What is Art? Really?

No, really. What really is the distinction between art and non-art? It is not an easy question to answer. In fact it may be easier to answer indirectly. Rather than trying to wrap our heads around what can be considered art, we should first think about what art isn’t. So, in trying to understand an abstract philosophical concept like art, it would only make sense to do so.

Let me start by making one simple clarification. Art IS NOT EVERYTHING. This is what many artists and fans of the arts seem to say when the feel they have learned a thing or two about art. The truth is that without a distinction then what IS consider art will lose all value. Put simply…if everything is art then nothing is special and if nothing is special then nothing is art. It’s a bit of a paradox of creation and execution of the craft, but the meaning holds. If we consider every creative act and every result of that act a piece of art, then what is to say that any of it should be considered worth the time of the creator or the fan of such a project. While we may consider a great piece of art something special, if everything is given the same attention, then nothing will stand out to be considered great.

We should also discuss the concept of creativity and how it also is not the balance point on which all art is or is not created. Many people either think that they are not creative, but in truth they really just haven’t learned to harness their naturally creative side, or do not recognize it in action. First let’s look at those who haven’t learned to harness their creativity. Art is not the only creative field out there, and I’m not just talking about music either. In fact the fields of the sciences (in any capacity) are deeply creative fields. As discussed by Adam Savage at his keynote at SXSW this year, the act of coming up with a hypothesis isn’t always as simple as it seems. The example given was from an episode of his long running show on the Discovery Channel “Mythbusters.” Does someone walking or running in the rain get more or less wet? What sounds like a simple premise becomes more complicated when you start finding a way to test it, especially when knowing after a certain period of time you can’t get any wetter. Ok so what does this have to do with creativity and art? Put simply that just because the outcome may not be fancy or expected, that doesn’t make it any less creative. Maybe you’re not working toward an artistic masterpiece or a brilliant orchestral score, but the act of creating something or more accurately creative problem solving isn’t so elusive. Creative thinking is not exclusive to the arts and it never has been. If you can solve a word problem in math class then you can certainly be creative in whatever field you choose. You may not recognize your creativity, but I can guarantee that whether you’re at work or enjoying your favorite hobby, that you too are creative. 

Let us also have a look at those who may not know how to harness their creativity as of yet. This is often a very frustrating situation to be in, but the truth is that it doesn’t have to be. Finding your creative field can be as simple as playing a game. As actor and internet activist Wil Wheaton has become a voice for content creators around the web, his model of sharing his work and life has become a way for many creators both young and old to understand what it means to be a gamer. Again you may ask yourself what this has to do with art. Wheaton often expresses his love for games and how creative traditional roll-playing games can be. For him games are about building important relationships both with friends and with family, which may not seem very creative at first, but of course it depends on the game. Games for Wheaton are his time to be creative with family and friends. This creative overtone is used not to make art, but to create bonds with people (which I think is what every artist wants anyway).

However, we again should not confuse creativity with Art, and so we come to the question again…What is art, really? Have we even answered the question yet? Well, no. So if not every creative act can be called art, then what can we make the distinction. I pose at this time a slightly more complex question. What is an artist? This could help us answer our question a little more simply. If we define art as the creative product of an artist, we then must define “artist.” As you may already know art isn’t limited to just the visual arts. We must also include composers, dancers/actors, and writers. Again though not everything a visual artist, writer, etc. does can be considered art. This is where I believe that there are three vitally important factors in defining what can qualify as art.

First we have the artist factor. Is the artist trying to create something meaningful, something that tells a story, and/or has merit? If the person creating the piece just is throwing things together willy-nilly without the idea of a finished product, instead of a piece of art, what we have then is a mess. Even if someone finds meaning in what someone else has created then the person finding the meaning (or the fan in this case) is the true artist, not the creator of the pile of garbage. Massachusetts’ Museum of Bad Art is a great example of artists with the best intentions and falling completely flat on the technical aspects.  While many artists producing “good art” might find the fact that this gallery sells pieces a bit insulting, it is also intriguing that you could classify art to be “bad” and still be art. By this stand point the intent of the artist is a vital part in classifying what art really is.

Second we have a less important but still vital part of the world of art…Community! Between fans of the art, patrons, and gallery owners/curators, we all have the responsibility and right to know what we like and what should be called art. The core of the art community these days is an artist and his/her personal fan base. As a community it is important to understand and artist’s intentions and desires in creating his/her art. However contrary to popular belief, the community doesn’t solely decide on what art really is. This is why many people both misrepresent and misunderstand modern art. There are large communities of people that will buy a piece of something that isn’t made by an artist and call it art. This as mentioned in artist factor makes the community the artist instead of the individual. If the collective art community places value in a pile of trash, then it becomes the creative act of the collective that puts value and meaning into a piece, thus making them the artists. Perhaps this is why my and many others’ frustrations in the modern art market lay. At the same time, however artists that create something “before their time,” may not be recognized by a community in the present, but instead in the future validating their creations.

The final and often most important factor in what can be called art exist in the relevance to and relationship with the historical context of art. While many artists will have the best intentions and their communities do as well, the piece just may not have a place in art. Again we can very easily get into trouble with this idea saying that because it doesn’t fit into a category we can’t call it art. This often then becomes called avant-garde. This is often the most overlooked factor in the world of art, and it’s also the reason many believe the community takes the most dominant control over what art really is. However, if the community doesn’t take the historical context of technique, medium, intention, skill, design, and intent into effect, then the community is the factor at fault in deciding if something is called art when it shouldn’t be.

There is a video from Prager University and Artist Robert Florczak, which describes the historical need in analyzing Modern Art. The video is a bit biased, but the basic idea holds true to the three factors we’ve been discussing. The video dives into the difference between something creative and something that is aesthetically pleasing and artistic. Again, just because something is creative, doesn’t mean its art.

So, what are we left with between creativity, the artist, and the actual art? If we say that art is the physical, emotional, or auditory result of an artist’s creative process. Then the artist is an individual that creates something deemed of value by both the artist and the cultural community, while maintaining a place within historical context. Our understanding of the historical context of all art will allow us to build an ever expanding library of style, technical skill, design, and intent, which acts as the foundation to determine if the product of a creative act can be called art.


What are your thoughts on the matter? Feel free to thoughts and opinions share in the comments.