What Is Art?

Updated on March 31, 2017
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An artist and philosopher with a passion for art, history and politics.

Modern Museum Madness

You're in a modern museum. No clue how you got there, but you did. There's a group of people applauding a canvas drenched in urine. There's the twentieth painting you could have made yourself. Somebody asks you, "what is art?" It's easy to point at the work around you and say, "Not this." Don't gloat just yet, because you haven't really answered the question.

What is art? It's a question that turns art haters into art historians. But even for lovers of art, it can be a frustrating and seemingly pointless question. Isn't art just different for everybody? Well, yes. But just because there's no universal definition for it, doesn't mean we shouldn't think about it. To talk about something without having any idea what it is, would be ludicrous if applied to anything else. Why wouldn't it be the same for art?

Everything Is Art?

Let's start with the simplest definition. Everything is art. Just like art can be trash, trash can be art. A beach can be art. A grain of sand can be art. As long as you call it art, you're good. But would art even have any meaning according to this definition? Wouldn't art history just become a history of everything? Or can we avoid this reductionism by claiming that anything can be art, as long as you can explain why it is to you?

The Artist Decides

Maybe it matters who the person is who makes this claim. If your visually illiterate friend picks up a grain of sand and calls it art, you wouldn't take them seriously. But if Picasso would've done the same, you would kneel down, observe the grain of sand and wonder what it all means.

Let's say that's not the case and there needs to be some kind of requirement. How about intention? When your friend picked out that grain of sand, they made a creative decision. This grain stood out when it came to shape, texture and color. Your friend puts it into a box with the intention for people to experience it aesthetically. Is it now art?


You could say he transformed the grain of sand into art by making a creative decision. The grain didn't change. It was already beautiful, but it couldn't have been art because it was made by nature. According to our definitions of nature, it cannot intend to do anything, so let alone turn something into an art piece. But because humans have creative capabilities, we can turn anything into art as long as it's our intention. Would this be the key?

Let's test this. What if, after a visit to the beach, I leave a small trail of sand in my house. I find this trail so beautiful that I call it my art piece. Just like that, I've intended it to become art. The next day, my friend visits me and is excited to hear that I've created an art piece. The excitement fades when I tell them they're standing on it. What if she'd tell me this isn't an art piece because it's not beautiful. Well, isn't art always supposed to be beautiful? Is the 'Weeping Widow' by Picasso beautiful? I wouldn't call it that. It's intriguing, thought provoking and bold. In short, it's not beautiful, but it elicits an emotional response.

Picasso, Weeping Woman, 1937

There it is. Things become art when they're intended to be art, and they elicit an emotional response. But what if my friend used to frequent the beach with her family. My little trail of sand throws her on a memory train full of nostalgia and longing. Is it art now? And how can you lay claim to other people's emotions?

All this confusion could be erased by invoking a proceduralist argument. Things are art when the Artworld deems them to be so. The Artworld consists of people like artists, museum curators, and art collectors. Whatever they say, goes. Want to put my trail of sand in an exhibition about the beach? It's art. They all furiously brush it away and say I'm a disgrace to people like Picasso? Then according to this argument, my trail of sand was nothing all along, and I had no claim on it.

Should Art Institutions Decide?

But many of these institutions that get to decide what art is were founded in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe. This means that their foundations are riddled with sexism and racism. Can we be sure that this past bears no reflections on them now? Do we really want to let them decide for us what art is? And if that's my trail of sand, doesn't that make me an artist? Who's opinion should weigh higher, mine or that of an art curator?

Functionalism, Expressionism, and Proceduralism

Without knowing it, we've just invoked three official arguments. A functionalist one, an expressionist one, and a proceduralist one. In the academic world, functionalist claims that something is a piece of art when it doesn't have a function (like a chair would) and gives us an aesthetic experience. This experience can be very widely interpreted. Applied to my grain of sand, confusion could be seen as an aesthetic property for example.

An expressionist would claim that something is art when it expresses the emotion of an artist and elicits an emotional response from the audience. In the case of my trail of sand, it could express my love for the beach. My audience would be my friend who feels a strong sense of nostalgia through the piece. A proceduralist would claim that it's art when someone from the Artworld deems it to be so. This provides a murky area as well because if opinions differ within the Artworld, who's opinion would weigh more?

These are all things we should consider as we talk about art. It's such a frail concept that nonetheless gives us so much joy. We shouldn't choke it off with rigid definitions, just personal views. If you want to exclaim that something isn't art, that's fine. But you better have your reasons. Defining art is not the point of it. But it helps us to think about it. It helps us to talk about it. To explore its fragility and uncover its boldness.

Scared of the Word 'Art?'

Many of us don't want to think about what art is because we're afraid that we might destroy something in the process. But you don't destroy creativity by exploring it; you strengthen it. And if you really sit down and think what art is to you, then maybe those art pieces in modern museums will start making more sense. Except the canvas drenched in urine, you don't ever have to accept that.

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