What is Art?

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What is art?

I don’t mean art with a capital “A” or art with a little “a”- that is a rather old and hackneyed debate.

The question of what constitutes art is a rather old debate as well, but I think that it is a more valuable quandary.  How would most define “art”?  What is the best way to describe it?

Aristotle, in his treatise Poetics, considers art to be imitation.  His thoughts on the subject are interesting, and worth considering, and yet when the average person is posed with the question I have posed to you today, I do not think that they would begin with the idea of imitation.  It is true that much of art imitates life, yet how do we then account for abstract art?  For the ethereal?  For surrealism?  How should art be defined?

Most people would start by talking about painting in some fashion.  Though very few of us, if anyone, consider art as belonging exclusively to the world of painting, for some reason it is often the first thing that comes to mind.  We think of the Mona Lisa and The School of Athens and of a beret-wearing Frenchman with a palette of messily mixed paints as he stands before his canvas, considering.

After a brief moment of reflection, most people will mention drawing or movies, or comic books, or writing, or acting, or dancing, or music.  Some of the more creative among us would go on to mention things like fabric work, mosaics, architecture, and on and on.  It seems as though the categories for art are endless, and yet not everything is art.

Once we move past naming examples of art, the question becomes more difficult.  Many will not be able to give much of an intelligible answer.  Many will mumble something about art being expression.  I agree with the mumblers, at least partially.  And yet, their criterion breaks down in incompleteness.  For a crazy man shouting incoherently in the streets is certainly expression.  He is doubtlessly, much to the annoyance of anyone nearby who is trying to concentrate, expressing himself, and loudly.  He is causing others to feel emotions, so that next most common explanation of art also goes out the window.  Expression by itself, is not art.

It is my belief that art, in its most basic essence, is expression inside of restriction.  You can have a car’s engine, but unless there is a body built around it, it’s never going to go anywhere.

I think poetry does a fine job of demonstrating this idea of expression in restriction; allow me to show you what I mean.

There are various forms of poetry: the sonnet, the pantoom, iambic pentameter, heroic couplets, etc.  There are certain tools and characteristics of poetry- namely rhyme, rhythm, alliteration and assonance and consonance (and others).  Certainly every poem need not contain every single element named here in order to be poetry, yet it does need some of them.  The internet (and the notebooks of depressed teenagers everywhere) is full of whiny, streams of consciousness that have no form, no characteristics of poetry, and you may consider yourself extremely fortunate these days if you ever happen to come across a rhyme.  This sort of thing, as learned people will tell us, is not poetry.  It is prose.  Oftentimes it is very bad prose.  Yet the point is that a string of oddly spaced words is not necessarily poetry.  Poetry has a form, and characteristics, and simply vomiting on a page does not produce it.  So with art.

Art has plenty of room for innovation, stretching the limits, and even for creating new forms all together.  And yet, whenever there is no restriction at all, no definite characteristics for the form, the attempted art leaves people scratching their heads.

We, as a society, love the idea of boundlessness, which is why I think we see so much nonsense labeled art.  Yet we need parameters.  A map makes no sense without a reference point.  Language is simply gibberish if words don’t have definitions.  We need an anchor to make sense of anything.  So with art.

Art is expression triumphing, bursting, from within the confines of a form.  Without the form, it isn’t much of anything.

This is what I think, but I’m interested to hear your thoughts as well.  What is art?  How would you define it?  Leave a comment below, and thank you for reading.


3 comments on “What is Art?

  1. Durin says:

    I think art can certainly also be defined as the skillful and thoughtful creation of something new. That particular definition would probably please the artists who don’t like boundaries or restrictions. I certainly understand where you are going with that, but art need not necessarily be restricted by form.

    • I think that’s a pretty good definition. The only difficulty is that when art is attempted without any sort of form, how do you determine if it was done skillfully? When a person sleeps in a glass box in a public square for a month, some people call it art, but there was no form, so how can it be thoughtful and skillful? He’s just sitting there.

  2. Brian Choi says:

    Does it have,at a minimum, some sort of aesthetic value to one person? It’s art 😀

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