Just what is this thing we call Art?
Art is what artists produce. All artists are human beings, but not all human beings are artists. So what is it that makes a human being an artist? And what is it that they produce? These simple questions are the basis of endless debate. So let’s break it down into simple chunks.
There seem to be three common threads running through all definitions of art:
- We expect to see some form of manual or technical skill, something we are not ourselves capable of, or which we aspire to. We can see this in lots of walks of life, sport, surgery as well as painting, drawing and sculpture. However, it is important that we do not see this as the most important or sole criteria.
- We also expect to encounter some form of intellectual challenge. Something that confronts our ideas and thoughts, but probably has no definitive answer. It is very much like a political or religious discussion.
- Finally, we should see some form of personal or public expression that communicates what the art is about. When we hold a conversation we express our ideas and thoughts. It is the same type of process.
The three points mentioned above describe a lot of things humans produce, so there has to be something else we need to understand to define what art is? We could start with the word Art itself? It is related to the word artificial, in the sense that art is not naturally occurring, like a tree, man creates it. It does not follow that anything man produces is Art. Why is this?
There seems to be something different, more profound about Art compared to what is simply mass produced by man. For example, let’s compare a sculpture of a human figure with a manufactured nail. The sculpture can tell to us something about the human form or condition, where as the nail is simply a functional object with little or no real significance. On the other hand a nail is a very useful object where as, in a practical sense, a sculpture is not. So art seems to be a group of objects, ideas or activities, which it could be argued, are useless in practical terms. Yet , they are different or significant in a way that a nail or painting a window frame is not.
Art constantly changes and as each century passes, artists change the direction of art. In some cases they redefine it altogether. In the early 20th century the artist Marcel Duchamp invented the ready-made. A work of art created from found objects, and made us look at everyday objects in a quite different way. Artists such as Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky choose to reduce the world to series of lines, colours and shapes. They invented abstraction with its consequent effect on design, architecture and fashion.
It is not just artists that change art; technology has also made its mark. Without the invention of the camera obscura (the simple pin-hole camera) some artists would have struggled to create their topographical paintings during the Renaissance. Luckily the paint tube was invented before the 1860’s; otherwise the Impressionist painters would have found it very difficult to work outside. Today we see the computer influencing everything from animation to special effects. It has generated new forms of art, just as the invention of photography did in the 19th century.
Want a more detailed discussion? Checkout my FREE booklet, What is Art?