What Is Art?

Art is one of humanity’s most elusive cultural concepts. It’s often described as a subjective experience, or “a way of knowing” that is based on the emotional and spiritual responses it provokes in its audience. It also involves the use of formal elements in a particular context to convey meaning.

A popular definition of art focuses on the expression or communication of ideas and emotions, as well as the use of formal elements in their own right. More recently, philosophers influenced by Martin Heidegger have interpreted art as a means for humans to develop an aesthetic experience of the world and to communicate with one another in a meaningful way.

Many students and teachers ask, “What is art?” The most common answer emphasizes creativity and imagination as a form of ingenuity. However, this understanding of art is a modern concept that was developed five hundred years ago in Renaissance Europe and is not directly applicable to most works of art studied by art historians.

Moreover, the data that current definitions of art are meant to explain is systematically biased, corrupted and incomplete. Whether this renders the project of defining art unworkable or at least flawed is a key question for both philosophy of art and aesthetics (Stecker 1997 and 2005).

Another important issue is the fact that the centrality of certain types of artwork in a culture at a given time can be determined only by experts. Whether such an approach accounts for the fact that some artworks are not “art” by any reasonable standard or could be transformed into a work of art by a change in experts is a key issue in both philosophy of art and art history.

For these reasons, a different approach is needed to the study of art in general and the history of art in particular. Art history is a discipline that studies diverse visual and sensual evidence in conjunction with historical sources, helping students to develop an ability to analyze the wealth of cultural and societal contexts in which artistic production has emerged. This enables students to explore the role of art in societies throughout the world. It also teaches students how to recognize the different ways that artists convey meaning. Students are taught to use a four-step approach when studying an artwork: describe, analyze, interpret and judge/evaluate. They are also encouraged to consider how the formal elements of a piece create the overall effect, such as framing—the way in which a work is framed by other features such as trees, water or flags—and symbolism. They are asked to consider how contrast in colors, textures and lighting contributes to the message or emotion a work evokes. They are also asked to think about how proportion—the size of different elements—contributes to the overall impact of a work of art. All of these are important aspects of studying an artwork and are essential components to an art historian’s skill set.