What is Art?

Art, the product of creative human activity in which materials are shaped or selected to convey an idea, emotion, or visually interesting form. The word art can refer to the visual arts, including painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, decorative arts, crafts, and other visual works that combine materials or forms. We also use the word art in a more general sense to encompass other forms of creative activity, such as dance, drama, and music, or even to describe skill in almost any activity, such as “the art of bread making” or “the art of travel.” In this article art refers to the visual arts.

The next sections of the article offer answers to the following questions: How have the visual arts been defined, and what purposes have they served? How have the different kinds of visual art been categorized and valued at different times? What are the elements of art? How do art historians study changes in art through time? The article concludes with some suggestions for appreciating works of art.


All definitions of art, including the one in the first sentence of this article, are open to question and debate. There are several reasons for this...

A definition of art that seems correct to many Americans in the 21st century is likely to differ greatly from definitions of art in non-Western cultures, in tribal societies, and in other historical periods. Our rather open-ended definition may even sound strange to those in contemporary Western society who expect art to be limited to familiar categories such as painting and sculpture.

Defining art raises problems also in that since the beginning of the 20th century some artists have sought to challenge the very definition of art. Their art objects may lack the qualities long associated with art, such as beauty, skilled craftsmanship, and clear organization. These art objects may even be indistinguishable from consumer products. Conceptual artist Jeff Koons, for example, assembles sculpture from commercially manufactured products such as vacuum cleaners and lawn ornaments.

In addition,during the last quarter of the 20th century, critics and art historians considered many more types of objects as art. Today, these authorities often speak of "visual culture" - which may include motion pictures, television, advertising, and comic books - instead of giving special attention to sculpture, painting, or architecture.

Perhaps the major difficulty in defining art lies in the fact that art implies value - monetary, social, and intellectual. Large amounts of money may be involved when an object is regarded as art. A sculpture of beer cans by American artist Jasper Johns is worth millions of dollars, while beer cans themselves are worth almost nothing. Many critics would say that the sculpture qualifies as art because the artist intended it to be seen as art. But what if the maker had no such thought in mind?

Regarding useful objects made in tribal cultures as crafts or artifacts would not seem inappropriate if we did not think of these categories as essentially different from painting, sculpture, and other categories considered "high art." Critics and art historians today often try to avoid this division between high and low art, substituting for "high art" terms such as "art with a capital A," "art-as-such," and "serious art." But these terms still make a distinction. We could speak instead of "art that is displayed in museums," "art that is taught in art history classes," or "art that art critics can interpret." These expressions would encompass tribal objects and give them an intellectual value, no matter who made them or what their intent may have been.


Despite the difficulty in forming a definition for art, we go to an art museum expecting to see paintings and sculpture, not comic books, loaves of bread, or works by amateurs. And usually we are not disappointed, even if sometimes an exhibit features comic books and, as a result, opens our eyes to what is "artful" about them. That we expect to see paintings in frames and carvings on pedestals stems more from historical conventions than from any specific material or visual quality belonging to art. Many objects we call "art" represent significant ideas, but some do not. Someone considered a "serious artist" might even be more interested in marketing his or her products than a designer of industrial products is.

Although a firm definition of art may seem like a good idea, and philosophers in the field of aesthetics have attempted to come up with one, it is possible to create and enjoy art without such a definition. Artists are generally more concerned with how best to use materials to convey their ideas than with deciding what is or is not art, whereas museum curators and art historians are busier looking for examples of particular types of objects, such as Greek vases or Rembrandt drawings. It is most important to remember that art is a category with changing boundaries, not only in its general definition but also in its subdivisions. People not only make art, but also choose which objects should be called art.

Many qualities that we now associate with art - originality, individual expression, something to contemplate rather than use - began to take shape only about 1500 and flourished in the 1700s. Before that time objects of great beauty and symbolic significance generally served purposes other than artistic self-expression. Art was more closely woven into the fabric of society, and artists were workers, although people admired them for a skill that at times seemed almost magical.


In ancient Greece, the word techne is the closest equivalent to art. Techne, which means work or technical skill, can be applied to the fashioning of any sort of object. But the Greeks had a special appreciation of mimesis (the imitation of reality) in painting and of especially pleasing proportions in sculpture and architecture.

The ancient Romans used the word ars, but ars still referred to a technique or a method of working, not to the expressive, creative activities that we now associate with art. Roman writer Pliny the Elder provides most of our knowledge about artists from the classical (ancient Greek and Roman) period. He wrote about the arts of painting and sculpture in the section on metallurgy in his Natural History. Although Pliny praises the skills of particular painters and sculptors, he does not single out painting or sculpture as being better than pottery, metalwork, or other crafts.


During the Middle Ages (about 350 to 1450), Christianity dominated Western culture. Thus the main purpose of the visual arts was to teach people, many of whom could not read, about religion. Art taught by means of delight, drawing people's attention and helping them understand the spiritual through fascinating forms (whether delicately refined saints or monstrous devils), ornately carved and painted decoration, precious materials (including gold, ivory, and gems), and colored light pouring forth from stained glass.

