What is art?

In late Antiquity the arts consisted of the seven artes liberales, the liberal arts: Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Geometry, Arithmetic, Astronomy, and Music. Philosophy was the mother of them all. On a lower level stood the technical arts like architecture, agriculture, painting, sculpture and other crafts. "Art" as we concieve of it today was a mere craft. Art in the Middle Ages was "the ape of nature". And what is art today?

Can we give a definition?

The following seems to hold for art: You know what it is, I know it, but a definition is quite something else.

You can't say

Although one probably cannot give a real definition of Art, here are some thoughts (and a whole lot of quotations) on the subject. Let's start with a quote from "What is Art? What is an Artist?" by Chris Witcombe, Department of Art History, Sweet Briar College, Virginia.

"Arthur Danto, professor of philosophy at Columbia University, believes that today "you can't say something's art or not art anymore. That's all finished." In his book, After the End of Art, Danto argues that after Andy Warhol exhibited simulacra of shipping cartons for Brillo boxes in 1964, anything could be art. Warhol made it no longer possible to distinguish something that is art from something that is not."

Anything could be a work of art. That gives us a lot of freedom in looking at, enjoying, or creating art. That's not what the other philosopher of art, Richard Wollheim states in his Painting as an Art:

"So, there are house-painters: there are Sunday painters: there are world-politicians who paint for distraction, and distraught bussiness-men who paint to relax. There are ... psychotic patients who enter art therapy, and madmen who set down their visions: there are little children of three, four, five, six, in art class, who produce work of explosive beauty: and then there are the innumerable painters ... who once, probably, were artists, but who now paint exclusively for money and the pleasure of others. None of them are artists, though they all fall short of being so to varying degrees, but they are all painters. And then there are painters who are artists. Where does the difference lie, and why? What does the one lot do which the other lot doesn't? When is painting an art, and why?"

The criterion of art

What makes a painting a work of art? According to the Institutional Theory of Art, "Painters make paintings, but it takes a representative of the art-world to make a work of art." So, What is art? is not a question to be answered by the lay-man. We need Priests to tell us what the Truth is, i.e., to decide wether a painting is a work of art or not.

Besides the "externalist" Institutional Theory of Art answer Wollheim gives two internalist answers:

"The criterion of art lies in some directly perceptible property that the painting has."


The act of painting has to be an intentional one, i.e., the painter has to have the intention of making art. The act of painting has to be undertaken in a special way in order to be art.

The origins of art

In a book with a totally different subject, The Prehistory of the Mind, Steve Mithen defines art as:

artefacts or images with symbolic meanings as a means of communication.

Art, in Mithen's theory, is a product of the cognitive fluidity in the "Modern" (i.e., Homo sapiens sapiens) Human Mind. The three cognitive processes critical to making art were all present but still seperated in the earlier Early Human Mind (e.g., Neanderthal). These cognitive processes are 1. Interpreting "natural symbols" such as hoofprints ("natural history intelligence"); 2. Intentional communication ("social intelligence"); and 3. The ability to produce artefacts from mental templates, e.g. a stone handaxe ("technical intelligence"). So here art is defined as symbolic images as a means of communication. In fact, according to John Fowles, author of The French Lieutenant's Woman, art is "the best, because richest, most complex and most easily comprehensible, medium of communication between human beings."

Steve Mithen is talking about the origins of art. And so does, in a different way, Albert Einstein in his famous quote:

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science."

Now we have six answers to our question

  1. Anything can be a work of art.
    • True, in the here and now.
  2. It takes a representative of the art-world to make a work of art.
    • Sounds a little bit like the easy way out. Moreover, if 6 is true, then 2 is untrue: If the mysterious is the source of all true art, the opinions and expertise of a select group do not really seem to matter very much. Theirs is the know-how, the knowledge; Einstein saw more in imagination: "I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world."
  3. The criterion of art lies in some directly perceptible property that the work of art has.
    • Then the observer has to learn how to recognize this property.
  4. The act of painting has to be undertaken intentionally and in a special way in order to be art.
    • Undertaken intentionally by an artist. Art is what is made by an artist. This brings us to another question: What is an artist?
  5. Art is artefacts or images with symbolic meanings as a means of communication.
    • However, not all such images are art - some of them are just signs.
  6. The mysterious is the source of all true art.
    • Maybe because of this we cannot give a clear definition of art. Perhaps one cannot put it into words. Perhaps it's like a mystical experience. Or like Tao.

