What is art?

This article has been entirely rewritten following criticisms from a former colleague. Its purpose is to explore the notion of art, whether it can be usefully defined, and, if so, how.

All definition, of course, depends on the way words are used. There is both a technical — even political — use of the word ‘art’ and ‘the arts’ which revolves around how the arts are viewed by the arts establishment, and there is also a more common usage which tends to use the word ‘art’ as a notion of quality or impact, such as “that’s a work of art”, and, indeed, as a criticism of ‘art’ which is not accessible to the viewer.

I want to look at some very ancient ideas about ‘art’, and the ways these have been challenged, and, finally, to reach towards a view of art which is based not on the ‘art’ as end product, but on the process of creating art.

Mimesis — imitation

There is a theme in the history of art that runs from Plato through Aristotle to Ruskin and beyond, which is that art in some way represents nature. Plato and Aristotle talk about Mimesis — imitation. To Plato, art is dangerous, because it can seduce and persuade by false seemings. To Aristotle, mimesis is powerful and essential, in both imitating the world around and applying to it the mathematical forms of perfection. This thread flows through Western thought as far as Ruskin, whose well known polemic Of the pathetic fallacy attacks anthropomorphism in poetry for failing to truly represent what is, by attributing thoughts and feelings to inanimate objects.

Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe

Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe (Wikimedia Commons)

In terms of painting, imitation may have reached its zenith in the French Académicians, with their photo-realistic depictions of scenes from the classical world. But this was already being challenged by the Impressionists.To some extent this was a response to the invention of the daguerrotype, with its ability to mechanically create photorealism (or, simply, photography), but it was also a response to the essential unreality of the Academic school. Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur L’herbe (left) is not impressionistic in the sense of painting with light and avoiding the hard lines and delicate representations of the Académicians. Rather, it is a challenge to the essential unreality of depicting classical scenes as an excuse for semi-pornographic content which would not otherwise be acceptable. The Académicians essentially took license to paint scenes which would not otherwise be tolerated on the grounds that they were ‘classical’. In many ways, Manet’s 1862-63 work is a return to the Platonic notion that Mimesis is dangerous. Le Déjeuner sur L’herbe was considered quite scandalous at the time, and showed the way for more direct forms of non-representation. The paintings of the Impressionists were followed by Post-Impressionism, a term coined in 1910 by Roger Fry, and from there flowed Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism and beyond. These were all increasingly non-representational forms of art, and, indeed, most artists working in the visual arts today tend to shy away from representationalism — Mimesis — which is often regarded as rather more the mark of amateur arts.

Whether the avoidance of representationalism in visual art is temporary or permanent — there was a similar movement in pre-Renaissance religious art where representation was increasingly reduced down to the construction of visual symbols and patterns — there is a much older challenge to Mimesis as the implicit basis of art: music.

While in mimetic art one thing represents another — an actor represents Hamlet, paint on canvas represents a scene, words on a page represent the life they describe — it is very hard to make the claim that music represents anything but itself. German Romantic composers such as Mahler made some claim for representation. According to his wife Alma, the final movement of his sixth symphony tells of ‘the hero, on whom fall three blows of fate, the last of which fells him like a tree’, depicted by two hammer blows and a final tutti to represent the third. Perennial favourites such as Saint-Säens Carnival des Animaux, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf describe animals and scenes, and, of course, choral music can be said to be representing whatever the words are saying. But it is hard to leave the concert hall with the impression that Mozart and Beethoven are representing something, other than the music itself.


The other side of Aristotle’s view of art is that Mimesis is modulated by mathematics. As an example, the Golden Ratio is found in nature, as a mathematical construct where (a+b):a is the same as a:b, and as a key ratio in art from the Acropolis onwards. Non-mimetic art, such as architecture and music, can be strongly correlated with mathematics. In architecture, a building which is not sound in an mathematico-engineering sense will simply fall over. In music, for centuries instrument makers have understood that the ratios by which the notes are governed are mathematical: if you halve the length of a vibrating wire, you raise its pitch by an octave, which sounds like ‘the same note’, but higher up.