No particular form of art was considered superior during the Middle Ages. High value was placed on small-scale luxury objects such as illuminated manuscripts, jewelry, and metal objects used in church services. The great medieval cathedrals—buildings that required the skills of hundreds of craftsmen - became the pride of entire cities. Wealthy people decorated their homes with huge tapestries that told stories from mythology. Even clothing could be elaborately decorated and express a person's status and moral views.

Craftsmen, carefully trained in specialized medieval workshops, made the objects we now call art. Our word masterpiece comes from this medieval workshop tradition. The term refers to an object made by a craftsman at the end of his training to show he had acquired the skills to be called a master. During the Middle Ages a masterpiece could be a statue, a stained glass window, or a pair of shoes!


The importance of skill and craftsmanship continued well into the Renaissance, a period of artistic and literary revival that began in the 1400s. During the Renaissance, the visual arts were often associated with other trades based upon the type of material they used. For example, in the guilds (trade associations) of 15th-century Italy painters were grouped with doctors because both used chemicals, and sculptors who worked in bronze were grouped with makers of armor. However, the position of artists began to change in the 15th century. Painters and sculptors associated informally with poets, who occupied a higher social status because poetry had long been considered a higher art. Books were written to explain the theory of art and architecture, and artists claimed that they were inspired geniuses and not merely workers.

During the 16th century, Italian theorists began to group architecture, painting, and sculpture as the arts of disegno ("design")—that is, as creative activities that required an artist to visualize an idea and to transfer this idea to a drawing. (The Italian word disegno means both design and drawing.) Italian Renaissance writers also regarded narrative painting as more valuable than other kinds of painting, such as portraiture or landscape. Narrative painting told a story - mythological, historical, or religious - and thus could teach morals just as literature could. This type of painting, called istoria in Italian or history painting in English, was considered the highest form of painting until the late 19th century.


By the 17th century, artists across Europe were seeking more creative freedom. They viewed the workshops of the Middle Ages and Renaissance as restrictive. Some artists gained freedom by working at the courts of monarchs and the nobility, while others made art to sell directly to individual collectors. Such freedom could mean a loss of artistic quality, however. As a result, art academies became increasingly important as a way to enter into the profession without conforming to guild regulations.

Academies emphasized ideas, particularly ideas that connected the visual arts to the sciences or to literature, fields that enjoyed much higher status than the visual arts. At the same time, the academies wanted to separate themselves from the workshops, where sign painting and figure painting were seen as two variations on the same craft. The Académie des Beaux-Arts (Academy of Fine Arts), founded in 1648 in Paris, France, especially emphasized this distinction; it gave the arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture the name beaux-arts, meaning "fine arts."

The French Academy of Fine Arts made drawing from the nude the cornerstone of its program, and it had enough influence to force passage of a law that prohibited figure drawing in any workshop other than the Academy. It considered those visual arts that did not use the human figure as crafts or mechanical arts, with much lower prestige than painting or sculpture. Although the Academy held classes in other subjects, such as perspective, geometry, and anatomy, the working methods of painting and sculpture were taught in the studios of individual academy artists.


The French Academy of Fine Arts enjoyed special favors from the French government, and because of this connection it became part of the establishment (dominant institutions). During the 19th century artists in France fought against these institutions. In the early 19th century artists of the romantic movement (Romanticism), such as Eugène Delacroix, emphasized passionate expression. They often chose subjects that criticized the government, although their method of painting generally followed academic principles of composition and technique.

At mid-century Gustave Courbet and other French artists promoted their individuality: They not only chose subjects that the government might see as offensive, but also used techniques and compositions that went against academic teaching. Starting in the 1860s Édouard Manet and the painters who became known as impressionists (see Impressionism) broke away from the Academy and established alternatives to government-sponsored exhibitions and competitions. These alternatives eventually evolved into the modern commercial gallery system in which artists provide works to dealers who exhibit and sell the works to any buyer who can afford them.

The idea that artists should express their own subjective experience - what they personally feel about a theme or subject - became firmly established in the 19th century. Already in the 18th century some artists had reacted against the lack of feeling in most of the art of their time. The romantic movement continued this antiestablishment trend through its emphasis on passion, imagination, and escape from reality. Around the middle of the 19th century artists of the realist tradition (see Realism) reacted against the subjective expression of romanticism and demanded a return to depicting the actual appearance of things. This response led in the 1860s and 1870s to efforts by the impressionists to record light and color as we see them. Their interest in light and color provided a way for artists of the next generation to express what they felt - not what they saw - through even purer (unmixed), bolder colors (Post-impressionism). The idea that art should be a form of self-expression has remained an important part of our definition of art to this day.


