What is “Art”?
“…we cannot escape viewing works of art in the context of time and circumstance, whether past or present. How indeed could it be otherwise, so long as art is still being created all around us, opening our eyes almost daily to new experiences and thus forcing us to adjust our sights?” H.W Janson, The History of Art
On more than one occasion, I’ve stared at a canvas full of shapes and colors and haven’t truly understood the meaning or significance behind it; unable to understand what the creator or “artist” wanted to portray or express. I always thought that art I couldn’t understand couldn’t have really been “art”. So, I asked myself, “what IS art?”, and what I found was a sea of information. The term “art” is derived from the Latin word “ars” which means art, skill or craft. According to Oxford English Dictionary, art is “the expression or application of creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting, drawing, or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” There is a general consensus that art can’t be defined, encompassing a range of human activities and ways of expression inclusive of music, literature, sculpture, film and paintings. But what makes a piece of art “art”? Different factors contribute to the pronunciation of something as art like taste, cultural meaning and imagination. The definition of art, similar to that of beauty, is both subjective and unstable. The definition of art has generally fallen under three categories: representation, expression and form.
Plato was the first to explore the idea of art as imitation or re-presentation, also known as “mimesis” in Greek. In fact, according to him, artwork is an imitation of an imitation (art-ception much!). He believed that that which really exists, “idea” as the ultimate reality created by God, is imitated by man and turned into the concrete things that he recognizes in his existence. Artwork is then an imitation of these concrete and physical objects, therefore art is an imitation twice removed from the truth. Wow. This sounds pretty poetic! This is why art was, for centuries, defined as the replication of something beautiful or meaningful. “Good art” was defined by how well and faithfully that work of art replicated its subject. As Gordon Graham writes, “it leads people to place a high value on very lifelike portraits such as those by the great masters – Michelangelo, Rubens, and so on – and to raise questions about the value of ‘modern’ art – the cubist distortions of Picasso, the surrealist figures of Jan Miro, the abstracts of Kandinsky”. Representational art still exists today, but it is no longer the only measure of value and significance.
The “art is imitation” view was replaced in the 19th century by the theory that “art is expression”. According to this view, art is no longer about the external, but rather about the artist’s internal state – expression becomes the outer manifestation of an inner life.
“Art is expression” became significant during the Romantic movement during which artwork was not merely something done with talent as the result of know-how and practice, but something that was also created in the pursuit of beauty. During this time, nature was glorified, and free expression was fêted. The artwork was intended to evoke an emotional response so the audience’s reaction was important. Some say that the creation of art is the artist’s self-expression, others say that is the expression of feeling in general and not necessarily the artist’s own personal feelings. The definition of art as expression holds true today, as artists continue to look to connect with and evoke responses from their viewers.
Immanuel Kant believed that art is “a kind of representation that is purposive in itself”. The theory of art as form – or formalism – belongs distinctively to the 20th century, when art became more abstract. During this time, the principles of art and design i.e.: unity, rhythm, harmony and balance, were used to evaluate and define art. Formalists do not negate the ideas of “art is representation” and “art is expression,” rather they believe that art’s true purpose is undermined when it is made to do those things. The formalists’ motto goes “art for art’s sake, not art for life’s sake”. According to them, the purpose of art is to be enjoyed and appreciated, for the observation of the elaborate arrangements of lines and colors, musical tones, words and the combination of all these. While objects, emotions and scenes from life can be represented through these mediums, they are irrelevant when it comes to the purpose of a piece of art. According to them, people claiming to enjoy paintings for example, who enjoy them not as art presentations but rather as re-presentations of familiar things and situations in life, miss the opportunity of living a fresh world of purely aesthetic experience.
Today, all three play a role when determining what art is and its value, depending on the artwork being assessed. There can be no unanimous decision when it comes to defining art for the simple reason being art’s universality. The question “what is art?” expresses more than a single question, it brings forth a debate going back centuries to which there are multiple competing answers and theories. There are as many ways to define art as there are people on this Earth and each subsequent definition is influenced by the unique standpoint, life experiences and personality of that person. The importance of art is rooted in the fact that it can convey the full spectrum of the human experience, serving as a symbol of what it means to be human. As Picasso stated, “the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”