses thoughts, feelings, and emotions. There is something really amazing about that and in a way, it just puts aside all the debate and divisiveness we feel about art.
Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by these feelings and also experience them.
– Leo Tolstoy
Art is something we do. It is a verb. Art is an expression of our thoughts, emotions, intuitions, and desires but it is even more personal than that. It’s about sharing the way we experience the world, which many is an extension of personality. It’s the communication of intimate concepts that cannot be portrayed by words alone. It is a feeling. It’s seeing a loved one, its standing on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean and realising how small and unimportant you are and finding the beauty of that. It is also rage and sorrow and joy and everything all wound up into one tight ball that art seeks to unravel.