Art – What is Art?


In a comment to my post You Can Do, Carmen Lezeth Suarez challenged me to define «art» as far as I see it. Of course, it is an almost impossible task to write what art is in an absolute sense. Much sharper intellectuals than me have tried to define what art is. Nevertheless, I should still be able say something about how I understand the word and look upon art.

For me, what is and what isn’t art, isn’t a clearly defined line, though. There are no unconditional criteria. For me, art certainly does not involve an elitist understanding. An artist does not have to have an art education for the work to be called art, he or she does not have to express herself or himself within the classical art genres – or on the contrary have to be part of the avant-garde scene, there are no limitations for subjects art can deal with, the work does not have to be manifested into a physical object; and it certainly does not have to hang in galleries. Street art and street performers can be doing art just as much as a traditional trained painter or musician can.

Art surely isn’t something defined by a selected few connoisseurs or experts, by those who partake in the contemporary dialogue or discourse about art. Anyone have the right to define art as they want to, even if they don’t have an art education, even if they don’t understand the latest trends in art.

Maybe it’s easier to say something about what art is not, rather than what it is. However, at the bottom of it all lays a capability to touch our emotional sensations. For me, art also needs to challenge conventional thoughts. After all, creativity, which is where art originates from, means bringing into life, or bringing something new into existence. Art that repeats whatever already is isn’t art any longer. Vincent van Gogh was a groundbreaking artist, but if everybody afterwards imitated his style, that work by his successors would not be art any longer, no matter how good it might have been.

This much said about the non-repetitiveness of art, I want to add that, although art constantly changes and develops, just because something has come out of fashion, doesn’t mean it isn’t art any longer. I came across some very interesting thoughts by the blogger Melissa in her post Perspective, where she writes about her discomfort when looking at art from artists who have been taught at art schools and how they think about art: «They have been taught that they must participate in the conversation where it was when they came on the scene. They must not paint, because painting is dead. Had they all been born a few decades sooner, they would have been able to join the conversation at an earlier point. Say, before painting had been declared dead. According to this line of thought, all painting that happens today is derivative.» Of course, at least to my understanding, art is not limited to the latest fashion or the latest anti-whatever-was-before.

On a more basic level, art deals with human experiences. It says something about what it is to be human, not scientifically and factually, but in a way that allows us to interpret the artistic expression. As the photographer and artist, Carlos Jurado, once expressed it: «Art allow us to expand the dimensions of our everyday life.»

Art enlighten us, again not through scientific or factual means, but by touching our emotions and make us reflect about who we are as human beings with all what that encompasses. «True art is an epiphany, an enlightening spark dancing in the perceived gap between ourselves and everything else.» That is what Duane Preble writes in a foreword to the book Tao of Photography.

In her post Sally D’s Mobile Photography Challenge: Challenger’s Choice (Architecture) Sally W. Donatello wrote that «art is meant to illicit doubt, dialogue, emotions, joy, thought and uncertainty; it is meant to provoke in calming and unsettling ways and everything in between those reactions. It is the artist’s responsibility to give us something to consider, to digest, to ponder, to query.» I wholeheartedly agree with her statement.

So what is really art, then? As I opened this post saying, it is a difficult question to answer. I know it when I see it, but defining it eludes me. I sometimes see glimpses of it in others’ work. Limiting myself to photography, I know that great art is about compassion when I see W. Eugene Smith’s photograph Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath, Minimata, 1972. I know great art is about reverence and humility in the presence of great things when I see Ansel Adams’ Clearing Winter Storm. I know great art is about optimism and endurance when I see Paul Strand’s work in the Hebrides — and I know it is about pessimism when I see Robert Capa’s photograph of the falling Spanish soldier. I know it is about the human search for spirituality when I look at the work of Linda Connor. I know it is about the loneliness of life when I look at the work of André Kertész. I know is it is about revelation when I look at the work of Josef Sudek and I know it is about the obscurity and the confusion of life when I look at the photographs of Robert Frank or Garry Winogrand.

