What Is Art?

What Is Art?

Thanks for checking out the first post on Thought Mixing Bowl!  Every week I’ll be posing a question related to creativity, art, and life in general to people from all around the world living creatively everyday.  I’m asking them to keep their answers relatively short a) so I can include more thoughts from different people in a single post and b) it’s a good exercise (an art form of its own) to have one’s “elevator pitch” answer to some of these questions.  I’ll usually include my own little preamble on the topic followed by the answers.  I hope for this to be a place to spark conversation and that a community of curious minds will form to build relationships and collaborations (see the Little Bowls for the other half of the site’s equation beyond these weekly questions).  So without further ado, here’s the inaugural question:

What is your definition of art?

Ah yes, a classic tricky question.  For me, in the most observable sense, art is something crafted by one human being to move the spirit of another.  It is an emotional transaction.  But there’s also a much deeper hidden relationship occurring: the conscious and unconscious molding of the art by every other piece of art your mind has soaked up in your lifetime.  This is particularly noticeable in the edicurial (yeah, I’m making up a word, editorial + curation) way we show our own selves and our interests to the world.  When someone asks you what music you listen to or what your favorite movie is, the answer you give is painting a picture of you for the questioner.  Our own selves are very much a work of art.

So as you read the answers given by the creative minds below, stop and think about what they’re really saying and how it represents them and their views on life.  If you like their bit on art, you’ll likely enjoy their work and them as a person.  Take a minute to check out their work and engage in a conversation with them if their words speak to you.  Also leave your own thoughts on art in the comments below.  We all have something to offer on the topic.

Art is an expression of your views on how life should be lived.

Matt Hanna
Musician/Composer/Teacher/Ecommerce Strategy Consultant/Personal Coach/Lover of Thinking and Learning
Boston, MA

Art… the word itself is merely just an umbrella. Art is architecture. Art is visual. Art is performance. Art is film. Art is controversy. Art is literature. Art is vision. Art is conceptual. Art is auditory. Art is urban. Art is revolutionary. Art is instillation. Art is technology. Art is innovation. Art is experiences. Art is illustration. Art is history. Art is subjective. Art is transcendent. Art is expression. Art is freedom.

Art is mastering. The art of….

Art is a process. The outcome of elements arranged in a particular way or order that will elicit sense or emotion.

Art is a window into culture: past, present and future.

Art….is nothing more than a vessel to share and convey ideas.

Julien James
Founder of byJulienJames Creative Firm

Art is the courage to express something within you and present it to the world.

Danielle Brock
Event producer for now/shark lover forever
Brooklyn, NY

Art is many different things to many different people but this is what it means to me. I think the impulse to create is a desire to communicate with others honestly and to create curiosity and wonder in the world. I like what Alain de Botton’s answered to this same question. He said, and I am paraphrasing here, creating art is a desire to create beauty and hope in the viewer but also allows us to recognise that loneliness and complex emotions are normal in life and just apart of living a full life. Art reminds us to focus on what is important in the world because so much of what we are told to focus on is superficial or unhealthy. There has been a focus on conceptual art over the past 100 years and I like lots of this work as it focuses on ideas. At the same time I think the work that I do is trying to create beauty in the world and the aesthetics are just as important as the ideas behind them. So in a word I think art is communication. Art strives to connect us to one another in ways that are holistic, complex and human. I need art like I need food because it is about the human spirit trying to make sense of what is happening around us.

Tristesse Seeliger
Vancouver, BC Canada

A few years ago, the great film critic Roger Ebert sparked the ire of the gaming community by pronouncing that “video games can never be art“. Predictably, he was subject to a deluge of rebuttals from seething gamers who were up in arms about this seeming slight against their beloved medium, and their hackles were raised even further by the revelation that Ebert had made this judgement without ever having played a video game himself.

