What is Art

This file was originally written by Max Darby in 1991 and is primarily for the use of Art students.

This file is a useful introduction to the philosophy of art for students in Secondary Schools or even Tertiary Institutions. Some ideas could be appropriately redeveloped for younger aged students. For courses such as The International Baccalaureate Visual Arts, it could provide useful research for subjects such as Theory of Knowledge (TOK) and/or Extended Essay.

It is important that all of the ‘philosophical’ issues discussed be related to actual artworks, including those of the students themselves. Otherwise, whatever is done always will remain ‘theoretical’, and surely Art is anything but theory?

What is Art?

I today saw in a bookshop a novel titled The Art of Murder. I’d never thought of there being any kind of relationship between killing and Art…and, even if a murderer struck a fatal blow with a paint brush, the relationship of that violent act to Art would be rather slim! But it jolted me to think about what Art really is…and how students can make sense of it. So, here goes!

Art, like life itself, need not be defined or understood to be enjoyed.

It must simply be experienced.

(Duane and Sarah Preble, Artforms, Harper and Row).

If you were asked ‘What is Art?’, what would you say?

Before you read any further, write down your thoughts about what your response would be?

Many find this question difficult to answer, yet it is impossible to seriously study art, to effectively talk or write about art, or to think about art issues unless, we have some idea of what art is or what it could be.

Interestingly, many people who find it difficult to respond to the question still have strong opinions about art. They are quite clear about what they feel is good art and what isn’t, what they like and dislike and what the purpose of art might be.

‘I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like’ is a common saying which sums up their attitude. Imagine the problem if someone new a lot about art but didn’t know what they liked? The cartoon below addresses that issue. Or, admitted to knowing little about art and also had no idea what they liked? As Art students you will already have some idea about what you think art is, and also your personal preferences.



Frequently, when expensive artworks are purchased by a gallery, particularly a public gallery, letters appear in newspapers criticizing the selection of those works. Purchases are often questioned on the grounds of taste, and people strongly voice their opinions whether or not the works are worthy of the gallery or whether they actually qualify as art! You might be able to find some examples of such controversy happening at a gallery in your own city.

The following letter to the editor of one Melbourne newspaper is one example of such criticism. It was written in response to The National Gallery of Victoria’s purchase and display of a very large, abstract piece of sculpture cast in bronze by Willem de Kooning, titled Standing Figure.

Sculpture is an Eyesore to beholders

What a horrible monstrosity of a sculpture outside the Arts Centre.

I wonder about the minds and tastes of the people who purchased it.





Willem de Kooning. Standing Figure. 1964. Bronze, 3 X 4 metres. Victorian Arts Centre.




What are the key points raised in the letter?

There is:

a description of the writer’s opinion of the work “horrible monstrosity”

an opinion about what artform was used “sculpture”

an inference that it’s location outside the Arts Centre is inappropriate

a comment on the quality of the minds and tastes of the people who chose it and,

an inference that the money used to purchase it was “wasted.”

It would be wrong to suggest that unless we have a clear view of what art is we shouldn’t express any opinions about it. Although it could be argued that the ‘experts’ who are trained and know about things such as art, aesthetics, taste and quality, should make decisions about what is good and bad in art, we all demand the right to have our own opinions about such things. In Law and Medicine we tend to ask the ‘experts’ and rely on them for guidance. Certainly, to be sure, we sometimes ask for a 2nd opinion. But if a Doctor says we’ve broken our leg, we’re unlikely to say “you’re wrong, I need a filling in my tooth.” Why is it that in matters that are ‘non art related’ we accept the opinions of the experts, but question those who make decisions about art? It’s an interesting question to ponder.

If we’ve studied and thought about art, we are aware that not everyone has the same opinion and taste, and all art is not the same (it could well become boring if it was) – and that is one of the strengths of art. Additionally, not all art is made for the same purpose or in the same way (see the following sections). We all need to be tolerant of the opinions and tastes of other people. Imagine how we’d cope if our art examiners had a single, inflexible, interpretation of what art had to be?

Galleries would not be filled with such a diversity of interesting art if everyone held the same opinions about art and everyone liked the same things. Disagreement about art should to be considered a positive rather than a negative because it can provoke careful and thoughtful debate and interaction between people.