In short, great art is never about the art work but seems to be about life, and possibly not, generally, the small things in life. The best artists appear to be engaged in the great dialog of life — the dialog that is usually the field-of -play for philosophers and theologians, for mystics or even political scientists. The great artists don’t seem to be asking questions about technique or the craftsmanship, but are asking the same kinds of questions that were asked by philosophers Aristotle, Plato, Thomas Aquinas, Nietzsche, or Freud — the same questions asked by the poets Aeschylus, Dante, Goethe, Victor Hugo and Mark Twain. What is man? Who am I? What is good? Why is there evil? How should we treat one another? Why don’t we? Why does suffering exist?

I have a Norwegian friend, Morten Løberg, who is a photographer also working with photo as art. On his web site, he has stated that during his 40 years as a photographer he has heard two good definitions of what art is. The first one stems from the then director Ole Henrik Moe at the museum of Høvikodden in Oslo, when he opened the Association of Fine Photographer’s anniversary exhibition in 1979: «A photograph is art when it shows a slice of reality seen through a personal temperament.» The other originates from the former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Oslo, Jan Brockmann: «Art brings the viewer to new insights and understanding, or to the brink of this.»

Those two points of view complement each other. And together they bring an understanding to the term art and what it stands for, that for me, is as close to a definition as it is possible to arrive at. So maybe I can extrapolate from those to quotes something like this: Art brings the viewer new insights seen through a personal temperament.

Have you any thoughts about what art is?

51 thoughts on “Art – What is Art?

  1. We were at a sculpture park recently and three of the pieces were simple white boxes stuck to a tree trunk. I was quite incredulous that this could be considered art – the boxes were ordinary packaging that anyone could have folded and attached to a trunk – especially when surrounded by some stunning pieces of metal and woodwork that will have taken days to create. However, reading this has made me think that the artist can probably justify it as art because it provoked a reaction. The fact it was a negative one is likely negligible – if it’s being talked about, it’s getting exposure on some level, something I assume every artist wants one way or another.

    1. The desire to getting exposure is not really related to what art is – as far as I am concerned – although most artist do indeed want exposure. Otherwise, I agree that a negative response is as valid as a positive response. Whether those boxes are art or not, though, I cannot say anything about, for obvious reasons.Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Haylee.

  2. Here are three things that came to mind. While I’m not sure Keats was right that beauty is truth, and truth, beauty, I do think that either truth or beauty is a part of any artistic production. If both beauty and truth are present, that may be what we call great art.

    I’d also say that craft isn’t necessarily art. A craftsman table may be beautiful, and artistically done, but Donald Trump’s book, “The Art of the Deal” has nothing to do with art. Craft, maybe.

    The other thing I’d add is that art is intentional. Sunflowers blooming in a field may be beautiful, but they’re not art. Van Gogh’s vision of sunflowers, natural beauty interpreted by imagination and skill, rise to the level of art. Seen from that perspective, a child’s crayon rendering of sunflowers can be truly called art, too. It may not be great (or even good) art, but the artistic impulse is there.

    1. I do agree with you when it comes to intent. Art requires an artistic intention. Furthermore, craftsmanship in and of itself is certainly not art. It’s a tool to create art, but not even a required tool, necessarily. Now when it comes to truth and beauty, I’ll have to say, for my part, it depends. I guess I need to define truth before I can include it in the understanding of art. If you mean the artist being true to herself or himself, I certainly agree. But in a more objective sense of the word, I am more hesitant. As for beauty, that is a bit more difficult for me. Does art only have to be beautiful? Personally I think a political expression or a hateful undertone can be just as much art as can beauty. Anyway, thank you for the elaborate thoughts on art, Linda. Your comment adds interesting perspectives.

  3. Art provokes an emotional reaction, generally different in each person that views a certain piece. If I connect with something on a personal level, and it “talks” to me, it would be a piece I would want to own. People who purchase art are reacting to that emotion. I have seen it happen.