Ebert had a point though. Certainly, if you look at early video games, such as Pac-Man or Pong, it’s difficult to justify their inclusion within the Venn diagram of ‘Art’: they are more simply toys to be played and enjoyed. But these games are just the nascent imaginings of a medium that has existed for barely 35 years. And in that short time, video games have evolved remarkably quickly; more to the point, there has been a noticeable divergence between mainstream, ‘blockbuster’ games that set out to simply entertain and more imaginative, ‘arthouse’ games that set out to make a point.

Perhaps that is the most useful definition of art: an attempt to convey an idea, emotion or sense of beauty. Certainly, there are many games that have done that quite wonderfully, from the twisted meta-narrative of Spec Ops: The Line to the pervasive loneliness and guilt of the haunting Shadow of the Colossus. And the medium continues to push boundaries in a way that no other artform can with games such as the thought-provoking Papers, Please. Forty-six years separated the Lumière brothers’ Train Pulling into a Station and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane; gaming might not have its Citizen Kane just yet, but surely it’s not far away.

Lewis Packwood
Games Writer
Edinburgh, Scotland

Even though I work in the arts I never really asked myself anything about my definition of Art. So lets start with the obvious and move towards the mildly quirky.
Art is the beauty,meaning and mystery that we add to what we see, hear and feel. (not exactly pithy)
Art inhabits the space between meaning and understanding, forever just out of reach.
Art is an instructive misunderstanding defying dissection or measurement. (could substitute illuminating for instructive as both work)

I could go on but you get the drift. For me art is like poetry in high school, when you think a poem is really just a secret transcript for prose. It takes a while to realize that a poem conveys much more and is, ultimately, whatever it makes you think and feel – a personal window of sorts.  So it is with art of any kind.

Graham Smith
Architect, Artist and Educator

Art is divine love channeled through human actions. Art uplifts us, challenges us, enlightens us, and encourages us to grow.

Alyssa V. Lawson
Cambridge, MA

Art is any way you choose to creatively express yourself. It’s living outside the box and chasing your passion. We all have a bug inside of us that instinctively pulls us in one direction. We need to support and not suppress that bug.

Art is simply seen in a child. What activities does a child pursue to express and make themselves happy? Is it building legos, drawing on a blank canvas, cooking in the kitchen or complicated craft projects? Art is anywhere you let yourself be you and express yourself. For me, art is my work: my desire to research wildlife and conservation issues and express myself through writing and teaching in the hopes of making a difference.

Art has meaning. The more it means to you and your work reflects your feelings, the more others will respond to it.

Naima Montacer
Environmental Adventurer
Dallas, TX

What is art? I’ve always seen it from two angles. The first is the literal sense of what most people agree art to be: paintings, pieces of music, or something produced for it’s own sake as an expression of an individual’s passion. That’s all well and good and I think we all appreciate art from that perspective in some way or another. But it’s the second angle that I really find fascinating, and that’s the whole idea of appreciating something with one or more senses in a way beyond it’s designed purpose. This frames “art” as more of a perspective or way of viewing the world and enables the term to apply to literally anything. Take a step back and look at something, or listen to something, whatever, and try to appreciate it aesthetically. A lot of my friends that know me really well know that oftentimes I’ll hear something, anything, and almost subconsciously I’ll start repeating that noise as best as I can to emulate it, just amusing myself nonsensically. When I reflect on this behavior now I think what I’m doing is finding an aesthetic appeal not intended with that sound. I was appreciating that sound as a piece of art, in a sense. There are a couple big names in art history (that currently elude me), who did things like fill art rooms with toilets or painted white on a canvas and called it a day. Maybe some of you have heard or seen these pieces. The point is, the artists were I think trying to make the same argument I’m making here, and that is that anything can be viewed as art. Art is a perspective on something above all, and I think one can find greater, deeper appreciation of a great many things by adopting this mentality.

Josh Hufton
Senior Game Designer
Cambridge, MA

Art, to me, is a creative expression of one’s self, ideas and/or beliefs. It is not restricted to any particular form, but should always be conceptual and expressive of a particular point of view. Forms could include, but not limited to, visual, the written word, the spoken word, performance, music and sound, body and movement or any combination of sort. It is expressive, it is subjective and there are very few rights or wrongs however it should always start with an idea.