Because art can be so different, and can be used for many different purposes, it is sometimes difficult to make judgments about the aesthetic and/or monetary value of an image or object that we view. Furthermore, it can be inappropriate to judge all art by the same criteria or standards. Often, when we research or investigate the intentions behind an artwork, and what motivated the artist to make it in the first place, we become aware of important factors which need to be considered before judging it.  Sometimes, investigation and research can help us to learn more about the meaning and purpose of a work that we didn’t initially understand. As a result, we might well develop a respect and appreciation for works that we previously disliked.

If you are confused about what art is, even slightly, you needn’t feel alone. In the past whenever a definition of art has been proposed, vigorous debate has followed. In many cases, supporters of a particular point of view were far outnumbered by the critics! Often, new theories and ideas were proposed in their place, and then these were heavily criticized. Any single agreed to definition is a long way off!

Below are a number of statements, not necessarily definitions, which have been made about art. As you read them, think about what is being proposed. You might like to talk about them with other students in your class or compare them to your own ideas about art (look back at the statement you were asked to write about art at the beginning of this file). None of the following comments are considered to be correct statements about art. Instead, they provide a broad range if ideas.

Art, like life itself, need not be defined or understood to be enjoyed. It must simply be experienced

Duane and Sarah Preble

Art, the production or expression of what is beautiful or visually attractive; the skill or work of humans.

Macquarie Dictionary

…art is something we do intentionally…things humans make or do.

Richard Wollheim

The artist is the creator of beautiful things.

Oscar Wilde

To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines or colours, sounds or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling – this is the activity of art.

Leo Tolstoy

…Art exists because the ideas special to it cannot be transmitted otherwise…

Vernon Blake

Art, however we define it, is present in everything we make to please our senses

Herbert Read

Art isn’t everything. It’s about everything.

Gertrude Stein

A work of art is an expressive form created for our perception through sense or imagination, and what it expresses is human feeling.

Suzanne Langer

…the explanation of art as essentially an imitation of aspects of the universe…was probably the most primitive aesthetic theory.

M.H. Abrams

Art is human emotion expressed in terms of a medium.

Graham Hopwood

…the art product is unlike other created objects because it is primarily for aesthetic experience.

Kenneth Lansing

Art is anything you can get away with.

Marshall McLuhan

You put a tree on the left side and one on the right side, a mountain in the middle and a lake at the front with ducks on it and half of the sun setting behind the mountain. That’s Art!

Lucy (Charlie Brown comics)

Art is the personal, skilful and aesthetic expression of an idea or feeling made in an art form.

Max Darby

And, dancer Isadora Duncan, when asked about how she felt when she danced, once said “If I could tell you what I feel I wouldn’t need to dance.” That attitude was picked up in the opinion of Leo Tolstoy above – that art is somehow about the expression of feelings.

When you read what other people have written about art and its meaning, you probably found you could agree with much of what was said. Although each statement seems to contain a part of the answer to the question, none seems to say everything we want to express about art.  The nature of art just appears to be one of those issues which defies satisfactory definition. In his statement, “Art is anything you can get away with”, Marshall McLuhan was cynically suggesting that, with the explosion of exciting and confusing artforms which have surfaced recently, defining art may not only be impossible but also not worth the effort. Interestingly, this could be taken as his own definition. That although art cannot be defined and can be anything, therefore, that’s what art is – anything!

Other writers have suggested that no single definition of art will ever be sufficient and that it might be more profitable to consider a range of qualities which, when used together, provide an overall picture of what art might mean. The whole list above, for example, gives us a ‘flavour’ of many of the different qualities that art could contain.

What kind of overall picture would you provide if you could use a number of statements to explain what art is? You might prefer to draw up a composite list of characteristics which you and some of your class friends included in your earlier statements about art.

Now that you’ve thought more about the question since you made your list, are there any new points you feel may have been missed and should now be added? What points did you and other students have in common?

What is basic to Art?

The word Art is used for many things that are totally unrelated to the way we use it in the Visual or Performing Arts. Can you think of some examples where something someone has done has been called an art? The media often tend to use the word inappropriately. Kicking a football, hitting a golf ball, diving from a high board, cooking a meal, juggling knives, growing roses, raising children and even teaching are some examples. We even refer to ‘the art of deceit!’ Fancy relating ‘art’ to something dishonest!

Usually, the reference to ‘art’ is just to something that has been done skillfully and it surely seems that, although important, skill alone is insufficient. That, perhaps, is important to keep in mind when working on your studio works. You need something important or interesting to say, or express. There’s an old saying that your parents will know ‘all dressed up with nowhere to go’. Skill alone in the visual arts seems to suggest ‘all skilled up with nothing to say.’

