What Is Art?

This morning in my class “Ancient Cultures of the Near East”, we were talking about artifacts excavated from various archaeological sites in the Fertile Crescent from the Neolithic: stone tools, bronze tools, figurines, etc.; and my professor mentioned that’d seen similar artifacts on display in art museums, scoffing that they weren’t art.  It jettisoned my brain onto a topic that, as a recovering art student, I have often contemplated.

What is art?

Now, if you’ve ever taken an art class, or maybe once drawn a picture that’s been laughed at and made to feel ashamed, then you may have come across this question or wondered about it yourself.  What qualifies something as art?  What defines art?  What is the meaning of art?  Or more importantly, how does art come to have meaning.

My professor was of the mind that those artifacts on display had not originally been produced as “art” and therefore had no place in any edifice dedicated to art.  He likened the artifacts to his shoes being put on display in a similar fashion centuries after the fact; claiming that his shoes are only tools that serve a practical function, and not designed to be put on display.  However, this analogy fails on a number of levels, most poignantly because the person who designed the shoes probably would like to think of them as art.  Also, because in our society, or most all societies for that matter, garments and auxiliary items like shoes, can be a form of art, otherwise, why would we have ‘fashion shows’ (aka, gallery displays?), why would we spend so much time picking out color, weighing design?  Why would we match our shirt to our pants?  Because we care about how our clothes cause others to perceive us.

Does this make shoes art?

No, no, these are totally practical…

What is art?

Sitting in class listening to my professor rant about the ludicrousness of these Neolithic tools being in an art gallery, I thought immediately of my favorite example of “what is art”: Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”.

Marcel Duchamp was a famous French artist in the early 1900s.  He’s been associated with such movements as Dada and Surrealism, but to try and pigeon-hole him into a particular genre would be like trying to screw in a light bulb without a socket.  He is often cited one of the most prominent artists of the past century, his work openly challenged the art scene, and often dealt with the very question which I’m posing today: what is art?

“Fountain” is one of his most acclaimed works.  It was a ready-made sculpture, which consisted of an old urinal found in a scrapyard, cleaned up, and signed R. Mutt.  Submitted anonymously to a prominent gallery, it was originally rejected entry because…well…it was a urinal.  But when Duchamp stepped forward to claim the piece as his own, the gallery quickly recanted its initial rejection and put “Fountain” on display.

“Fountain” by Marcel Duchamp

Over the decades, many have debated the intended meaning behind “Fountain”.  My sculpture professor suggested Duchamp, ever at odds with the art community that venerated him so, was attempting to demonstrate how elitist and cosmopolitan the art scene had become: they no longer cared about what was actually art, they only cared about what names were attached to the work.  My own interpretation of “Fountain” is a little less aggressive, more idealistic, dreamy-eyed notion, and that is that art is everything and anything we let or decide, determine or define it to be.

Art can be a painting or a sculpture pieced together for the very purpose of being put on display.  It can be a gourmet dish meant to be appreciated from the moment it arrives, plated beautifully, to the moment it is completely devoured.  It can be a song strung from an instrument or sung by a vocalist.  It can be a story, a paragraph, a sentence, or a single word written across a page.  It can be an action; a carefully choreographed ballet or an impulsive rhythmic gyration to a pulsing beat.  Or, it can be a centuries old milling stone from the Upper Neolithic.

Given this wide array of applications for ‘art’, my first instinct is to think of art as being a social construct – an abstract idea which society attaches all meaning to, shaping and influencing it with the changing ideologies of our society.  However, a piece of art does not change its meaning over time.  Decades, centuries and millennia later, Leonardo de Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” still enthralls and captivates us, Vincent Von Gogh’s “Starry Night” mesmerizing and haunt us, we are still dwarfed and humbled by Michelangelo’s mural on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, we are still awestruck and moved by the cave paintings in Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc caves.  Which draws my mind to my Linguistic Anthropology class.

‘Art’ is believed to come hand-in-hand with language.  Popular theory is you cannot have one without the other.  You need the cognitive ability to attach symbolic meaning to otherwise meaningless images, actions, or sounds in order to have art and/or language.  In this sense, one can connect art with communication.

Duchamp’s interests in the philosophies of art were in the intrinsic nature of its dichotomy: the artist versus the observer.  He states that, “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone…”  The artist is only the creator, it is the observer of the art who gives it meaning, context, definition.