Ash Myburgh
Visual Communicator and General Design Ninja
Sydney, Australia

My definition of art is based on personal experience, I suppose.

As an opera singer, I perform music other people have composed –  their art in a way. The compositions may have been written as long as 400 years ago (Baroque Opera) or they may have been written in the same year as I perform them (Modern Opera).

As a vocal artist, the art I make tells one’s own personal story through song. Every classical singer draws from the same repertoire, but performs it differently, in their own way. In that diversity lies art.

Solmaaz Adeli
SF Bay Area | Vienna, Austria

Art is like love there are so many different levels, and different types. I guess more so for time sake, I would say art is a capture of an idea, of beauty, time and or an expression. For some artists, it’s looking into one’s soul. It shows our interpretation of life to the world. It comes in so many forms, that to a point we forget that it can be considered as art.

Paula B.

I think art is the expression of an idea that challenges viewers, listeners, readers, etc. to think about something (new or conventional). In turn, the way people experience different emotions, meanings, reactions etc. based on the expression of the idea is what makes it art.

Nolan Wells

This is such a broad topic. Everyone has their own interpretation of art, it is very subjective. As a designer, I see art as an expression of one’s creativity and imagination. It comes in all sorts of media and each one of them incorporates the creator’s own identity and style.

Kitty Huang
Graphic Designer
Toronto, Canada

I like what Seth Godin has to say about art. “Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient. Art is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another.”

I’m not sure I really know the definition of art. Lately, I just try to make cool stuff with cool people, and really care about it. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t. I’m learning.

Drew Gneiser
Social Media Specialist at Feed My Starving Children
Social Media Strategist at CreativeMornings/Minneapolis

If you are human, you are an artist. If it can be created, it is art. Artists come in many flavors. This creative accolade is not limited to dancers, singers, writers, poets, speakers, or painters. We are all artists in our own right, with a beautiful array of mediums. As a life coach, my art is my words, advice, and guidance. My art is the ability to help guide and shape my clients with intuition and love. The transformational process my clients experience is a stellar creation.

The most beautiful gift art gives is that it takes no sides – art is never wrong. What creative brush can you take to your life? How are you an artist in your own regard?

Lelia Christine
Holistic Life Coach, Artist, Writer, Public Speaker
Seattle, WA & Detroit, MI

The last one is by my good friend Colin, who loves long conversations. I’m giving him a pass this once on the “short” part of the prompt.  Go ahead and read his mini-dissertation and then leave a comment below.  I’m sure others who have contributed answers would love to continue the conversation as well.

Art is, first, not the making. We all know of makers who we do not think of as artists; even if they may yet be skilled artisans, we have as a society implicitly agreed upon a demarcation between craftsmanship and artistry. From the other direction, there are great artists who, in the execution of their art, make nothing; I’m thinking of Duchamp’s ready-mades, but there are any number of other conceptual artists out there in the world who fit the bill. Instantly I feel the sneer of the non-believer, people whose aesthetic convictions align with those of Napoleon III, who struck a painting by Courbet at a Paris salon with his riding crop because it did not conform to his expectations. Conceptual art rankles and chafes traditionalists, but I would argue that every kind of art is the same, merely got up in trappings that hide common habits of the mind. In the world of literature, I give you as a thought experiment Borges’s Library of Babel: a library containing every possible combination of letters and punctuation and therefore every possible configuration of meaning. From the Platonic perspective this library is “real” and we are forced to conceive of the act of writing not as pure creation but rather as selection; every arrangement of letters is conceivable, yet we choose certain ones at the exclusion of others. In the Library is also an Ahab—bored of the chase—shrugging his shoulders and going home, a Joseph K found not guilty and exonerated, Troy victorious over the Achaeans, Huck collecting the reward for Jim’s recapture; only, the artists felt these configurations less deserving of selection. The idea can be extrapolated to other forms. To imagine that every act of creation is instead one of selection, choosing one of a finite arrangement of colors, notes, words, and then—crucially—asking the world to look at it and think on it with you.