  4. Otto, you have entered into the realms of the impossible here! For me, the problem with trying to define what art is is just too difficult, since what I think of as art, someone else may think of as trash and vice versa. Also my personal view of art has changed over the years. For example I would have previously said that Pop Art is not art, but having seen an excellent and thought-provoking exhibition of Andy Warhol’s work quite recently, I now see it – or some of it at least – as art. I love the debate you have provoked here and I love the idea that the debate is eternal.

    1. You response only shows that defining art is not really possible. The idea of what art is changes from one person to another – and changes over time with the same person. It is indeed an eternal debate. Thanks for your comment, Mary.

  5. Good evening Otto, this is just to tell you that I really enjoyed your explanations of what art is and the various very important questions asked through art such as:What is man? Who am I? What is good? Why is there evil? How should we treat one another? Why don’t we? Why does suffering exist? Thank you very much:) Very best regards. Martina

  6. A tricky one to answer, Otto! I, like some others, feel that art should provoke emotion, a reaction at its root, but more I shan’t say!

  7. Interesting as always. You offer good explanations just like your commenters do. but no one is completely, in detail, the same as another attempt. Of course the question is impossible to explain in one single definition. Any defintion will be inadequate. “Art brings the viewer new insights seen through a personal temperament” comes close. You even mention artists whose work reveal to you that they are made by artists.
    This afternoon I listened to a director of opera who tried to explain how/why we have such difficulty in listening to and understanding this art form. I just loved her comparing opera sung in another language, Italian for example, to listening to a hard rocker playing the guitar: “You don’t ask what he is saying, in what language he “talks” – you just let yourself go with the language of music.

    1. Another important aspect of art: Letting yourself be absorbed by whatever is said or expressed. And of course your are right, it’s not possible to come up with a single explanation. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on art, Ann-Christine.

  8. What a question to tackle, and I agree with you that it isn’t something to be defined by a selected few connoisseurs or experts. Each person has their own criteria of what art is and what moves them, so I think your take on art being a very personal definition for each viewer and artist is accurate. A piece of art that brings new insights, inspiration and new outlook is a great goal for art to achieve. Well written piece Otto ~ thank you for sharing.

  9. I just love this. I had a debate with my colleages not too long ago. It was quite a fierce debate about certain things are classified as art or not. I do not want to go into what that were. I am wondering you consider a process of creating work that must follow certain rules in order for the result to meet certain requirements considered as an art? Of course it is possible to have more than one way to arrive with satisfactory result. Is this an art or this something else? I say not.

  10. When I was a teenager, my mother, who was an artist, studied with the master of abstract expressionism, Hans Hofmann. Here are some excerpts from his teachings about the aim and nature of art: “Art is a reflection of the spirit, a result of introspection, which finds expression in the nature of the art medium;” “A work of art is a world in itself reflecting senses and emotions of the artist’s world;” and “The aim of art, as far as one can speak of an aim at all, has always been the same; the blending of experience gained in life with the natural qualities of the art medium.”

  11. i have a lesion in my brain in the area of acquired speech, i know i have written books, but it’s a work around haha. for years i felt and thought deeply, but without words… to me? that is art… when i say a photograph has to ‘turn me on’ it means to make me feel it deeply in that same way. my ex boyfriend used to want to ‘discuss’ the artistic merit of every movie we went to see. this made me fly into a silent rage. as it would have erased the art for me to reduce it to that sort of expression… but all this could be ‘just me.’

    1. I can relate to what you write, Elaine. Sometimes analyzing a piece of art destroys the pleasure of just experience it without any rational thoughts following the experience. Instead of just being with the work of art, open up the senses and the flow of emotional responses.

  12. What a great post Otto! Funny thing is I started to write a blogpost asking the same question a few days ago, with many of the same sentiments you are describing. I had a lot of difficulty conveying my thoughts though, as I certainly don’t have a way with words as you do, and wound up trashing the post. I really really enjoyed reading this. Very well said. Thanks for sharing this. Its always a pleasure stopping by your blog. ~Rita

  13. nice try, but I do respectfully disagree with your statement “great art is never about the art work”.

