Serious Question: What is Art?

Art: What is it?

Over the years I have struggled with what art actually is. Is it something beautiful? Is it everything we make or do? According to Miriam Webster it’s a few things:

  1. a skill acquired by experience, study, or observation
  2. a branch of learning
  3. an occupation requiring knowledge or skill
  4. the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects
  5. decorative or illustrative elements in printed matter

Up until college I had always taken a conservative approach to art. If it was well-painted, beautiful and had a clear message, then I considered it art. And that does still hold some truth to it, but when I went to college, I had a professor who totally changed how I looked at art–and everything else around me. I remember a discussion I had with him on this topic: I was arguing that just because someone says something is “art” doesn’t mean it is because art is supposed to be beautiful. Art is supposed to be a display of skill and hard work; it’s supposed to tell a story. He countered by tossing the contents of a trashcan onto the floor and declaring it beautiful, so to him, it was art. I was appalled until my professor proceeded to explain the story this trash had to tell–a dirty paper towel cleaned the brush of an artist who was working on their masterpiece; the artist was hard at work and couldn’t break away so they ate the chips and drank the water for sustenance; the crunched up piece of paper was a rejection email they tossed because they knew that one day they would silence their critics by working hard and getting better at their craft.

AHA. No, the pile of trash on the floor wasn’t exactly beautiful, but when you look at each object sprawled out on the floor as a story, it changes the entire way you look at it, and it begins to be beautiful. The trash on the floor became art, it transformed from a mess that needed to be cleaned up into a narrative of hard work and determination. All I had to do was think outside the box–not look at it as a pile of trash, but as objects–and look for the story they were telling.

In my field of work I often hear people discussing a piece of art they’re looking at and without fail, someone always says, “I don’t like it. I don’t get it and it’s ugly. This shouldn’t be in here, it’s not art.” I get it, I used to be that person. Aesthetically we all have our preferences–I certainly have mine, but just because you don’t understand it, or think it’s ugly, doesn’t mean it’s not art and that it’s not telling a story.

Does everyone have to think it’s beautiful? Absolutely not.

A few weeks ago, I was looking at a very large abstract portrait hanging on a gallery wall and discussing it with someone. Without looking at the wall card for the title or story I understood it–the artist was clearly pensive and reflecting on the darker areas of their personality. It was an uncomfortable painting–dark, muted colors with heavy brush strokes, the face was looking down and the eyes (or what I could make the eyes out to be) were heavy and sad. I felt the emotions the artist was feeling when they painted it. The person I was discussing the piece with completely hated it and thought it was a waste of space because it didn’t look like anything but black and muddied paint and she thought I was crazy for being able to understand it. We finally looked at the wall card and it confirmed my understanding of the piece. Did that painting aesthetically appeal to me? Maybe not, but studying it and feeling the emotion in it, I found it to be beautiful art nonetheless.

So back to the question, what is art? Art is many things. I have my own definition of art, maybe it’s right or maybe it’s wrong, but this is how I see it: something that you, me, anyone creates–doesn’t have to be created with traditional “art” materials like paint or clay–that has a reason; a story to tell. Does everyone have to know that reason? No. Does everyone have to think it’s beautiful? Absolutely not. But if they use some imagination and step out of a traditional line of thought, they just might understand it and find they enjoy it.

Recently, someone set a pineapple in a gallery to see what would happen, and sure enough, a glass case was set over it like it was a piece of art, and the point was proven that anything in this day and age can be considered art. Truthfully though, that pineapple deserved to be under glass in the gallery because look at the story it has to tell: it grew for years on the same plant, then got plucked and transported to a distributor who then transported it to a store where someone had a bright idea to see if it could be considered a masterpiece in a gallery, and some sucker fell for the prank and gave it a special stand. The pineapple has one helluva story to tell, and isn’t that what art is– a story?


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