Art – What is Art?


I often get asked how I would define “art”. What is 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 other hand, having 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, on a technical level.

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. Some time ago I came across some very interesting thoughts by the blogger Melissa in her post Perspective, in which 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?

20 thoughts on “Art – What is Art?

  1. Wow Otto, I need to come back and read this a bit more in depth because your sections are rich!
    Also going to check out the “perspective” post and I know that post from sally D- ((she seems less active these days and that was nice to see her name)

    My feedback after a first read – I like your point about how art “lays a capability to touch our emotional sensations” but feel that some art can absolutely be factual and scientific –
    Also – I am a fan of imitating and repeating because this often leads to signature styles that could not have come out any other way.
    Lastly – the lens artist photo challenge theme this week is “street art” and I already posted some airport art from Austin Texas – but at first I was going in a different direction and I pulled out a dusty book from my library called “what is art?” by John Canaday- (1980) and he break art down into categories of painting – sculpture- and architecture
    Anyhow – after reading your post I might dive into this hardcover a little later this month! ☀️Keep you posted if I do

    1. I would like if you keep me posted. And let me know if you would recommend the book by John Canaday. Otherwise, I agree with you that art can be both factual and scientific. But it still needs to touch on an emotional level. Otherwise it’s nothing but facts and science (and nothing wrong with that – in fact we need more of that in these days of fake news).

  2. Jag brukar använda just det citat som Ole Henrik Moe använde, det kommer från Émile Zola: “Ett konstverk är ett hörn av verkligheten sett genom ett temperament”. På franska
    ”Une œuvre d’art est un coin de la création vu à travers un tempérament.” Den synen tycker jag stämmer så bra och därför blir också ett fotografi bestämt av vem som handhar kameran även om motivet är samma.

  3. I think ‘art’ surrounds us than what I think many consider things as art. In my opinion, I would say very few that do not have art included. One thing that come to mind is mathematical representation of physical world. I would also agree with Sue comment above as well that ‘art’ is perceived differently by different people.

  4. Otto, thanks for excavating a quote from what seems ions ago, but still my thoughts. Your topic makes for a great zoom dialogue. Maybe you should consider it and build an own online community another way.

  5. I would definitely struggle to understand a definition of art. It is so many things to me. A photograph of a pile of leaves, without any creative editing, might please me and speak to me more than a painting from one of the Masters. I remember when a huge boulder was moved to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and people scoffed that it wasn’t art. And yet that monolith really spoke to me. I think I relate most to your comment that art is about life. I think that’s really true. And we all relate to life differently, as well. This is a very thought provoking post, Otto. I enjoyed it.

    1. Obviously what speaks to each us will be very different. While some think Duchamp’s Fountain is a profound piece art others would say its just piss(oare). But even if we disagree on individual expressions of art (or not art), it’s still meaningful to discuss what is art, in more general terms.

  6. “The work does not have to be manifested into a physical object.” Some people take the position that for painting, sculpture, and the like, the work does have to be embodied in a physical object to be a work of art.

  7. L’arte può essere definita in molti modi essendo soggettiva. Quello che può essere arte per me può non esserlo per te o per altre persone. Sinceramente mi capita spesso visitando mostre di chiedermi cosa rappresentano certi lavori, non so darmi risposta e resto un po’ perplessa nel vedere certe “opere”.
    L’arte mi deve suscitare emozioni, farmi sognare, fantasticare. Vedere ciò che il mio occhio non nota, ciò che la mia mente non percepisce e nello stesso tempo mostrarmi lavori eseguiti con maestria. Oso dire che amo più l’arte antica di quella moderna, parlando ovviamente di oggetti o soggetti fisici.
    L’arte digitale invece oltre a trasmettermi emozioni deve essere in grado di mostrarmi luoghi o situazioni che non potrei mai vedere personalmente. Mah, che dire, non è facile definire cos’è ARTE.
    Un caro saluto, Patrizia

    1. Sono d’accordo con te, Patrizia, l’arte deve suscitare emozioni, qualsiasi emozione o reazione. La migliore arte ci apre davvero gli occhi a nuovi pensieri o intuizioni sul mondo che ci circonda. Di certo non è facile definire cosa sia l’arte.

  8. Great question, and you do a wonderful and thorough job with your answer. Your mentioning the key factor of emotion really caught me. I purchased a painting when I was in the States and a friend of mine asked what I liked about it, and surprisingly I replied immediately with: “It made my heart beat a little bit faster” and that was it. It was exciting to view it, and I guess to dream about it. So I would have to say ART is when you have a passion and create is something. Could be a cabinet, painting, photograph, and even hi-tech equipment. A desire of creation that lies deep within us all. Thanks for the post and question, it was a great one to ponder 🙂 Wish you well ~

    1. I always enjoy whenever you come around to add your thoughts to a discussion, like here about what art is. Your response to your friend that it has to do with making the heart beat faster is a good one. Sorry for the late response, my friend.

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