What Is Art?

Art is a culturally defined category of human activity encompassing an immense range of forms, practices and media. It transmits values, impressions, judgements, visions, spiritual meanings and patterns of life across time and space. Art can also convey a sense of wonder about the nature of our existence.

The definitions of art are many and varied, but all tend to be a combination of the following:

A form of expression:

Art provides a means of externalizing our emotions or visualizing our experiences in general. It also allows us to empathize with others and understand their emotional states through the work of art. This function is perhaps most obvious in the case of sculpture, where a head of someone like Van Gogh or the plumed god Quetzalcoatl can be seen and understood by people who have never met the person the artist was painting or who may even have a completely different culture.

A sense of beauty:

It is a fundamental part of the human desire for order and harmony, as evidenced by our proclivity for music and the appreciation of paintings. The human brain is also programmed for pleasure through the release of certain hormones such as dopamine, seroton and opiates, all of which are released when we view beautiful artworks.

Some scholars argue that the concept of art has been a continuously evolving phenomenon and that the defining characteristics of it have varied over time, resulting in different categories. However, these scholars are concerned that the concepts of art have not changed so dramatically as to radically alter their meaning. They also claim that the distinction between art and other real things is not a mere arbitrary heap or disjunction of concepts, but is rather a multiplicity of facets which interlock in an ordered way or, in some cases, are based on a core-dependent homonymy.

A sense of awe and wonder:

As the human imagination evolves, so too do our perceptions and expectations of the world around us. This can be seen in the emergence of a genre of art known as surrealism, which seeks to evoke feelings of awe and wonder through the use of dreamlike images, distorted figures, blurry shapes and symbolic meanings. Other works of art, such as the baroque painting Ecce Homo by Caravaggio or Bjork’s Mutual Core, attempt to transcend this genre by providing a more abstract, philosophical meaning through their composition and media.

A tool for understanding the world:

The arts are a way of grasping the world, not just the physical world of our environment and the material objects that populate it, but more importantly, the psychological world of human experience, society and spirituality. Art is a language which enables us to communicate with each other about these realms and to express our views of them.

The most important thing to consider when deciding whether something is art is its impact on you, the viewer. Whether you enjoy it or not, the art has a way of reaching into your soul and pulling at your heart strings. Often, this is enough to be considered a work of art.