What Is Art?


Art is the human ability to express the full range of feelings, thoughts and ideas in the form of a physical object that can be shared with others. Art can be both beautiful and disturbing, it can teach us a great deal about ourselves as well as the world around us.

The word “art” is used to describe a number of different activities, from sculpting and painting to writing, theatre and dance. The concept of what constitutes art has changed throughout history and across cultures. There are no clear or agreed definitions of what is and is not considered to be art, but some general criteria are commonly accepted. These include that a work of art must be intended and crafted with care, and that it must display some sort of skill.

The earliest artistic displays by humans date back to prehistoric times, when hominids decorated the interiors of caves with natural pigments. These early works were likely intended for narrative, shamanic or ritual purposes. It is also thought that these primitive artists may have used their art to create a sense of awe and wonder.

Eventually, humans began to create sculptures and paintings that represented gods, kings and everyday life events. This coincided with the development of a new way to grasp the world, which focused on human emotion and spiritual experience.

In Tolstoy’s view, art is a special activity that begins when one person, with the intention of joining another or others to himself in one and the same feeling expresses this feeling by certain external indications. Tolstoy continues, “If, for example, a man who is afraid of wolves in the woods, relates his fear to others, and if his story causes them to feel exactly as he felt himself when he was telling it, then this is art. It is a very simple principle, but it is enough for our purpose.”

Tolstoy goes on to explain that the feeling that an artist conveys in his art may be either very strong or very weak, good or bad, but that it must be unique and distinct from other feelings. He cites as examples the love of one’s country expressed in a flag, self-devotion and submission to fate or God expressed in a drama, the raptures of lovers described in a novel, feelings of voluptuousness conveyed in a painting, courage shown in a marching band, the merriment evoked by a dance, the humor evoked by a funny story, or the feeling of quietness transmitted by an evening landscape or a lullaby.

Many people consider any of these activities to be art, depending on the context and the emotions that are stimulated. However, some people, including philosophers and religious teachers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle as well as strict Muslims and Christians, have gone so far as to reject any idea of art at all. For this reason, it is important to understand the historical context of any particular definition of what is and is not art.