Essay: What is Art?

Artwork by Jeffrey Koons

“Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.”–Oscar Wilde

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”—Thomas Merton

“Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.” ― Pablo Picasso

By Dave Hood

Last winter, I visited the National Gallery in Ottawa, Canada. As I walked through the gallery, I noticed that most of the art was installation art, constructed from ready-made objects, everyday material, or conceptual art—art in which the idea is more important than the art itself. I thought to myself: Is this really art?

My viewing of the art inspired me to do some research on the question of “What is Art?” I read several art books, culled through popular art magazines, visited the websites of  the Museum of Modern Art, The Tate, the Museum of Contemporary Art .

I learned that there are many definitions of art. For some, art means  form and content. Form refers to line, shape, colour, text of the work of art. Modern artists believed that a good work of art was based on the elements of art. For instance, Van Gogh’s painted “Starry Night” with bright colours. Picasso created geometrical shapes and amorphous forms as the dominant elements in his cubist artwork. Modern art is also about content—the artist’s intentions. What is the artist communicating to the viewer? The artist attempts to evoke some reaction in the viewer. What is the viewer’s initial impression of the art work? What is the meaning of the artwork to the viewer’s interpretation of the work of art. Does the viewer like or dislike the work of art? A good work of modern art communicates the artist’s intention, evokes an emotional response in the viewer.

I also learned that good art will be thought provoking. The viewer might think: What is the artist attempting to tell me about humanity, life, an idea? For instance, Salvador Dali’s paintings attempt to communicate the unconscious mind and dreams through symbolism. His work also attempts to evoke an emotional response: What am I feeling?

Many people feel that art must have some aesthetic appeal. It must express beauty and good taste. I would agree that the modern art of Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Dali, express good taste and beauty.

Some people believe art must be representational. It must be a realistic depiction of still life, portrait, landscape, urban setting. Monet and Van Gogh are examples.

For others, art doesn’t have to represent anything at all. It can be an abstraction of the mind, an expression of emotion. For instance, Jackson Pollock hurled cans of paint on a canvas, then watched it drip. It became known as abstract expressionism. Another abstract expressionist artist was Mark Rothko who painted blocks of contrasting colours on a canvas—calling it colour-field painting.

In recent years, art has come to mean photography, either black and white or color. Ansel Adams black and white photographs of landscape is considered art. And so is Jeff Wall’s staged photographs and Edward Burtynsky’s  industrial landscapes,  altered by mine tailings, quarries, and scrap piles.

For many contemporary artists, art has become something different. The conceptual art movement, which began in the sixties and installation art, has now become popular. Artists view art as a “concept” or “idea.” The concept is more important than the aesthetic value of the art itself. In fact, art does not require any aesthetic value. Most artists graduating from colleges and universities take up this sort of art. Most of these so-called works of art look as though anyone with some imagination could create them. The question is: Is this art?

A typical installation is site specific, three dimensional, and occupies a particular space in time. The setting, itself, floor, ceiling, lighting, walls become part of the exhibition. Objects are arranged or staged in a particular location within the space. The installation might also include video, photos, sculpture, neon, and so forth

Installation artist Damian Hurst’s created a work that included a rotting cow’s head with maggots and flies. He also created an installation in which a tiger shark was preserved in formaldehyde within a tank. Jeffrey Koon’s created an inflatable dog and rabbit, that look like balloons. He called the inflatable dog installation “Puppy.” Other popular installations include Kusama’s “Repetitive Vision”, Sandy Skudlund’s installation “Walking on Egg Shells”. Both constructed installations with mannequins. Contemporary American artist Bruce Nauman has created installations from neon. One of his popular installation is “The Big Welcome.”, a neon sign showing a hand shake. The question is:  Are  these  installation really art?

The contemporary artist believes that art is an idea, the most important aspect of work. The conceptual artist also rejects the traditional view that a work of art is a drawing, painting, sculpture, photograph. Some conceptual art is just a written statement or set of instructions. It is art of the mind, not about creating a work of art that has aesthetic value, appealing to the viewer, evoking pleasure. The art work is about ideas and meaning, rather than form and material. The artist is motivated to challenge the traditional assumptions about art—types of media, beauty, and artwork versus a document. The artist believes that art should be about intellectual inquiry and reflection, thought-provoking. Art should have cognitive value rather than aesthetic value. Art should increase knowledge and understanding of an issue or topic.

Artwork by Damien Hurst

Many conceptual artists also blend video, film, and photographs into their works of art. The conceptual artwork is reduced to its barest essentials—the dematerialization. The question is whether conceptual art is really art or something else.

I also learned that something becomes art when art establishment embraces the work of art. For instance,  the installation might be on display in a gallery. The artwork is sold at an art auction. A collector purchases the art work.

So  what is art? I’ve concluded that art is sculpture, painting, drawing, abstract, photography, and most installation. Art is about concept and form.  The artist must reveal some level of skill and express an idea and evoke some emotional response. The artist must have intended to create some work of art—and so a snapshot is not art. Ansel Adams said, “You don’t take a photography, you make it.”

I also believe in the concept of “Art for Art’s Sake.” The concept of “art for art’s sake is a modern art term that “art has its own value”—-such as abstract art of Kandinsky or abstract expressionism of Pollock. This term also suggests that art should be judged apart from theme–morality, religion, political, unlike the art of the Renaissance. 

In recent years, this term has evolved to mean that the artist has the right to express freely his or her thoughts, feelings, opinions, and perceptions. I would agree, providing the art is not obscene.

Anything beautiful is art, such as a flower, nude, picturesque landscape. 

The best art is authentic and appealing–evoking pleasure, awe, often wonderment, even shock, but not revulsion. It was Dale Carnegie who said, “The essence of all art is to have pleasure in giving pleasure.”


About Dave Hood

Lover of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction. Professional photographer and writer. Without the arts, life would be rather mundane, like a walk down the same old path on a dull day.
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