The Definition of Art

Updated 27 Jan 2017

People have been making art for at least 30,000 years. Despite that, a clear, concise, precise definition of art has not yet been agreed upon. As an artist, lacking a definition bothered me. How could I make art if I couldn’t even say with certainty what it was? I think we all have some sort of intuitive sense about what makes something art. For most practical purposes that is enough and people carry on producing work. There certainly doesn’t seem to be an absolute need for a clear definition. But to satisfy my intellectual curiosity on the subject I looked at the history of art and tried to condense it down into as few sentences as possible. The following is my definition of art:


The term art can be applied to objects or performances which have been created and/or manipulated such that the only sensible use of the object or performance (taking into consideration intention and context) is to provide a unique symbolic representation of an object(s), idea(s), emotion(s) or a combination thereof.


Before going any further I think it is worth noting that by drawing a line and defining art I am not trying to make a judgement call on things which are not art. Art is no better or worse than craft for instance, just different, and as such I believe it needs a different definition.


According to my definition the following fields can be included as disciplines of art: painting, sculpture, drawing, printmaking, photography/videography, music, theatre, dance,  and performance art. Those fields which are frequently confused with art but do not qualify by my definition are: architecture and craft. Both can be easily distinguished from art in the way that the objects created have a practical purpose other than just symbolic representation.


It is imperative when looking at this definition to define what a “sensible” use of an object or performance is. While at first glance this word seems inadequate due to its subjective nature, I believe that on examination it is possible to determine sensibility.  The idea that art has no other sensible use other than symbolic representation is important is because it sets art objects apart from all the other everyday objects around us. Art is something special.  It’s lack of physical utility is a testament to the fact that we have come so far as a culture that we can afford to invest the time, money, and thought into something with absolutely no material use.


Let’s look at an example to see how this idea works.   Take Michelangelo’s David for instance.  You could certainly use it for something other than an art object.  For instance you could use it as a battering ram to knock down a door, or as a giant paperweight to stop something from flapping in the wind.  However, these don’t seem sensible given the amount of time, thought and effort that was put into the object by its maker, not to mention the sheer value of the raw materials. It is important to note that the artist’s intention is an important part of how we look at an object.


Michelangelo’s work is easy to categorize as art compared to a much different work put forth by Marcel Duchamp; “In Advance of the Broken Arm”. For this piece, Duchamp went to a hardware store, purchased a shovel, put his name on it and hung it in a gallery.  Much like his work, “Fountain” Duchamp was trying to use the shovel as a symbolic representation for an idea.  However, the most sensible thing to use a snow shovel for is to shovel snow.  And thus it seems that by my definition this work does not count as art. However, we need to consider the context in which the work has been presented. In a gallery setting the shovel no longer has the same usefulness. This contrasts with other shovels hung in garages and garden sheds that do not have the same context. It should be noted that other readymades he created like “Bicycle Wheel” are much more easily described as art under this definition as their specific assembly negates their usefulness. “Fountain” is the same in this regard. Its orientation and placement in an open public space that is not a bathroom makes it unusable as a functional urinal.


When we give a definition to something it not only provides a framework for what constitutes that thing, but many times it also allows us to determine its quality. It seems however that this is not the case with art. We might try to say that one work of art is better than another if it is better at symbolically representing an object(s), idea(s) emotion(s) or combination thereof.  However, when we study the history of art this does not always hold true. Some of the most popular and beloved works of art are held in high regard specifically because of their ambiguity (Mona Lisa’s smile for instance).  In fact many times it seems that the more interpretations you can extract from an artwork (even if they are contradictory) the more popular it can become. I believe that the ideas of what is good and bad are much too subjective and personal to have any real relevance when it comes to art.  The determination of whether something is good or bad is subjective, circumstantial and subject to change.  As such each person must create their own criteria to determine a work’s worth. Museums, art critics and others