What is Art?

Most people, including those who are very passionate about art and spend a lot of time in museums, have a hard time defining what art really is. They often say that they would recognize it when they see it, yet they can’t always explain what they mean when they use the word “art”. For example, are rocks that appear balanced in the middle of a river or on a lake shore a form of art? Can paint quickly splattered on a wall be art? What about simple figures created with crayons? The subject has been endlessly debated, though really to no avail.

Many people would agree that art is something beautiful and creative. It is something that expresses the feelings, perceptions and ideas of the artist. However, one of the issues here is that beauty and creativity are subjective. What people consider to be beautiful depends on their background, education, culture, personal values, and life experience. This is the reason why art historians say that beauty is more than just the presence of colours or interesting forms. Art is something that has the power to elicit feelings, emotions and insight in people.

Closely connected to the definition of art is the definition of someone being an artist. For example, does one have to be an artist to create a work of art, and what exactly does being an artist mean and entail? Is photography a legitimate art form and are photographers artists? What about TV, radio and other modern media? For a long time after the invention of the camera, society did not consider photographers to be artists and photographs were not considered to be art. Rather, they were the result of a mechanical process. The photographer was a mere operator. It’s certainly true that some early photographers, such as Atget, considered themselves more as visual historians than artists.

Today things have changed dramatically and many people do consider photography to be art. Just as photography itself once struggled to be recognised as art, for many years women were not considered artists among the male-dominated photographic societies. In fact, women who created art were often frowned upon and not treated seriously. Some women chose to attribute their work to men or simply not sign their artworks if they wanted them to gain recognition. Today, of course, women are considered to be at least as good as men in all artistic endeavours.

One famous artist who started raising questions about the essence of art was Marcel Duchamp. One of Duchamp’s best-known works is a recreation of the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. Duchamp’s version has a moustache and a beard because the artist wanted to show that anything can be art as long as other people think that it’s art.