Art with a capital A

This is what Sir Ernst Gombrich writes in the very first sentences of his immensely popular The Story of Art, the million-selling handbook which went through sixteen editions since its first appearence in 1950:

"There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists. Once these were men who took coloured earth and roughed out the forms of a bison on the wall of a cave; today some buy their paints, and design posters for the hoardings; they did and do many other things. There is no harm in calling all these activities art as long as we keep in mind that such a word may mean very different things in different times and places, and as long as we realize that Art with a capital A has no existence. For Art with a capital A has come to be something of a bogey and a fetish."

Art is what is made by an artist

Anything might be art. Art is what is made by an artist. Then, what is an artist? This is what John Fowles has to say about the artist:

"To be an artist is not to be a member of a secret society; it is not an activity inscrutably forbidden to the majority of mankind. Even the clumsiest, ugliest and most ignorant lovers make love; and what is important is the oneness of man in making artefacts, not the abyss said to exist between a Leonardo and the average of mankind. We are not all to be Leonardos; but of the same kind as Leonardo, for genius is only one end of the scale. I climbed Parnassus once, and between the mundane village of Arachova at the foot and the lonely summit, quite as lovely as the poets have always had it to be, there is nothing but a slope; no abyss, no gulf, no place where wings are necessary."

Art in context

Recent developments in archaeology and anthropology have brought into question our conception of prehistoric images as art. In Beyond Art: Pleistocene Image and Symbol, Iain Davidson, in his article 'The Power of Pictures', writes the following:

"I note here that "art" is that making or marking of surfaces people talk about when they refer to paintings, engravings (including sculptures), drawings and stencils of the Pleistocene. It is sometimes convenient to refer to this making or marking of surfaces as PEDS. Whether this "art" meets anyone's criteria for art is entirely up to them. I do not believe it is useful or necessary to attempt to define art (without the inverted commas), because as every controversy about art, from Braque to Warhol to spray-can graffiti, indicates whether something is art depends on whether someone thinks it is."

In the same volume, Silvia Tomaskova states:

"On a conceptual level I question the appropriateness of the term "art" relative to prehistoric representations, suggesting that the category of art is not only inappropriate from an epistomological standpoint but also a hindrance to archaeological research, due to the conceptual attachments that it has in fields such as art history or aesthetics."


"Most scholars who deal with rock paintings or objects recovered from prehistoric contexts that cannot be explained in utilitarian terms and are thus categorized as decorative, ritual or symbolic, are aware of the trap posed by the term 'art' ..."

In the Museum

Only when objects recovered from prehistoric contexts, or ethnographic contexts, are placed in the art museum and presented as art do they become works of art. But then they are placed outside their context, or maybe even outside any context. Tomaskova gives the following example, taken from the catalogue of the 1995 London Royal Academy African art exhibit:

"Until now, African pottery, wooden carvings and textiles had been viewed essentially as handicraft because ... they had not been created as art, to be appriciated for their own sake. Even after 'primitive' African art inspired Picasso, Brancusi, Braque, Modigliani and Henri Moore earlier this century, it was its magical and mystical quality that counted most. But at the Royal Academy, objects made by African hands are seperated from their cultural context and can be judged simply as art."

Baskets, pottery and maybe even tools can be experienced as works of art in the same way as Brillo boxes, Campbell soupcans (Warhol) and bicycle handlebars tied to a saddle (Picasso) or a picture postcard of the Mona Lisa with a moustache drawn on it and the lettering (Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics) L.H.O.O.Q. (Duchamp).