So, what other things might be required for an object or image to be considered an ‘art’ work?

Although accurately defining art in a visual arts sense may be difficult (even impossible), most people have some kind of ‘vague or global idea’ in their mind about what an ‘art’ work is. There would be many things and if you imagine a kind of ‘big bag’ that you could drop in lists of the kind of things you might expect most ‘art’ works to have, (but maybe not all art works) then it would be easier to use what’s in that ‘bag’ than to try to provide one single definition or description that all artworks must possess. Somewhere in that ‘big bag’ I suggest you would find four basic qualities which are common to all artworks.

  1. Art is only made by people. Natural phenomenon such as rock formations and country scenery can be beautiful and aesthetic, but are not considered art because they occur without intention or planned purpose. Animals and insects make some amazingly complex and well designed structures, but they do this by instinct rather than as a way to express anything.

  1. Art reflects ideas about an artist’s personal experience of life and the way they see their world. Ideas emanate from feelings, attitudes, values, beliefs and things imagined.  Ideas are first internalized in the mind before they take an outward form which can be shared with others.

  1. Art takes on a form when the idea is expressed in an art medium. A medium is any material from which art is made, such as paint, charcoal, pencil, ink, clay, glass, fabric, metal or stone. There are many two-dimensional and three-dimensional forms which art can take and new technologies are continually providing more.

  1. Art reflects the personality, intelligence, talent or skill, imagination and personal aesthetic preferences of the artist who made it. It shows the way the artist sees things or chooses to express things through their work. These, combined with the artist’s particular ways of working with (and using) materials and equipment, go to make up the artist’s personal style.  Without the injection of personal qualities, a work is unlikely to be considered art.

While it might be seen as just another definition, these 4 points can be considered basic qualities of art, and can be combined to form a collection of the various characteristics that all artworks contain. This would provide us with an overview of what art might be; an overview which does not exclude any of the points raised in the list of quotes about art included earlier. We could perhaps say that Art is the personal, skilful and aesthetic expression of an idea in an art form.

It is important to realize that the various points in that statement often occur together and can influence each other. For example,

  • the artist might change or refine an idea while the work is taking its form
  • the artist’s personal style and way of working may not be evident until the work is completed and will be influenced by the idea being expressed
  • the idea being expressed will influence the artist’s way of working
  • the form the artwork is taking can initiate new ideas which might be incorporated into the artwork, or might become the basis for further artworks
  • the medium or form used will influence the way the idea is expressed and interpreted.

Some artists even use the making of an artwork to help them to clarify their ideas or feelings about a particular experience, which is one of the reasons many artists engage in drawing. It helps them to shape and form their ideas about a topic. Drawing is a medium that allows them to quickly and flexibly explore many different approaches to their initial ideas.

When we make or view an artwork, particular qualities often demand more attention than others. Those qualities become more important to us at that time. Sometimes, we focus on the personal expressive style and the artist’s technique is most dominant at that time; sometimes, we focus on the form and the materials used and the ways these impact on the work are the most dominant at that time and, sometimes we focus on the idea being expressed and that becomes most dominant at that time.

When we make an artwork, however, it is more difficult to separate those things than it is when we analyse someone else’s artwork. Making an artwork ourselves demands attention to be paid to everything at the same time because everything is happening at the same time. Whereas, when analysing an artwork we can look at each of them in turn, linking them when required and where they overlap. Time isn’t important because the work already exists and we can take our time to focus on each thing separately should we close to do that.

How do we make judgments about Art?

The following topics are already written and ready to put onto this file but for now just a list of upcoming headings has been provided so that you can see where it is going. They will be added in the next 2 days.

How do we make judgments about Art?

What is the artistic process?

Why is Art important?

Who makes Art?

What is the function of Art?

What are the different categories of Art?

What are the different artforms?

What are the different Art styles and movements?

What is personal style?

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3 Responses to “What is Art? (For teachers)”

  1. A great blog with some ides I hadn’t thought about. Thanks.

    […]Arts Education Guru[…]…

  2. max says:

    Great, glad it’s useful. Max

  3. JCJ says:

    Great work here. I’ll definately use it in class, Max. And of course it cross references to other files you’ve included. it suits my IB DP students.

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