In linguistics, participants in a system of communication are referred to as the sender and the receiver.  The sender is the speaker in a conversation, they are said to be ‘encoding the message’.    But the receiver is the one listening, ‘decoding the message’, and it is in the receiver’s ability to understand and interpret meaning in those gestures or words that the line is drawn between the sender’s message being communication or just plain old noise.

One day I’d like to see these in person, I understand photographs don’t do these cave paintings justice. (Cave Paintings from Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Caves)

Producing art is not a solo action, it may be created by the artist, but it is made art by the spectator.

As a writer, I have had moments where a story I’ve shared with others was transformed before my very eyes into this masterwork of art by my readers.  I could not take credit, at least not in whole, for what those writings became.  I maybe have put the words on paper, but the emotions and the life they breathed into those words were entirely and completely manifested by the readers.

I would propose this as a definition of art: anything created by one being which stirs emotion in another.

I know this opens a dangerous door, inviting everything to be labeled ‘art’, but considering I have always been an advocate that ‘everything is art and art is everything’, I’m strangely comfortable with this.

Going back to my professor’s comments, applying this definition of art, then it is easy to argue that those Neolithic tools most indubitably belong in that art museum.  When I look at those artifacts, I’m sure when most people look at them; it arouses this immensely powerful emotion.  It sweeps you away to another place, another time.  Who held this in their hands, shaped it for the appropriate function, used it to their own or their group’s benefit?  This person, tens of thousands of years now dead, how did they look, live, speak, think, feel?  This person, far removed from me by time and distance, but connected to me in their innate humanity.

Tools found at Chatal Huyuk.

(Quick message: I fully intend to finish writing those 50K words for NaNoWriMo.  I have exactly twelve short story ideas written down, and I’m aiming to make them each roughly 4000 words long, which’ll just about reach my goal.  I no longer care if I go past November, I intend to finish writing these short stories.  I’m currently working on one that’s roughly half-way finished entitled “Mermaid”, the story of a young girl trying to sort out the events leading up to and following her failed attempt at suicide.  I’ll post it as soon as it’s finished.  Otherwise, I have to go back cookies for the potluck at my workplace tomorrow…)

Thanks for reading.  Any insights on what you think defines ‘art’, please feel free to share!

  1. I am afraid the Duchamp story is a bit different.

    To start talking about Art, the first step is to agree on whether you consider God in the equasion or not. Because it would develop into two totally different lines of thought. And then the informational pressure on an individual within any given century )

    And I really recommend getting the book “What good are the arts” by J.Carrey. He is a literature professor form Oxford. Frankly, that book has almost all the answers )

    • Thanks for the comment!

      How different?

      Why? Art came before religion (allegedly, I guess I should put that)…but you said “God”, which suggests the “Is there, isn’t there?” debate. Not touching that one. Though I think a lot more different lines of thought would develop before and after establishing exactly what variables we’re throwing into the equation.

      That’s a lot of pressure to put on one book, that it holds almost all of the answers! I’m almost afraid to follow up on that recommendation, I don’t like getting all my answers from one place. But what are the questions, I wonder…

      • Talking about art when Art is supposed to be something that pleases God(s) is a bit awkward, because all the great artists of the past should be damned to Hell, for they sought eternal life through their creations. And it is not me, it is a catholic cardinal who said this. Jokes aside, many philosophers tried to bring God into the definition of Art and only made matters worse for God is inscrutable. Thus, the definition of Art that mentions God(s) becomes inscrutable as well, so one can not apply it to understand whether the object to be judged is Art or not.

        That’s a good book I have suggested. It does not give all answers. But it answers a lot of your question, trust me on that. After those questions you ask now (or would ask, given your current thoughts on art were reworked into questions) would be answered, you’d develop new questions. And that’s why you will not regret reading the book )

        PS Art could not come before religion, for the more or less modern concept of Art appeared in the second half of the 18th centrury only ))

      • Thank you for the further insights, I appreciate the follow up. I’ll certainly check out that book, I never pass up an opportunity to explore new perspectives.

        As for your comment on art coming before religion, I wasn’t speaking about the modern concept of art, but the first development of art that we can find in the archeaological records, that being the cave drawings and petroglyphs created by our early ancestors as far back in time as 100,000 ya, which most certainly pre-dates any religion evident in our records, but I did tack on that “allegedly”, because we can’t say with any certainty that archaic H. sapien, and H. neanderthalensis didn’t possess some form of religion. Theories about art may not have come before religion, but art itself did exist before religion. Though, I suppose that takes us back to our original question “what is art?” and do cave drawings created by our ancestors qualify as art? I know where I stand on that issue, but I’m always open to any reasonable arguments to the contrary.