How far can we go? Thomas Vargish and Delo E. Mook, in their recent Inside Modernism: Relativity Theory, Cubism, Narrative, tell us:

"... we treat the Special and General Theories of Relativity as important modernist works of art, the most important for our purpose because they contain and express with the highest intensity the values that for us define Modernism."

Of course, Vargish and Mook do not define the Relativity Theory as a work of art, they treat it as such in order to explain their argument.

A work of science is not a work of art, although there are some parallels between them. The aesthetic principle seems to be important to both. The great physicist, Paul A.M. Dirac, claims that "keen sense of beauty" enabled him to discover the wave function for the electron in 1928. And G. N. Watson, one of the most distinguished mathematicians of the early twentieth century said that some of Ramanujan's mathematical formulas gave him the same thrill as Michelangelo's "Day," "Night," "Evening" and "Dawn" in the Medici chapel in the San Lorenzo in Florence. Moreover, some strikingly parallel developments in twentieth-century art and science have been pointed out by the quantum physicist and philosopher David Bohm:

"It seems very interesting that the development away from representation and symbolism and toward what may be called 'pure structure' that took place in mathematics and in science, was paralleled by a related development in art. Beginning with Monet and Cezanne and going on to the Cubists and to Mondrian, there is a clearly detectable growth of the realisation that art need not represent or symbolise anything else at all, but rather that it may involve the creation of something new - 'a harmony parallel to that of nature' - as Cezanne put it."

Painting is a science

"Painting is a science and should be persued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, may not landscape painting be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but the experiments?" Thus John Constable concluded his fourth Royal Academy lecture in 1836. In Constable's view, then, art is a copy of nature; nature the teacher of art: natura artis magistra. Israel Scheffler in his Symbolic Worlds states, however, that science purports to describe reality while "Art, on the other hand, and in contradistinction to the views of Constable and Gombrich, is not cognitive, but rather emotive in its import. Its function is to stimulate, express, or vent emotions rather than to describe reality".

Art is an intrinsic part of human behavior

A long quote from Nancy Aiken's The Biological Origins of Art where Aiken refers to Dissanayake's Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes from and Why:

"Art is not icing on the cake of culture. Art is an intrinsic part of human behavior; we can call human kind not only Homo sapiens but, as Ellen Dissanayake has it, Homo aestheticus. Probably quite by accident and without understanding what they had done, our remote ancestors co-opted some adaptive behaviors to add to their elaboration of ordinary things. These behaviors, such as fear at the sight of predator eyes and teeth, turned a previously ordinary thing, such as a covering for the head, into a frightful mask.

Art can be made by any of us. It need not result in museum-quality work; it can be only an elaboration of an ordinary object: a hair style rather than plain hair, fashion rather than a simple covering to keep warm, decorating rather than a room with furniture. We can all dance, sing, and doodle; some just do these better than others.

Art is appreciated by all of us. We need no special knowledge or sensory apparatus or experience to respond to a rythm, a tune, a series of bright colors, a monumental building, or a parade. We can all be thrilled and soothed by art.

Art is a species-specific behavior which can be used for social manipulation. All of us are subject to art's whim. Art can direct thinking, beliefs, and behavior. Art is a means to educate, subjugate, subvert, and convert. Art has this power because it can tap into and use our reflexive responses to natural, biologically relevant stimuli. We are unable to control these responses. We do not even realize what is happening."

Any artist's or poet's role, is to try and express what we all feel

"My role in society, or any artist's or poet's role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all." - John Lennon.

© Bart Rosier.

Vincent van Gogh Art

  • Vincent van Gogh is the greatest painter of Post-Impressionism era. His paintings are among the most expensive paintings in the world... More...
  • 100 pictures for only $25.



Art Encyclopedia A world history of art in articles.


Art Wallpapers Art image collections for your desktop.
      Clip Arts Basic Pack, free (50 pictures)
      Fine Arts Basic Pack, free (25 pictures)
      Fine Arts Extended Pack, free (50 pictures)