There is no one universal definition of art but there is general consensus that art is the conscious creation of something beautiful or meaningful using skill and imagination. But art is subjective, and the definition of art has changed throughout history and in different cultures.
Extreme examples aside, every time a new movement in art has developed, the definition of what is art, or what is acceptable as art, has been challenged. This is true in any of the different forms of art, including literature, music, dance, theatre, and the visual arts. For the sake of clarity, this article pertains primarily to the visual arts.
“Art” is related to the Latin word “ars” meaning, art, skill, or craft. The first known use of the word art comes from 13th century manuscripts. However, the word art and its many variants (artem, eart, etc) have probably existed since the founding of Rome.
The question of what is art has been debated for centuries among philosophers.”What is art?” is the most basic question in the philosophy of aesthetics, which really means, “how do we determine what is defined as art?” This implies two subtexts: the essential nature of art, and its social importance (or lack of it).
The definition of art has generally fallen into three categories: representation, expression, and form. Plato first developed the idea of art as “mimesis,” which, in Greek, means copying or imitation, thus making representation or replication of something that is beautiful or meaningful the primary definition of art.
This lasted until roughly the end of the eighteenth century and helped to assign value to a work of art. Art that was more successful in replicating its subject was a stronger piece of art. As Gordon Graham writes, “It leads people to place a high value on very lifelike portraits such as those by the great masters – Michelangelo, Rubens, Velásquez and so on – and to raise questions about the value of ‘modern’ art – the cubist distortions of Picasso, the surrealist figures of Jan Miro, the abstracts of Kandinsky or the ‘action’ paintings of Jackson Pollock.” While representational art still exists today, it is no longer the only measure of what is art.
Expression became important during the Romantic movement with artwork expressing a definite feeling, as in the sublime or dramatic. Audience response was important, for the artwork was intended to evoke an emotional response. This definition holds true today, as artists look to connect with and evoke responses from their viewers.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was one of the most influential of the early theorists toward the end of the 18th century. He was considered a formalist in terms of his philosophy, which meant that he believed that art should not have a concept but should be judged alone on its formal qualities, that the content of a work of art is not of aesthetic interest.
Formal qualities became particularly important when art became more abstract in the 20th century, and the principles of art and design – terms such as balance, rhythm, harmony, unity – were used to define and assess art.
Today, all three modes of definition come into play in determining what is art, and its value, depending on the artwork being assessed.
According to H.W Janson, author of the classic art textbook, the History of Art, “It would seem…that we cannot escape viewing works of art in the context of time and circumstance, whether past or present. How indeed could it be otherwise, so long as art is still being created all around us, opening our eyes almost daily to new experiences and thus forcing us to adjust our sights?”
Throughout the centuries in Western culture from the 11th century on through the end of the 17th century, the definition of art was anything done with skill as the result of knowledge and practice.
This meant that artists honed their craft, learning to replicate their subjects skillfully. The epitome of this occurred during the Dutch Golden Age when artists were free to paint in all sorts of different genres and made a living off their art in the robust economic and cultural climate of 17th century Netherlands.
During the Romantic period of the 18th century, as a reaction to the Enlightenment and its emphasis on science, empirical evidence, and rational thought, art began to be described as not just being something done with skill, but something that was also created in the pursuit of beauty and to express the the artist’s emotions. Nature was glorified, and spirituality and free expression were celebrated. Artists, themselves, achieved a level of notoriety and were often guests of the aristocracy.
The Avant-garde art movement began in the 1850s with the realism of Gustave Courbet. It was followed by other modern art movements such as cubism, futurism, and surrealism, in which the artist pushed the boundaries of ideas and creativity. These represented innovative approaches to art making and the definition of what is art expanded to include the idea of originality of vision.
The idea of originality in art persists, leading to ever more genres and manifestations of art, such as digital art, performance art, conceptual art, environmental art, electronic art, etc.
There are as many ways to define art as there are people in the universe, and each definition is influenced by the unique perspective of that person, as well as by their own personality and character. Following are some quotes that illustrate this range.
Today we now consider the earliest symbolic scribblings of mankind—such as those like Lascaux, Chauvet, and Altamira, that are 17,000 years old, and those even 75,000 years old or more—to be art. As Chip Walter, of National Geographic writes about these ancient paintings, “Their beauty whipsaws your sense of time. One moment you are anchored in the present, observing coolly. The next you are seeing the paintings as if all other art—all civilization—has yet to exist….Compared with the jaw-dropping beauty of the art created in Chauvet Cave 65,000 years later, artifacts like these seem rudimentary. But creating a simple shape that stands for something else—a symbol, made by one mind, that can be shared with others—is obvious only after the fact. Even more than the cave art, these first concrete expressions of consciousness represent a leap from our animal past toward what we are today—a species awash in symbols, from the signs that guide your progress down the highway to the wedding ring on your finger and the icons on your iPhone.”
Archaeologist Nicholas Conard posited that the people who created these images “possessed minds as fully modern as ours and, like us, sought in ritual and myth answers to life’s mysteries, especially in the face of an uncertain world. Who governs the migration of the herds, grows the trees, shapes the moon, turns on the stars? Why must we die, and where do we go afterward? “They wanted answers,” he says, “but they didn’t have any science-based explanations for the world around them.”
Art can be thought of as a symbol of what it means to be human, manifested in physical form for others to see and interpret. It can serve as a symbol for something that is tangible, or for a thought, an emotion, a feeling, or a concept. Through peaceful means, it can convey the full spectrum of the human experience. Perhaps that is why it is so important.