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What Is Art? What Is Not Art?

Mike has been an online writer for over 10 years. His writing often focuses on painting, photography, and sports (especially basketball).

Explore an essay debating what is and is not considered art.

Explore an essay debating what is and is not considered art.

The Nature of Creativity

Recently I engaged in a conversation with a fellow alumnus of the University of Kansas’ School of Fine Arts, and we spent time comparing what we understood and appreciated about art, both as creators and followers. We asked the question “what is art” and “what is not art” and debated the answers.

I enjoyed this chat a great deal, but realized we were diametrically opposed in what we accepted art to be and tried to accomplish as creators. I recognized some opinions and philosophies as a product of his education as a KU art student, but shook my head in disbelief at the artistic psychobabble he embraced with such passion.

The conversation provided the impetus to question the nature of creativity and reexamine what I believe about art. This article is meant only to pose questions and offer opinions—not supply answers.

Standards for the Classification of Art

Defining art and judging the quality of art have been the preoccupations of human beings for millennia.

What Is Art?

The New Webster’s Dictionary defines art as “the use of the imagination to make things of aesthetic significance.” Wikipedia probes further and tells us art is the “process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions.”

This leads to the question of establishing objective criteria for defining art. Is art a process or a result? Does an inherent connection exist between art and beauty? Is art anything we say it is? Is it intended to be appreciated or enjoyed? Should it have a function beyond its appreciation?

Realist, Objectivist, and Relativist Approaches

Richard Wollheim, a British philosopher known for his work on mind and emotion relating to visual arts, defined art relative to three approaches:

  • the Realist approach, establishing aesthetic qualities as absolute while independent of human view;
  • the Objectivist approach, which defines aesthetic qualities as absolute but dependent upon human view;
  • and, a Relativist position which asserts that art is not absolute but incorporates the human experience.

Applying this information to my personal beliefs, I can accept aspects of Wollheim’s three classifications of art. I struggle most with the Realist perspective. I can accept the aesthetic beauty of the universe and nature as absolute while remaining independent of human view, but I struggle to accept anything man-made as intentionally Realist.

Michelangelo’s “David” meets the strict criteria of a Realist approach—its aesthetic qualities are absolute and timeless. However, this magnificent statue was certainly created to evoke a human experience. Vincent Van Gogh’s melancholy “Crows over the Wheat Field,” for example, swallows the viewers in its intensity, intentionally or not.

The Question of Purpose

The idea of art independent of human view puzzles me on some levels and leads to the question of what is achieved through the act of creating a drawing or painting? I have been baffled by artists who claim they create only to satisfy a physical need. Physical experience as the only goal excuses the creator from meeting any type of artistic standard.

I was scolded at a lecture I attended as an art student when I suggested to the visiting artist that if his only purpose in painting was for a physical experience, he should try push-ups instead. His lengthy lecture and slide show revealed that his art existed for other reasons; he desired it be seen, or he wanted admiration or notoriety. Perhaps he wished to be paid for his work. If his sole purpose was to work up a sweat, there was never a need for his paintings to see the light of day.

I remain convinced that art serves a higher purpose than physical gratification, and that purpose is connected with the viewer and subsequently embraces an Objectivist perspective. The purpose seemingly involves a form of language—a means to create shared meaning. A second goal might be to create beauty; a third would involve earning money.

These reasons and many others are all valid and dependent on the viewer’s experience. The utilitarian design of objects for use or consumption, such as a chair or article of clothing, would seem to reflect a Relativist approach—its creative success is inexorably connected with the human experience.

Are These Purposes Valid?

While I scoff at many of the justifications painters use for their art to be as it is, there are certainly reasons I accept.

Financial Reward: Art as a product created without pretentiousness or cosmic rationales in exchange for money makes perfect sense to me. Artists might not create to make money, but being paid for their efforts becomes a valid reason to create. Why put a price tag on a piece hanging from a gallery wall or offer students a scholarship to encourage continuation of their work? It is an incentive to create.

Creating Genuine Beauty: Creating beauty is another acceptable rationale if the beauty is genuine. My appreciation for so-called “calendar art” is based on the realization that it is nice to look at and is often quite beautiful. Being pleasing to the eye is its reason to exist, and the labor of painting serves the end result, not the other way around.

This rationale can be obscured by subjective definitions of beauty, but hearing “I know what I like when I see it” from patrons typically encompasses an appreciation of beauty that stems from shared meaning.

How to Determine What Is NOT Considered Art

It is more difficult to apply an objective standard for defining art by identifying what is not art. For example, I strenuously object to the concept that art is anything its creator wants it to be, but many hold fast to this belief. It is my opinion that a framed sheet of notebook paper is not art just because a “creator” states that it is—how we view the sheet of notebook paper is also a consideration.

In a critique as a college student, a classmate generated fifteen minutes of conversation concerning the nature of art by hanging a calendar upside down. The artist knew he could capture the imagination of the class with his pseudo-intellectual ramblings. The same rules didn’t apply a week later when I proudly presented a Woolworth’s “spring clearance” window sign with car wax applied to it. My creation was repulsive and my declaration that it was as much art as the calendar hung upside down was rejected.

I was ridiculed by my peers as I defiantly contended they proved my point for me: my assertion as its creator that my car-waxed sign was art was insufficient because no one else accepted it as art.

What Are NOT Valid Reasons to Create?

Artists sometimes claim they don’t need a reason to produce art, but I am uncertain how the creative process sustains itself without a motivating force.

Correcting the Lack of Beauty in Nature: Some seem convinced they are an elemental force, painting because nature abhors a vacuum. I laugh at such chatter, recognizing that our planet is full and rich with natural beauty which ceaselessly captivates our mind and senses if we are attuned to it. In a world of magnificent perfection, I never observe or sense the vacuum they speak of and consider it delusional for artists to believe they are creating beauty because it is lacking.

Repetition: I consider repetition a poor reason to paint. As artists build a series of works along the same theme, I question the need for multiple paintings that look essentially the same. Why have six paintings instead of only one?

I understand that it sometimes takes more than one try to reach a particular combination of skill and expertise culminating in the solution to an artistic problem. My question is why the earlier paintings are kept. If their final painting solved their artistic quandary, what purpose do their earlier efforts still serve? As a collection or series, they lack creativity and simply restate what has already been stated with varying levels of success. One is enough.

Negativity: Negativity is a poor reason to create. I have personally used negative feelings and emotions to create, but negativity is not the point. If my purpose is to work through negative experiences or emotions, I feel obliged to communicate something positive in the end—to make experiencing my work part of an upward trend. If I project negativity and inflict it on others it might be creative, but is it art?

What Do You Believe?

As promised, I have asked questions and offered opinions only. No answers to the questions of what is and is not art have been forthcoming. I pose this question to you: have you ever seen a painting or sculpture and exclaimed, “THAT’S NOT ART!” If so, why did you feel this way? Was it ugly? Did it evoke negative feelings from you? Did it seem amateurish? What made you decide that what someone considered art wasn’t?