Some Thoughts: What is Art Really ?


written by Artstein Editors

Why is it so hard to define 'art'?

The definition of art has been debated among philosophers for centuries. As there are so many definitions, art clearly has no formula. As Tolstoy describes in his book What is Art: “An objective definition of art does not exist; the existing definitions, metaphysical as well as practical, come down to one and the same subjective definition. Many aestheticians have felt the inadequacy and instability of such a definition and, in order to give it substance, have asked themselves what is pleasing and why, thus shifting from the question of beauty to the question of taste, as did Hutcheson, Voltaire, Diderot et al.

To create a subjective definition of our own, we look back at some important definitions.

RAPHAEL,  ‘The School of Athens’, 1511.

RAPHAEL, ‘The School of Athens’, 1511.

PLATO and ARISTOTLE  ‘The School of Athens’ by  RAPHAEL .

PLATO and ARISTOTLE ‘The School of Athens’ by RAPHAEL.

  • According to Plato, art is imitation of an imitation.

The idea of art as ‘mimesis’ was first developed by Plato, meaning copying or imitation. For this reason, the primary meaning of art was defined as representation or replication of something beautiful. Plato believed that earth itself is an imitation of God, and all the forms of beauty we see on earth are God’s reflection, therefore, in this sense, art is an imitation of an imitation.

  • To Aristotle, art is an imitation.

Aristotle followed Plato’s idea, but believed that what we see on earth is the reality and not an imitation, but that artists do imitate what they see, therefore art is an imitation.

  • To Immanuel Kant, art is a form.

Kant believed that art is a beautiful form and serves as an aesthetic. Georgie Dickie says “now Kant thinks that the goal of fine art is the realisation of beauty, for he writes that ‘what is essential in all fine art is the form that is purposive for our observation and judging’.”

  • To Leo Tolstoy, art is interaction of feelings.

Tolstoy believed that ‘the activity of art is based on the fact that man, as he receives through hearing or sight the expressions of another man’s feelings, is capable of experiencing the same feelings as the man who express them. Art begins when a man, with the purpose of communicating to other people a feeling he once experienced, calls it up again within himself and expresses it by certain external signs. To call up in oneself a feeling once experienced and, having called it up, to convey by it means of movements, lines, colours, sounds, images expressed in words, so that others experience the same feeling — in this consists the activity of art. Art is that human activity which consists in one man’s consciously conveying to others, by certain external signs, the feelings that he has experienced, and in others being infected by those feelings and also experiencing them.

  • To Benedetto Croce, art is an intuitive expression.

In the most famous and notorious Crocean doctrine concerning art, Croce says art is an intuition, and being intuitive is the same as being expressive. What he means by this is that intuition and expression are the same phenomenon, and he treats artistic intuition as a criterion for distinguishing good art from poor art. What an art expresses is neither right nor wrong, but what is artistically true or beautiful is what is well expressed, and what is artistically false or ugly is an artwork that is poorly expressed.

  • To Clive Bell, it is a significant form.

What quality is shared by all objects that provoke our aesthetic emotions? Clive Bell says it is the significant form. He believes that artworks need to agree only that forms arranged and combined according to certain unknown and mysterious laws do move us in a particular way, and that it is the business of an artist to combine and arrange them so they move us.

  • To George Dickie, art is instutional.

Following on from the views in Arthur Danto’s art theory published in 1973, George Dickie's theory of art also states that art is institutional.

 "A work of art is an artefact of a kind created to be presented to an art-world public.” An artist is a person, who has the knowledge or the skill of creating a work of art, ‘public’ is a group of people which are prepared in some degree to understand an object that is presented to them. The art-world is the totality of all art-world systems (museums, galleries, schools, commercial market systems…).

  • To Monroe Beardsley, art is an aesthetic experience.

Beardsley believes that before an emotion is expressed, the artist is oppressed by it; they work so their mind will become lightened and eased. The aim is to make their emotion clear to themselves, to discover what emotion is.

  • To Noel Caroll, art is interpretation.

Caroll writes in his essay ‘Criticism and Interpretation’: “In short, where a work is about something, a critical evaluation of the work will strive to ascertain whether the artist has discovered a suitable or adequate set of forms with which to embody the meaning or content of the work. In order to perform this assessment, of course, one first needs to determine the meaning or the content at hand. And that is the task of interpretation.”

  • To Nietzsche, we have our arts, so we don't die of truth.

Nietzsche asked: if God is death, what happens to truth and morality? What could the point of life be without a God? During the Enlightenment period, the Western world realised that they did not need God to be able to answer for all their morality, values and order in the universe; science and philosophy were capable of doing that. With the rise of science and desire for new knowledge, Nietzsche believed that we finally saw the real world, that we are not the centre of the universe and that the universe wasn’t solely for human existence, and the lowly origin from which man had evolved. This secularisation of Western thought ultimately caused what Nietzsche called nihilism, “a will to nothingness” and an understanding of the world that leads to pessimism. And he believed that we have our ‘arts’ to be able to survive this pessimism.

