Saturday, January 9, 2021

Defining "Art"

What is Art? It can be a class of objects, an act, a process, an experience, or an idea. Definitions of art have been proposed and challenged by thinkers through the ages. This video offers a smorgasbord of quotes about art. You can try them on for size, accepting or rejecting them and testing your own ideas. (Link to YouTube

For myself, I find the most useful definition is Tolstoy's description of art-making as the communication of emotion: "To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling -- this is the activity of art." He also says: "Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them."

But sometimes artists draw or paint in private sketchbooks with no intention of communicating emotion or sharing their work with others. This kind of sketching can be from the imagination. or from observation. In that instance, art can be a form of conjuring, a kind of magic. It's an exciting experience to bring into existence an image that seems to take on its own life. 

Which definition or description in the video resonates most with you? Have some of them proven unhelpful or misleading to you? Please share in the comments. 

Thanks, BoingBoing


tieltail said...

this video boggled my mind quite a bit, and it definitely challenged the way I look at certain styles of art, like abstract or absurd art. I think many people are quick to say certain styles of painting or sculpture are "not real art," but that's just like saying a certain type of cuisine "isn't real food." It might not be your favorite type of thing to behold, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have value to those other than you. My favorite definition of is the one she mentioned from Bertold Brecht: "Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it."

Unknown said...

Art is whatever you think it is. It’s personal.
But if we really need a definition I believe we can take music as an example and say that: Art is the orchestration of elements that produces a result capable of connecting you with your humanness.

willbrooks said...

Greetings James, a great way to start the year. For me it is difficult to define Art because it means different things to different people therefore no one definition will suit. In his two books, Fundamentals of Drawing and of Painting, Mogilevtsev places "Concept" at the start of each section and says," .....we must decide what it is that we wish to convey to the viewer..." So to me, art can be defined as, "an attempt by an artist to convey their thoughts and emotions to the viewer". Sometimes it works. Bestwishes WB

Karey Swan said...

So many quotes! I would need a transcript to take it all in and see all the quotes that were read quickly. I'm trained in Botanical Illustration, which usually just copies exactly what you see, but with great skill. We'd talk of taking some things to an art level which seemed more having to do with composition, etc. But I'm also a textile artist. In the history of art there is a "Craft" era. I wonder at craft verses art.

Susan Krzywicki said...

Another way to look at it is from the governmental funding aspect. The City of San Diego Port Commission is the entity here that is responsible for "public art" and after years of thinking about and refining their definitions, they now use these two statements:

Definition of Artist: An individual generally recognized by critics and peers as a professional practitioner of the visual, performing, or language arts, based on his or her body of work, educational background, experience, exhibition history, publication, and/or creation of artworks.

Definition of Artwork: An aesthetic creation resulting from the skill and creativity of an artist or artists. An artwork may be made of any materials or combination of materials and may be permanent, temporary, fixed, or portable. An artwork can be an integral part of a building or structure, and can be integrated with the work of other design professionals. For the purposes of the Waterfront Arts & Activation department artworks can include visual representations of performing and literary arts, or can incorporate performative, narrative, or time-based elements.

It is fascinating to see this issue not from the creator's viewpoint, but from the consumer angle.

Wes McBride said...

I'm not sure we should try to specify art as a whole, because it leads inevitably to opinion vs. opinion. People find themselves in opposition for no actual reason. It's like arguing with someone about religious belief or kool-aid style politics (as opposed to actual policy). We live in an age where any concrete definition of art ends up feeling restrictive if not discriminatory (or worse). It is difficult to avoid exclusion when you start to set boundaries. Not that boundaries aren't useful. But the measuring sticks of art, if you will, need to change with the context. And it helps to have tools that can put us on the same page when we talk with other people about art. Particularly people with different experiences and values. There are more concrete terms than "art" if we need them. Aesthetics for instance, or communication, or social relevance, or concept, or craft.

Rainer said...

James Gurney wrote: But sometimes artists draw or paint in private sketchbooks with no intention of communicating emotion or sharing their work with others. This kind of sketching can be from the imagination. or from observation. In that instance, art can be a form of conjuring, a kind of magic. It's an exciting experience to bring into existence an image that seems to take on its own life.

This is the definition I like the most. And it can be done on a large canvas, too, not only in a small sketchbook.

DeadSpiderEye said...

Anything material that is the product of human effort is art. That includes paperclips, plastic spoons, bridges, every painting or print hanging on a gallery wall and every prancing horse cast in bronze.

The important distinction is the value of art, some things we place similar values upon. For instance I don't think paper clips are venerated by that many people. And there's the clue to one of the most important aspect that determines the value we bestow upon art, its significance as iconography.

Roberto Quintana said...

Great post James!
What strikes me about this is that most of these definitions refer to the effect or intent or conditions for “Art”. So with that in mind I would say that the simplest, but still troubling, definition would be:

“Art is the result of an original creative act.”

which would include the design and creation of the first paper-clip, but not necessarily the mass production of the rest of the (set = paper-clips), or the reproduction of art by mechanical means.
(Alpha Paper Clip vs Giclee’ print of La Gioconda).

This also would include a very troubling sub-set of ’Shock Art’

And would also include the bewildering (to me) category of ‘conceptual art’

But not necessarily the ‘concept’, just the instructions for the creation of, but not the resulting performance or installation or spontaneous event, or whatever. (?)

My hedd hurtz. -RQ

James Gurney said...

Roberto, yes, I suppose your categories cover the topic. It's too bad defining art is so hard, because 'Art' is such a nice short word. The word 'art' is like a balloon that has been blown so full of hot air that it has popped and no longer has any shape.
I suppose that's what we get when so many people work so hard to un-define a word. As it stands in common usage, the only thing left out of the concept is 'illustration,' which you'd think is very close to our innate sense of the word. And the word 'artist' is even more messed up. Musicians commonly call themselves artists (dang them), but many picture-makers are afraid to use it to refer to themselves. We've given the word away.

Roberto Quintana said...

I would say ‘Illustration’ would definitely qualify as “The result of an original creative act.” I have no problem with that! As would music, dance, architecture, literature, crafts, etc. Even a sketch of a parking-lot! But once you fling open that barn door, no telling what the cat will drag in! -RQ

Michael Patriciaa said...
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