Arnold Schoenberg, in his seminal Theory of Harmony, constructs his theory on mathematical principles, demonstrating how strong progressions feel ‘strong’ because of their mathematical relationships. Schoenberg’s writing is regarded by many as the most complete formulation of Germanic harmony, though his music, with 12 note tone rows, has been described as ‘aesthetically flawed’. I have to say that I learned pretty much everything I know about harmony from Schoenberg’s books. However, it only accounts for the Germanic school of music. He has relatively little to say about the French school, and still less about non-Western music.

I’ve heard the argument that art is defined by its mathematics, and that all art which we find satisfying follows underlying mathematical principles, even if we are not aware of what they are, but that argument does not really account for the kinds of art which many today find satisfying and enjoyable. We can point to the many structural flaws in The Lord of the Rings, and still enjoy it far more than many other books which are structurally sound.

Audience Response

Another approach to trying to understand what art is, is to avoid trying to analyse how art is constructed, and look instead at how audiences respond to it. The storm of protest which Manet’s early work caused indicates that it challenged established norms in a new way. When The Rite of Spring was first performed, there was a riot, and Stravinsky concluded (perhaps reluctantly) that it should only be performed as an orchestral work, not as a ballet. Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’Herbe unlocked the visual arts for the twentieth century, and the Rite of Spring in many ways did the same for modern music. As has often been pointed out, the Rite of Spring is one of the few works of modernist music which still feels achingly modern almost a century after its first performance.
When considering why Macbeth is a greater play than Peter Pan (though this point was disputed in a conversation with a logician a couple of years ago, who argued that it was meaningless to claim that a play could be ‘greater’ than another play), audience response is something we might look hard at. This would not only be the scale of the response at the time, but also the ability to reach into other times and other cultures. I once watched a Chinese film recreation of Hamlet which was absolutely gripping, even though no shred of Shakespeare’s dialogue was left, and the setting was entirely changed. The story still had the power to twist the heart.


Up to the twentieth century, most things which were called art were in some sense beautiful. Of course, one can argue that all art is ‘beautiful’, if only we understand it. However, when Tracy Emin displayed  My Bed for the first time, the controversy did not revolve around whether it was beautiful, and it certainly did not conform to any of the traditional Aristotelean ideals of aesthetic. The lack of ‘beauty’ is a sharp dividing line between the popular appreciation of ‘art’ and the art world’s appreciation of ‘art’. The lack of traditional ballet aesthetics was certainly a contributing factor in the riot at the original performance of the The Rite of Spring, though it’s also argued that the company was under rehearsed. The question, though, is still current. As a radio interviewer once put it to me, “if the public is funding the arts, shouldn’t the arts be producing things the public likes?” Certainly, in the medieval and renaissance worlds of patron supported art, the patron almost invariably got things that he liked, and, most often, these were beautiful things.
Hieronymus Bosch 055.jpgIt’s worth remembering, though, that not all great art before the 20th century was ‘beautiful’, in the sense of being aesthetically pleasing depictions of things which are intrinsically nice to look at (or hear, etc). Jeroen Bosch’s Kruisdraging, in the Museuem voor Schone Kunsten, Gent, (left) presents a sublime Christ, but in the context of a bestial humanity. The overall image is harmonious, and the much more vibrant colours of the original are magnificent, but no-one could describe this as ‘a beautiful scene’.
A step beyond the Gospel narrative depicted by Bosch is Pieter Breugel the older’s Triomf vande Dood — The Triumph of Death

Triumph of Death

(right). Breugel depicts a deliberately horrific scene in which all of the hopes of the world are brought to nothing by the attack of the legions of death, shown through plague, famine, the sword, execution by hanging, and in many other ways. Death held a peculiar fascination for the medieval and renaissance people, and it is the fascination, rather than the beauty of the scene, which makes this such a compelling presentation. Black Sabbath used an altered detail for the cover of their album ‘Black Sabbath – Greatest Hits’, and Ingmar Bergman took a similar theme for the work the painter was depicting on the church wall in The Seventh Seal. Fascination has been as much a part of art as ‘beauty’ since the beginning of the Western tradition.