The choosing is essential. Art can almost be defined as the act of making choices in an environment in which those choices cannot be said to be determined mostly by objective conditions. Driving, for instance, is not an art because the choices you make are constrained by external realities (the shortest route, the oncoming traffic, the weather). Art is in those kinds of choices that involve subjective decision-making. This is not an either-or, however. The complexity of art is in the interplay of objective and subjective. As a teacher, you hear incessantly the declaration that teaching is an art form not a science. Really it is both. Practically everything is both. Science and art are poles on a spectrum along which kinds of knowledge and actions can be classified. The spectrum deals with epistemology, the notion that, within different disciplines, “truth” and “knowing” mean different things. To prove in History, for instance, is vastly different than to prove in Mathematics. The essential task of the mind on the science end of things is critical analysis, a laborious picking-apart. The findings of Psychology, we can feel confident, are really the manifestations of neurological activity that can be described more minutely within the framework of Biology, but we know that biological processes are in fact the sum of myriad chemical processes. Furthermore, on the molecular level, chemical processes are the result of the interaction of forces between particles that can be wholly described through the language of Physics, and finally, Physics is an expression of Mathematics. So moving down the line away from Mathematics we are lessening the depth to which we are scrutinizing empirical details; we’re using a coarser focus.  But these other disciplines are not irrelevant; they are not merely the little brothers of Math, subservient thereto. So something else is filling in the void. We are exercising another faculty than critical analysis, something that adds its own value.

To deconstruct you move away from recognizable reality to actual reality. To whom do the miracles of quantum mechanics feel intuitive, seem natural? To whatever extent these theories and principles underlie the world we live in, they are not exactly the world we experience. In the introduction to his novel Slapstick, Vonnegut confesses that the story—bizarre as it is—is deep-down autobiographical; “It’s about what life feels like to me,” he writes. So the other end of the spectrum is art, and more specifically it’s an increasing proportion of subjective meaning-making. As science unravels, as it pulls the wings off the butterfly to see how they work, art reassembles in a way that is coherent to beings who can only hypothetically believe in an objective world, one they can “see” only through their subjective lens. So, in psychology we take biochemical phenomena and enunciate their implications in ways that have meaning for our everyday lives.

By the time you reach the pure art forms something weird has happened. If Mathematics is pure reason, then art is essentially irrational and non-objective in its distilled form. The meaning-making that art represents is made-up, it does not have the reality of a geometric proof. This is, I think, what bothers some people. They feel like artists are bullshitting them, making fun of them through a series of lies. I happen to believe there’s a sense in which that is sort of the case. Not for nothing is “art” the etymological cousin of “artifice”, a word literally meaning “clever deception”. The good news is the artist is inviting you into the joke. It’s a playful experiment, a kind of parody of all other forms of knowledge. Other disciplines have their particular discourse, the language used to discuss and analyze the placement of knowledge within the field. Art is in a sense a satire on these discourses, pointing out that—however much their methods are fruitful and inspired by reality—the disciplines themselves and their tools of inquiry are human inventions: something we made to understand something we did not. In art we see the playful experiment of the manmade applied to the manmade. There are those who, when hearing an artist’s statement, believe the artist is making it up as she goes, that the things she says are mere inventions without basis in objective fact. They are right, in a sense, about that. Though the artists may often be so enmeshed with their discipline that they themselves don’t realize it, though they may feel genuinely as though their work inherently contains and emanates these meanings, the physical thing is a part of a world separate from that of the words about what it means. The incredulous viewer’s error was, rather, in ever having thought the art was the in the thing in the first place. The words and the thinking the words represent were always the artist’s real work.

Colin Glanovsky

What do you think?  Is there a definition above that speaks to you the most?  What is your definition of art?  Share your thoughts below.

Photo by Matt Hanna