What is art?

I realize I'm opening up a whole can of worms here, but it's always good to incite conversation, yes? Lisa Mikulski at Dragonfly Blu Design has a blog post about whether or not graphic design is art (it is, of course!). I offer this definition of art, which I've always liked:

What is art?

It is the conscious, deliberate production of an event or object of beauty (or emotional import) by a human being, employing not only the skill of the craftsman, but in addition, an element of creativity–original, inventive, instinctive, genius. An art object is an aesthetic artifact, deliberately created.

Art actually lies in the act of creation, not in its result.

–G. Ellis Burcaw, Introduction to Museum Work

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13 thoughts on “What is art?”

  1. Certainly correct, however I believe the emphasis of this quote chooses to denigrate what was truly an American innovation, abstract expressionism…(yes , of course the Europeans did a version before- but the New York school adopted it in their hearts)…In Canada they are called the automatistes, & the philosophy is, by a methodology that seeks to avoid deliberation, & thereby somehow have communion with revelation, somehow accidently being moved by the Spirit…Originality might have been given more importance in the definition of art, as the proliferation of technical skills in today’s marketplace emits really just a ho-hum to most jaded viewers… funny, how at a recent peek of what Ontario art students were producing, the above quote seems so apt- & why I was so dissapointed at the lack of innocence & naivete…My husband, Joseph, says that fragility is essential to beauty, (in reference to art)…somewhere that ephemeral quality, like melting ice, needs to be described…good beginning to a conversation though…

  2. Discussions of what is art always go back to beauty. Since personal taste and standards about beauty and aesthetics vary, arguing from only a formalist perspective eliminates social, political, and conceptual efforts. I find many of the paintings of Francis Bacon beautiful, some would call them horrific. Personally, I often strive for the sublime, elevating the ordinary, or finding or extracting, the beauty in the “ugly”. Working on more than the basic elements of line, form, color, and composition may mean creations that are more than design. Challenging the viewer to think differently or see more, creates a more rewarding/richer “art” experience.

  3. Beauty is tricky too, though. I just had this conversation yesterday with a friend who’s a science writer who knows a lot of artists. We were trying to define the difference between scientific imaging, some of which is extraordinarily beautiful, and art that uses scientific images, i.e., the difference between Leonardo’s anatomical sketches and Hooke’s renderings of images from his new microscope. One’s art, the other’s . . . not. But why? We wound up thinking it had something to do with emotional content too, but that wasn’t entirely satisfactory.

  4. Alyson B. Stanfield

    Sari, in what way do you believe that quote denigrates Ab Ex? I don’t see it at all and I consider myself a student of Ab Ex. Lee & Patricia: Ah, beauty. That, too, is tricky. I like the way the quote uses “or emotional import” in place of beauty. Who is to define beauty?

  5. the beginning ‘It is the conscious, deliberate’…and the ending ‘deliberately created…’ the emphasis on deliberation, is what reminded me of first year at Sarah Lawrence College in New York…(the roots of Abstract Expressionism, Automatism, go back to Freudian theory…) the idea is that by avoiding deliberation-by avoiding conscious purpose- that truth or dreams or sub-text or revelation or prophecy can be made visible…it is really important for artists to know about avoiding deliberation…so instead of saying, ‘today I will paint a dog, a fruit, a tree…’ the artist says inwardly perhaps ‘ I wonder what I will paint today ?’…the process is so important…because what you get is the element of surprise- the artist is themself (is that a word?) surprised…& that joy translates to the work, to the gallery to the collector…look what I did! look what happened! every artist should understand this methodology…it can be used to break a working block…or when developing a style…the lack of deliberation is key- so important to our Quebec artists they wrote a political manifesto…anyway, that is what I was talking about…when teaching young artists especially, the first thing I throw out the door is deliberation…it chokes the soul…

  6. Words are so sticky when it comes to visual art. I wonder, Sari, if you are getting a little stuck on the word “deliberation”. To spend too much time thinking about what one is going to paint, yes, that can be debilitating. However, I am a firm believer that there must be deliberation at certain points during creation. All the decisions that are made during the creation of a work of art – that is where the individuality comes from. Once the art is completed, I also enjoy deliberation then. It does take a strong intention to make a mark on a blank canvas (paper, whatever). Couldn’t the word “deliberate” also refer to that? I am in agreement with Diane’s quote since there is a marriage of the conscious and subconscious during what is a physical act. That is when the art becomes the most interesting. Fun to think about all of this! http://ponosmom.blogspot.com/2007/05/silencing-critic.html

  7. Alyson B. Stanfield

    Daniel: Love it! Sari: I think Karine may be right. While Ab Exsts were, indeed, practicing all of those things you say, there were definitely deliberately making art. You can try to slip into subconscious or unconscious mode, but you’re still trying to make art in the end–art that is a result of that state of being. “Conscious” seems to be the sticky word here. I do believe that they were consciously making art, even if was trying to tap into their subconscious in the process. Whew! Hope this makes sense.

  8. yes…I just didn’t want anyone to fall into that particular pothole…’consciously trying to tap into their subconscious…’ that is truly hilarious…notice how when people are on a deadline things start to become funny? I hope your book turns out as good as your blog has… the pothole is a big one for me…when I am conscious, I paint a tree or some fruit or something figurative & it sells quickly & I hate it a little bit for being commercial… when I do the subconscious process, I make beautiful semi-abstract work that speaks…doesn’t sell as well, but it is didactic… I suppose straddling the two might make sense…but I wanted to warn of the overemphasis on the intellect- for the intellect pays the credit card bills & knows what is marketable… thanks all for the conversation…(I am showing two paintings in a gallery opening June 7, one is a deliberate conscious figurative of two trees very saleable, the other is more an accidental subconscious of a wild bull not as marketable here- I will see what people think- though I fear the intellect shall win…sigh)

  9. Define Art
    To define art one must define Artist.
    An artist brings into existence, state of occurring, something that was not there before. The artist uses the mind, body, and emotion, to invent, design, process the former, then ultimately creates. The artist’s choice of medium is his/her means to execute the art.
    Art, the root of this word comes from several languages ranging from the 13th to the 16th centuries. Their meanings mostly pertain to skill or learning.
    However, art in Old English is the word eart, and is a form of the word be. The earliest meaning I have found for the latter is Sanskrit from 4C BCE; bahavati means becoming.
    If you take the elements the artist uses and process them to create, you have art.
    While many think of art as something of beauty, it can be the opposite.
    The CPA that sits at a desk working with numbers puts them together to create a financial statement. That is his art. The same holds true for the engineer who creates a new tool, or the entrepreneur who creates a business. While these examples may not be classified as fine art, it is art none the less.
    Art is creation pure and simple.
    Each and every one of us is an artist. And we are all a work of art.

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