The process of art — towards a process definition

The original version of this article grew out of a long series of discussions on the photography website Nikonians. Photography has been described as ‘the people’s art form’, an indication of how easy it is for anyone to acquire a camera and start taking pictures. But — and this is a question which taxed a number of photographers who began the original conversations to which I’m referring — is it art? The kind of pictures I took when I was nine with my first camera would not qualify by anyone’s definition as ‘art’. As well as being not very interesting to look at, I took them with no real idea of why I was taking them, beyond a desire to ‘take a photograph’, which stemmed largely from having been given a camera. This was a largely mechanical desire to do something mechanical.
But what about great photographs? Here’s a quote by Elliott Erwitt comparing Ansel Adams and Robert Frank, which a Nikonians member recently came up with. It provoked hearty discussion. Discussion Forums @ Nikonians – The quality of an image…
“Quality doesn’t mean deep blacks and whatever tonal range. That’s not quality, that’s a kind of quality. The pictures of Robert Frank might strike someone as being sloppy – the tone range isn’t right and things like that – but they’re far superior to the pictures of Ansel Adams with regard to quality, because the quality of Ansel Adams, if I may say so, is essentially the quality of a postcard. But the quality of Robert Frank is a quality that has something to do with what he’s doing, what his mind is. It’s not balancing out the sky to the sand and so forth. It’s got to do with intention.” (Elliott Erwitt)
If you don’t know the work of Ansel Adams, he is revered among photographers for the absolute mastery he showed in capturing landscapes and then printing them with the fullest possible tonal range. But Erwitt thinks that his pictures are really just postcards.
I want to return for a moment to the derivation of the word ‘art’. Derivations are largely useless for definitions, but Latin ‘ars’ has the original meaning of ‘skill’ rather than ‘art’. I am not remotely suggesting that we should replace the modern usage of ‘art’ with ‘skill’, however, it leads me to considering the degree to which skill should be a part of art.
Another question which is fairly often asked by Nikonians is: “is a beautiful rock, sunset, landscape, etc, art?”. The answer is surely no, but a picture of it might be. Leaving aside the notion of Ready Mades, which I would argue are as much an artistic joke or a deliberate subversion of the idea of art, my view is that only things which are made can be art.
I have for many years tried to reduce down what the process of creating art must be, and it seems to me that there are three elements, and, if searching for a definition, I would choose this process definition. The elements are creative ambition, realisation, and audience transformation. These make the handy acronym ART, if you intend to remember them (ambition, realisation, transformation).
Reading back from the audience, it seems to me that without an audience, there is no art. When actors perform a play without an audience, it is a rehearsal. Stanislavsky points out that, fundamentally, for drama to happen, there has to be at least one actor, and at least one audience. Scenery, props, a script and a venue are all incidental. Of course, with visual arts, it is very easy to demonstrate that the painting (or video, or etchings on wood with the sun and a magnifying glass) does not change between the time that it leaves the artist’s studio and is exhibited. However, I would still argue that art as a process is not complete until an audience has experienced it in some way.
In terms of realisation, there must by its nature be some kind of sensorisation of what the artist has in mind. Until some part of the physical universe is changed — albeit temporarily, with a musical or theatre performance — there is no transmission of the artist’s intention to the audience.
In terms of the beginning, I would continue to argue that accidental forms, in which there is no artistic intention, are not art at all.  There must be some desire to create. This does not necessarily imply a profound artistic vision, but there must be creation aspiration or ambition.
If we take this process definition, we then come upon something which is analytically helpful. A nonchalant thought, haphazardly turned into a picture of some kind, which provokes a smirk from the one person who sees it is art, by this definition, but at a very low level. An enormous creative ambition, fully realised with skill, which provokes delight, shock, awe, or some other kind of transformation, is at the other end of the spectrum.
I would be very interested in other views on this — is a process definition valid? Are there examples of this process which would produce something which was not art? Are there counter-examples of how art (in any artform) can be produced without this process?

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