      • The cave drawings (earliest known are 40K years BC) are widely believed to be shamanistic form of attracting animals (though there are other funny theories about them) and so are a form of religious art anyway. And – without doubt, it is Art, for it very well communicates the raw desires and longings of mankind, even today. There is even a theory that some of the cave drawings were meant to move in the light of fires or torches. Check out this video that is a summary of this study: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=x8exsw6yKXw

      • Oh, hahaha, I’m sorry, where is my head…thank you for catching that. When I cited that time frame, I was thinking about the Blombos Caves in South Africa where, items including beads, bone tools, and red ochre etched with obviously decorative patterns (which is not originally from the area and as an art aficionado you might know is used extensively in art) were found inside of this cave dated to c 140,000 years ago.

        While it is true that there are theories about the cave drawings being ‘shamanistic’ in origin, there are many valid theories about why those cave drawings were created, though yes, I agree, some of those theories are funny, they are all valid because none of these theories can be proven as they all lack any further supporting evidence beyond the cave drawings themselves.

        Personally, I like the theory that the impetus for most cave drawings’ creation was no more than the desire of the artists to create them, simply to, as you put it, ‘communicate’ what they felt, or just saw, same as the etchings in the ochre were probably done because the creator thought they looked nicer that way, easy as that. Of course, in the end, it doesn’t matter which theory I like or you like, because neither is more true or valid than the other. As my most recent archaeology professor liked to put it, archaeologists are just making educated guesses, we don’t actually know anything for certain…which is probably a terrible thing to admit, given that this is what I want to do with my life.

        Regardless, because there is no factual evidence in the theory, we cannot refer to the cave drawings as religious art, unless, as you put in your original comment, we agree at the beginning of the discussion that the ‘shamanistic origin’ theory is true, which we don’t.

        I appreciate the video link! I have actually heard that theory about the cave drawings meant to move in the fire light, which I think leads more credence to the possibility they were created as a form of entertainment (simplest terms, for aesthetic pleasure). I’ve seen that video before, in my Linguistic Anthropology class last semester, it’s fascinating some of the theories which connect art to the development of language, many linguistic anthropologists believe that both go hand-in-hand. Thank you for sharing that video, I hope other visitors to my blog will view it and enjoy.

        Also, thank you again for the followup and further insights! I’m glad you agree that those cave drawings are art, they definitely communicate a lot about ourselves and our ancestors.

    • Harold Rhenisch
    • January 2nd, 2013

    Thanks for this. An interesting read. I like those shoes. I’d just like to add that if one looks at art before the science-art-spirit breakup, it was very much a practical enterprise. If discussions start with the premise that it is not, they will explore a lot of that territory, but not much about the territory in which art is practical. For Goethe and his friends, in the 1780s, let’s say, art was no different than artisan work or craft. It took their efforts to change that, although Goethe insisted that the change not be made but, rather, that the old territory be extended in an alternate Enlightenment. It did not survive either the nationalist or romantic movements of the day. I think it’s fruitful to go back. None of that old unity has been irrecoverably lost, and the finding of it shows how much of what is defined as art (in the sense of display, as you’ve finely put it) was also practical, once. It’s a great sorting device. I like the attitude in Leipzig: art is not in the galleries anymore; in an age of mass mechanical reproduction it is on the streets. That suggests new roles for galleries. I like that. Another exception to the display rule is the workers’ art of East German factory life. It is being quietly ‘disappeared’ by the new German government, but used to be everywhere, knocked off by welders as part of art clubs after work, before going home, and looking like it. Was it art? Yes. Did it meet the criteria of craft and elegance and self-awareness demanded of public art today? Not in the least. Was it highly politically charged, often in ways which criticized the government in ways that the government did not understand but the people could? Yes. Indigenous art is another example. All in all, ‘art’ as a concept gets pretty narrow and pretty culturally specific pretty quickly, when one starts to look into it. I’m glad you survived art school. Hurrah to that!

    • I’m glad it was entertaining.

      Your response was very well thought out, and your insights proved interesting as well.

      Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to comment!

  1. January 2nd, 2013

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