What is Art?

Posted: January 1, 2012 in Art
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What Is Art?

This is an on going discussion, a work in progress. Maybe you would like to join in…

Britannica Online defines art as “the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others.” By this definition of the word, artistic works have existed for almost as long as humankind: from early pre-historic art to contemporary art; however, some theories restrict the concept to modern Western societies. The first and broadest sense of art is the one that has remained closest to the older Latin meaning, which roughly translates to “skill” or “craft.” A few examples where this meaning proves very broad include artifact, artificial, artifice, medical arts, and military arts. However, there are many other colloquial uses of the word, all with some relation to its etymology.

The second and more recent sense of the word art is as an abbreviation for creative art or fine art and emerged in the early 17th century. Fine art means that a skill is being used to express the artist’s creativity, or to engage the audience’s aesthetic sensibilities, or to draw the audience towards consideration of the finer things.

I like how Susan Esaak describes art in a very distinct and precise manner:

I could tell you that art plays a large part in making our lives infinitely rich. Imagine, just for a minute, a world without art! (You may think “So what?” but please consider the impact that lack of graphics would have on your favorite video game.) Art stimulates different parts of our brains to make us laugh or incite us to riot, with a whole gamut of emotions in between. Art gives us a way to be creative and express ourselves. For some people, art is the entire reason they get out of bed in the morning. You could say, “Art is something that makes us more thoughtful and well-rounded humans.”

On the other hand, art is such a large part of our everyday lives that we may hardly even stop to think about it. Look at the desk or table where you are, right this minute. Someone designed that. It is art. Your shoes are art. Your coffee cup is art. All functional design, well done, is art. So, you could say, “Art is something that is both functional and (hopefully) aesthetically pleasing to our eyes.”

You might say, “Art is in a constant state of change, so nobody can really pin down what it is.” You might even say, “Art is subjective, and means something different to every single person on earth.” This, too, is the truth. Now, everything just stated has elements of truth, but is largely based on opinion. Art is form and content.

“Art is form and content” means: All art consists of these two things.

Form means:

  • The elements of art,
  • The principles of design and
  • The actual, physical materials that the artist has used.

Content, now, gets a little trickier. Content is idea-based and means:

  • What the artist meant to portray,
  • What the artist actually did portray and
  • How we react, as individuals, to both the intended and actual messages.

Additionally, content includes ways in which a work was influenced–by religion, or politics, or society in general, or even the artist’s use of hallucinogenic substances–at the time it was created. All of these factors, together, make up the content side of art.

Norman Rockwell, The Art Critic, 1955

I think it is interesting that every artist or viewer of art is in a constant state of trying to understand and explain this thing we call “Art”.  There are many academic definitions of what art is yet it is important to investigate the post-modern view of art, which has become extremely diverse.  In our current day art is not just a visual “thing”; it now encompasses, it seems, almost anything from a musician, teacher, nurse, or politician to sanitation expert. Not that there is not an art or, maybe a better word, ‘skill’ to most professions or hobbies that designate them unique and those who excel in them masters in their profession.  I believe that in doing anything to its highest form is a high skill that many seem to align to an art or art form.

According to Tolstoy, who may have been the first to make a concerted study on what art is, “Art cannot be defined as an activity, which produces beauty. Beauty cannot be defined objectively, and therefore cannot be used as a criterion to define what is, or is not, art. The aim of art is not merely to produce beauty, or to provide pleasure, enjoyment, or entertainment. Art is a means of communication, and is an important means of expression of any experience, or of any aspect of the human condition.”

This idea changes the discussion from Art as a skill, which is mastered or uniquely done, to an expression, a method of conveying emotion or message.  Tolstoy believes the most important quality of any work of art is sincerity. He believes any true work of art expresses original thoughts and feelings.  This idea goes along with the thought that Hans Rookmaaker expresses: that as times change and old functions (or artwork) become obsolete, we put these works in the museum; they have lost their function but they are still works of art and, as such, meaningful.

I propose that Art must have meaning and be accessible to others beyond the one creating the art.  It must declare itself to the community it resides within and possibly beyond.  I believe that Art must continually be changing and cannot rest upon what one practitioner has accomplished and then begins to repeat over and over again to become successful.  In a sense it must declare itself like a rainbow in a rare and unexpected place and the viewers should be startled, amazed and in awe of the gift bestowed.  I think it is folly to chase that rainbow in an attempt to capture it.

Our task is to allow art to declare itself and to give thanks for the opportunity to enjoy, create and participate in this gift. Not to view it as exclusive or elusive but as a gift, a life renewing gift.  The Psalms state, “The heavens proclaim the glory of God.  The skies display his craftsmanship.”  I believe the aim of Art is: unexpected expression and proclamation that gives life and validity to our human condition.

 References

Elkins, James “Art History and Images That Are Not Art”, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 47, No. 4 (Dec. 1995), with previous bibliography. “Non-Western images are not well described in terms of art, and neither are medieval paintings that were made in the absence of humanist ideas of artistic value”. 553

Esaak, S. http://arthistory.about.com/cs/reference/f/what_is_art.htm, Retrieved January 1, 2012

The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, Oxford 1993, p. 120

H.R. Rookmaaker, Art needs no justification (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1978).

Psalm 19, Holy Bible. New Living Translation, Tyndale House, 2007.

Tolstoy, Leo N. What is Art? Translated by Almyer Maude. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1960.

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