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What Is Art

What Is Art

I won’t be making a mistake by saying that once in a lifetime every one of us has wondered — what is art and how does one define it.

The first intuitive thought that crosses our minds is related to paintings hanging on  museum or gallery wall, but we also understand that it does not really answer our question.

This question has been sitting in my mind for a while too, together with few others.

  • Should random objects scattered on the gallery floor can be considered art?
  • Can only sharks of the art world decide what is (good) art and what is not?
  • Is there something wrong with me if I don’t like Mona Lisa?

In my explorations I have discovered a few simple definitions and at the end of this blog post I will explain why I am not really fascinated by the most famous painting in the world (sorry, Leonardo).

Artist's Studio

Studio where artist Aloyzas Smilingis-Elis creates beautiful abstract paintings.

However, if you are not up to reading the whole text, you can watch a video on this subject :)

The Definition of Art

The first two sources of information in my research are, oh what a surprise, the dictionary and Wikipedia.

Oxford dictionary defines art as “the use of the imagination to express ideas or feelings, particularly in painting, drawing or sculpture”.

Wikipedia states that “art is a diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory or performing artefacts (works), expressing the author’s imaginative, conceptual ideas, or technical skill, intended to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”.

Another simple definition that I find appealing is provided by An Kyung and Jessica Cerasi in their book titled “Who's Afraid of Contemporary Art?”.

“At its most basic, art can offer a respite from the humdrum routine of everyday life, lifting us out of ourselves by inviting us to experience something out of the ordinary.”

In simple words, I would define art as an object (artwork) that is a result of artist’s imagination, creativity and skills, it moves us emotionally and offers an escape.

Right now I have jumped off the chair, because I thought that I have just created my own definition of art, but to my huge disappointment, it only raises even more questions...

  • Can only humans create art?
  • Could we all become artists if we wanted to?
  • Does art always has to be beautiful and/or always emotionally touching?

So, really...

Why is it so difficult to define art?

Two reasons.

1. We are talking about VISUAL art, so no wonder it is so challenging to describe it in words!

Bronze sculpture

"Aurora", bronze sculpture by Gediminas Endriekus.

Maybe the primary reason why visual art was born thousands of years ago was to express something we are not able to describe verbally.

Art is about imagination, fantasy, creativity, emotions and ideas and our language is simply not sufficient.

Which reminds me of the words by Lithuanian artist Gediminas Endriekus, creator of modern contemporary sculptures.

I did an interview with him earlier and he explained that it easier for him to express his emotions and feelings through art.

“Art is my language and shapes are my words” he said.

This is the reason I could never understand why art should be explained in long texts, it simply does not make sense.

Art does not need an explanation, it communicates with us on the emotional level.

My intuitive judgement is supported by H.H.Arnson in the preface of the book “The History of Modern Art”.

“Everything that has been said about art, even by the artist himself, may be important, but it remains secondary evidence”.

Yes, it might be compelling to learn about the time when artist lived and what inspired him/her, it might be interesting to find out about the techniques he/she used, ideas that moved the creator and how did he/she discovered certain outstanding style.

BUT when it comes to interaction with an artwork, it’s all between the artwork and the viewer.

This leads to even more confusion — we are all different in our backgrounds, values and tastes, so we will see and understand the same artwork in very different ways.

Some of us will love it, some of us would hate it and others will doubt if it is art at all.

So maybe art historian E. H. Gombrich was right saying that

“There is no such thing as art. There are only artists.”

Abstract painting

Fragment of the abstract painting "Bubble In A Trouble 2" by Gina Vor.

2. Times change and so does art.

Art is emotional, so it cannot exist without reflecting the society we live in. With all it’s ideas, subjects, techniques or all together — art always marches with time.

Our values and the way we see the world also change and so does our interpretation of art — this is why new disputes arise.

Let’s move a few hundred years back in time and  take a look at the paintings created by Old Masters - European artists who painted in 1800.

You definitely know a few of them: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Rembrandt.

Probably no one would dare to doubt their skills, but even though their paintings sell for millions, it can also spark out an interesting debate.

If you read a book by Thomas Bernhard you would find so much critique towards widely acknowledged famous names.

It is being argued that what they created is not really art, because they were executing the will of rich commissioners — churches or monarchs.

They painted a none existing world, portrayed same faces and did it purely for money, rather than expressing their own ideas and feelings or serving the society.

Old Masters are even called slaves rather than artists. Mr Bernhard is not an art historian, he is a novelist, but he definitely has a point.

To sum up — artworks that were admired by masses once might not be receiving so much fascination now (which makes me wondering about the wonder of Mona Lisa… ).

On the other hand, there are artist’s who became famous years after death, because they were ahead of time and people simply did not understand and did not appreciate their artworks when they were alive.

“Like our contemporary world, today’s art is not fixed, but always shifting and growing. Contemporary art articulates our present.” — another interesting insight by A.Kyung and J.Cerasi.

Who decides what is art?

Despite all challenges in defining and interpreting art, despite changing perceptions, values and trends, theres is one person who knows for sure what is art and what isn’t.

This person is YOU.

You don’t need to know art history or be an expert in art techniques and trends to say whether you like what you see, whether it moves you emotionally.

Just as you don’t need anyone to explain why you should listen to a certain song. When the music is on you either turn up the volume or skip the piece. 

Films that you see can make you laugh, can make you cry or make you think without any explanation. So does visual art.

No one needs to be an expert in art in order to appreciate and understand it.

We see an artwork and we connect with it, or we don’t, we like it or we hate and either way is right.

You cannot be wrong about art. When someone asks for your opinion about the painting, please don’t to say “I don’t really know much about art…”, because you don’t need to know, you need TO FEEL.

Even if it is a very expensive work of art created by an artist you’ve never heard of. You have every right to love it or compare it to something created by a five year old.

It is absolutely OK not to love Mona Lisa.

What is my problem with her?

I never liked realistic figurative art, I am a fan of abstract paintings. I find Mona Lisa painting dark and boring, the lady not so pretty either.

Please don’t explain the significance of this artwork — I would not want her on my wall, full stop.

Is the "what is art" question even relevant?

Does it even make sense to try defining art? Not really and I could not put it in better as this quote: 

“At any rate, for virtually anyone working in the art world, the ‘Is it art?’ question is boring and irrelevant. The real question is: ‘Is it any good?” - A.Kyung and J.Cerasi.

I covered this topic in my blog post - click this link if you are interested to learn what is good art.

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Meanwhile here is a video you might find interesting. 

More quotes about art 

The Art Assignment is a YouTube channel hosted by curator Sarah Urist Green. She explores art and talks about it in interesting yet simple way. She has been gathering quotes about art for a while and in this episode Sarah presents how some of the well known artists, writers and thinkers understood art.

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