    Any great or not so great art is inexorably / intrinsically / implicitly linked to the thing itself. Whatever meaning, emotion, reaction or whatever else is attributed to a work of art is instigated / provoked or otherwise incited by the work itself. To try to divorce one from the other is, IMO, pure folly.

    1. I think you misunderstand me – or I have not been able to express myself clearly enough. Of course there is no art without art work. What I am trying to say is that art is not about how the art work came about, it’s not about technique or the craftsmanship. 🙂

  14. As always, you it put across beautifully, Otto. I am totally with you on how all art is inspired from life. Art is, in that sense, what one creates putting together elements of the raw material called life.

  15. Good topic! And one I’ve tried to address quite a few times myself. Personally, I separate craft from art. Crafts are things made from following someone else’s instructions or patterns. Art has to be someone’s own idea, even if someone else inspired a style or subject. So, I’m willing to say that boxes on trees are art of a sort, even though I personally think it’s stupid and bad art. Masterful art is easy to identify when we see it. If we can’t tell it’s art, then I doubt it’s great, no matter what we call it.

    1. Well, there is of course something called taste, too. Some of the great masters of the past, were not necessarily regarded as such by their own time. But I do agree with you, something can be art, even if we personally believe it’s stupid and bad art.

  16. You may be interested to learn (if you didn’t already know) that the word art itself comes from an Indo-European root that means ‘to fit together.’ Arm comes from the same root.

  17. This is indeed a difficult subject Otto. I like your definition of what art is. I do very much struggle with the whole art world and what the self appointed critics define as art. In all genres, we have spoken of this before, only a handful of artists will get talked about, swooned over, come to light in exhiblitions, galleries, magazines. Are these artists the only ones creating art? Of course not. That is an issue for me. Do we need to be recognised as one of these chosen ones to be real artists of merit. No absolutely not but in the art world one would think so and when one has this recognition, it is possible for example to arrange a pile of bricks in a slab, in a major gallery in London and have that slab of bricks proclaimed as great art, the pile of bricks would be talked about, articles would be written in magazines etc etc. The piles of bricks I would arrange arround the footings of a house for my brother to build with (when I used to help him during summer vacations from college) was not art. And even if I arranged the bricks in similar but different configuration, with the intent of creating a piece of art, even I proclaimed my piles of bricks as art, they wouldn’t be recognised as such, they would still be just a pile of bricks. So what really is the difference between my bricks and this other artist’s bricks. I really don’t know Otto. I’ve used this example very deliberately as I think it highlights very starkly, my discomfiture with why one piece of art might be celebrated, another piece often of equal or even greater merit, will not be. This I don’t understand. Van Gogh of course wasn’t recognised as a great artist during his lifetime, only after his death when his work was ‘discovered’ by the art world did the celebrations begin. The merit in the work was there all along of course, nothing changed in the work itself, only the way it was viewed and received. What does all this mean about what art is or isn’t. I do wonder.

    1. You have a very good point, Adrian. I think we touched upon this in my post about postmodern photography as well – and I am wholeheartedly with you in what you say. Art is partly about pushing limits – and a pile of bricks certainly does so when it comes to our understanding of art. But will it become a lasting piece of art – like van Gogh’s paintings became after he was recognized? So, yes, defining art is certainly difficult. So maybe we are better off not doing it. Still, by discussing it we will educate ourselves. It’s just like discussing what is a good or bad photograph. There are no absolute truths, but simply by discussing photographs we learn a lot.

  18. A thoroughly engrossing and emotive post Otto that has raised many a heated debate in my household and amongst friends and through these debates and wonderful discussions they give us the opportunity to discover more about our selves and how we are all approaching art/ photography in our own special way. Many thanks and have a great weekend

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