In the 20th and 21st centuries many trends have developed, including some that seek to destroy our definitions of art. Artists of the dada movement, which flourished in the early 20th century, created works and sponsored events that pointed out the absurdity of all definitions. One of the most famous dada works was exhibited in 1917 by French-born artist Marcel Duchamp: a urinal turned on its back, titled “Fountain,” and signed with a fictitious name (R. Mutt) that plays on the urinal manufacturer’s name (J. R. Mott) rather than Duchamp’s own name. Pop artists revived the dada spirit during the 1960s, with Jasper Johns’s painted flags and Andy Warhol’s painted soup can labels.

Contemporary artists, aware of earlier traditions, can choose to work in traditional media (including painting, sculpture, printmaking, and now photography), combine media (collage and assemblage), or avoid the traditional categories entirely. For example, some artists create so-called environments that we can walk around or through. Others, such as Bulgarian-born Christo and American Robert Smithson, have rearranged the natural landscape in ways that cannot really be called architecture, landscape architecture, or sculpture. Art critics have coined the terms land art and earthworks for such endeavors. Still other artists have focused attention on the monetary value we give to what we call art, by creating works that cannot be sold, as some conceptual artists did in the last decades of the 20th century. Artists today can ignore the line that the academies drew to separate fine art from craft, or they can affirm essential differences between one art form and another according to their beliefs.


The definitions and developments in the Historical Views of Art section of this article apply to the Western tradition - the visual arts of western Europe and the Americas after European settlement. Yet every human culture has its own tradition of art, as rich and complex as the Western tradition. At many times in the past, non-Western art has influenced European artists, and at times this influence has changed the course of Western art. Pablo Picasso’s fascination with African sculpture in the early 20th century, for example, contributed to a simplification of form in 20th-century art. Only since the 1970s, however, have textbooks presented non-Western traditions to beginning art history students while mainstream museum exhibitions have exposed the general public to these works.


While the study of world art can broaden our way of thinking about art in general, it can also present difficulties to those trained in the Western tradition. First, Westerners tend to impose Western categories and Western values on the art of other cultures. African masks, for example, have been admired for at least a century by Western collectors, who see them as forms of sculpture to be hung on walls and admired for their powerful abstract qualities. But in an African society, masks are only one part of a ritual dance, which involves elaborately costumed performers who take on specific roles that dramatize important social interactions. For these societies the mask has value and symbolic meaning only while it is used in the dance. The mask has no special distinction as a sculpture, while the ritual dance does not distinguish between the visual arts, dance, music, and theater within it.


Even when the art of a non-Western culture seems quite similar to Western art, aspects of it may be valued quite differently. For example, during the Northern Song period in China (960-1126), respected artists with individual styles made brush paintings of landscapes and other subjects comparable to those found in Western art. Western viewers might note differences in brushwork or in the illusion of three-dimensional space in the Chinese works but would tend to overlook other differences that have no counterpart in the Western tradition. Yet in Chinese art, individual strokes of ink themselves conveyed meaning and were not simply a way to represent the subject, as in Western art.

Artists in China were carefully trained to form a variety of strokes, a skill very close to the art of calligraphy. This skill points to another fundamental difference between Chinese art and Western art: Chinese writings about art set calligraphy above all other art forms, rather than painting (as Westerners think of it), sculpture, and architecture. Chinese artists even thought of the inkstone on which they prepared their inks as an art object in itself, whereas Western painters give little thought to how their tubes of paint or palettes look.


Another difficulty in looking at the art of other cultures is a tendency to oversimplify - that is, to see all the art of a wide area as the same or else to see it as fundamentally opposite from ours. In thinking about Chinese art and Western art, we should keep in mind that art in China forms a continuous tradition dating back about 5,000 years. The Western tradition, in contrast, is generally said to start with Greek art in the 8th century BC, making it little more than half as old as Chinese art. Whereas Western viewers might regard Chinese art as unchanging, Chinese art in fact reflects the many changes in cultural centers, political systems, and religious beliefs through the centuries.

With African art, Westerners tend to think solely of the art of Africa south of the Sahara, omitting Egyptian art and the Christian art of Ethiopia. Another tendency is to think of all the different cultures of Africa as the same - and totally unlike the so-called civilized cultures of the European tradition. Until recently, anthropologists studied African art more often than art historians did, and scholars compared it to the art of prehistoric people or children. In several African languages, however, words used to describe art translate into English as "accomplishment, skill, and value," "things made by hand," and "things to look at." The first two definitions are quite comparable to European definitions of art until the Renaissance, whereas the last is closer to Western definitions of art from the 18th century on.

Africa has famous individuals who make art, just as Europe and the Americas do, and African art over the centuries has also displayed stylistic change and innovation. Some aspects of African art remain similar from one culture to another, such as a tendency to create abstract (simplified and generalized) forms or a preference for three-dimensional art over painting. There are, however, great differences in the arts of the different African regions and cultures. A number of books on African and other non-Western cultures have addressed Western misconceptions and raised awareness of the vast variety and richness of art traditions throughout the world.

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