Posted in Art

How Do We Define Art?

Today I read a post by Pacian at Space Cat Rocketship which had me mulling. “Can art be interactive?” Apparently there’s some disagreement on that. Indeed, he asks, what IS art?

Individual definitions

This may seem a strange place to start my analysis, but the cat world is full of people saying “I grew up with non-pedigrees and so I will only accept a cat with the basic non-pedigree shape – any other type is not a real cat.” I’ve heard that repeatedly. The point I’m making is that it’s not only art that people define from narrow personal standpoints. It’s another way of saying “I don’t like it, and so I don’t accept it.” That doesn’t mean such a definition is correct.

Many of us think of ‘real art’ as being something beautiful, no matter who created it or why. Thus we feel entitled to say of something, “that’s not good or beautiful and therefore it’s not art”, ignoring the fact that our personal idea of beauty (or worth) is not definitive.

An official definition

My Mac Widget dictionary (Oxford American Dictionaries) says art is

“the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form, such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”

It adds that art is

“creative activity resulting in the production of paintings, drawings or sculpture”

Those definitions seem somewhat on the exclusive side. The dictionary (or my widget version of it) doesn’t mention games, films, architecture or even photography; though under ‘the arts’ it lists ‘the various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance.’ It claims art is ‘typically’ visual, but that’s not an exclusive term. It just indicates that a painting or sculpture is the first thing we think of.

‘works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power’

Can something be art if its primary reason for existence is to be useful? Can a house or computer be art, or an exquisitely embroidered handbag? Going by the the Oxford American Dictionary’s definition, if beauty is not an object’s primary reason for existing, then it’s not art. But if someone intentionally made it beautiful, how is it that it’s not art any more? To me that doesn’t make sense.

It could be argued that films and games were created with other purposes in mind – to entertain, tell a story, educate or increase our skills – and that they are therefore not art. I would disagree, because something useful can still be made beautiful – that’s a choice we have. We entertain people by engaging their interest, and ‘typically’ do that with the application of certain creative processes – we make the films, games etc beautiful or emotionally powerful. If we can do that with a book, we can do that with a film or a computer game. We might not think a certain film was particularly well made, but that doesn’t mean it’s not art – it’s just a poor example of its particular genre.

‘human creative skill and imagination’

If an animal or bird created something to please itself or attract others, wouldn’t that be art? The bird danced in order to attract another… there’s no need to assume that only a human being can appreciate rhythm, beauty and passion, or that only a human being can cultivate creative skills.

On the other hand, sunsets are sometimes described as Nature’s artwork… the problem I have with that is that sunsets weren’t deliberately made beautiful; they are a by-product of natural processes. If you believe in a supreme creative being with an eye for beauty, it’s art. If you believe it’s just nature on the beat with suns, planets and orbits, then art doesn’t even come into it.

A photograph of a sunset is art – human art. Skill, technique and ‘a good eye’ usually produce the difference between an average photo and a spectacular one.

‘the expression or application of … creative skill and imagination’

An unmade bed can’t be art if you got up one morning and thought “that’s pretty – I’ll leave that as it is”. You didn’t lie in it with the intention of making it attractive. Most viewers are likely to think “it’s not tidy or clean” – that’s an emotional reaction but not an appreciative one.

Hopefully my analysis didn’t go horribly astray, but it would be interesting to know how others define art?

Blue Fractal
Blue Fractal

© 2007, two Tierazon fractals
layered together and postworked in Photoshop Elements
by Diddums

Comments for this entry (during its previous life on Blogigo):

1. Udge wrote at Jul 30, 2007 at 22:47: Right, the fractal is art because it has no context of usefulness. Give it numbered X and Y axes and refer to it by footnotes in a mathematical text and it ceases to be art.

2. Diddums wrote at Jul 30, 2007 at 23:01: Hmmm…. (ponders).

3. Pacian wrote at Jul 30, 2007 at 23:19: Nicely put.

“There’s no need to assume that only a human being can appreciate rhythm, beauty and passion, or that only a human being can cultivate creative skills.”

I would also reverse that, and say that we have no need to assume that a human’s appreciation of rhythm, beauty and passion don’t stem from the same kind of natural instincts as the bird’s dance.

4. Geosomin wrote at Jul 31, 2007 at 03:07: I like art that evokes an emotion. Even if it’s one of strong dislike, being able to evoke a response form someone would be the height of joy for me if I were an artist. I would agree with Pacian, as there are so many definitions of “art” that I often catch myself going That isn’t art…but then I have to remember…it’s just not art to me. To me anything that is created by someone with a bit of “them” in it can be art…music, dance…
I’d say more but my pizza just arrived.

5. Diddums wrote at Jul 31, 2007 at 03:24: Pizza? I was just off to bed, and now you’ve made me all hungry! Does it have black olives on it?

You might be right about that – anything with a bit of input from somebody, presented by that somebody… maybe. My ideas of art broadened after thinking about this – it can be hard to consider something fairly abstract or random and realize it’s still included.

Pacian, I’m glad you said that about the natural instincts – I had a thought like that winding around when I was writing about sunsets. A sunset in itself wouldn’t be art, but it’s part of the mainspring of art (or our taste in art… maybe that makes more sense). Right now I would give it all up for that pizza.

6. Snoskred wrote at Jul 31, 2007 at 10:01: I sometimes think art can be things that are “ugly”, too. It just has to make you think.

Putting this aside for my wrap up – very thought provoking!


7. Diddums wrote at Aug 1, 2007 at 21:23: Thanks, Snoskred – it’s made me think as well. I never thought of art as being something that could set out to be ugly deliberately, though a horror film will deliberately set out to horrify! It’s food for thought.

8. The Goldfish wrote at Aug 2, 2007 at 23:13: I wanted to leave a comment on this post just to say I enjoyed the discussion. Never found a satisfactory answer myself, but it is always interesting to read other’s considered thoughts on the matter.



I live in the UK with two cats -- Samson and Delilah.

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