And artist Ad Reinhardt believed, ‘art is art. Everything else is everything else.’

and last but not least,

To Frank Lloyd Wright, art is discovery, and to Oscar Wilde, it is the most intense mode of individualism. Supporting Oscar Wilde’s "The Critic as Artist” and “The Artist as Critic” essays, the Senior Art Critic for New York Magazine Jerry Saltz believes that art criticism is also an art.

In addition to the quotes above, some philosophers believe that art is a language, some believe is for a purpose and it is the process, the progress… Given that there are so many definitions, art clearly has no formula. The ‘art’ of something is also a common phrase used nowadays, like the art of conversation’, ‘the art of fashion’, ‘the art of war’, to describe a skill or practice at doing the specified thing.

So, is there any way we can combine every idea about art into one definition?

  • To Morris Weitz, art is indefinable.

Morris Weitz maintains that art, with its changing and unpredictable future, cannot be defined. He insists that when we look and see, we do not find any property common to all artwork, and he could be right about that, but maybe we don’t need to define the artwork but rather focus on what could be the mutual correlation between art from the past, present and future..

What Art meant before ?

From the 11th century to the end of the 17th century, the definition of art in Western culture covered anything done with skill as a result of knowledge and practice, meaning that artists mastered their craft, learning to replicate their subjects skillfully. During the Romantic period of the 18th century, as a reaction to the Enlightenment, art began to be described as not just something done with skill, but also something created in the pursuit of beauty and to express the the artist’s emotions. By the 1850s, the avant-garde movement had begun, with the realism of Gustave Courbet. It was followed by other modern art movements such as cubism and surrealism in which artists pushed the boundaries of ideas and creativity. In 1973, Arthur C. Danto argued that a piece cannot become art unless there is a place prepared for it within the Art-world, in consequence of the prior history of art production. Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades deeply challenged what was already thought to be known about art, but also supported Danto’s theory. Danto’s observations have made philosophers aware of the dependence of a work's art-status on the art-historical context in which it is created and presented. In turn, this has led to definitions that concern ‘the process’, meaning that art's history and making unfold as part of its defining character. And lastly, these institutive processes of art-making and the definition of what art is have broadened to include the idea of originality. The idea of originality of vision in art still persists, leading to ever more genres and manifestations of art, such as performance art, conceptual art or electronic or even digital art created by AI.

Today, art is defined as “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.” by the Oxford English Dictionary. According to this definition, ‘human’ is a factor that cannot be separated from art. However, a recent art auction at Christie’s contradicted this definition, as an artwork made by an algorithm went under the hammer in the Prints & Multiples sale on 23-25 October. The ‘Portrait of Edmond Bellamy’, created by artificial intelligence, was sold for $432,500, indicating the arrival of AI art on the world auction stage.


Some Thoughts:

Past, present, future: what do they all have in common? Time.

According to Einstein's Theory of Relativity, light always goes in the same direction. But time and weight (gravity) change how you see it.

If time changes how we see light, it could also affect how we see things of the past in the same sense. Similarly, it could change how we see things of the future. (Maybe that’s why Van Gogh's paintings, which belonged to a further time, weren’t given enough credit while he was alive.)

Taking this hypothesis into account, we can say that time is a crucial aspect of an artwork to be able to have the right understanding and interpretation of the artworks. H. W. Janson, author of the classic art textbook The History of Art, agrees: “... we cannot escape viewing works of art in the context of time and circumstance, whether past or present.”



"Art is the queen of all sciences communicating knowledge to all the generations of the world. "

Leonardo da Vinci

It could be argued that since AI systems are built by humans, we could consider this action a result of human evolution. With time, humans’ behaviour and needs change and people evolve; and when humans evolve, art evolves also. While we accept art’s transformations of the future, definitions of art will keep changing, and new ones will appear.

Today we consider the earliest symbolic scribblings of mankind to be art. As Chip Walter of National Geographic writes about these ancient paintings, “Their beauty whipsaws your sense of time. One moment you are anchored in the present, observing coolly. The next you are seeing the paintings as if all other art—all civilisation—has yet to exist….creating a simple shape that stands for something else—a symbol, made by one mind, that can be shared with others—is obvious only after the fact. Even more than the cave art, these first concrete expressions of consciousness represent a leap from our animal past toward what we are today—a species awash in symbols, from the signs that guide your progress down the highway to the wedding ring on your finger and the icons on your iPhone.”

Art is part of this evolution, and it has the power to manifest a thought, emotion, or an idea in physical form. In this sense, we like Leonardo da Vinci’s definition: "Art is the queen of all sciences communicating knowledge to all the generations of the world.” meaning that, from past or present, art is communicating knowledge to humans, and helps us to discover new meanings into life by serving as a tangible symbols to be to seen or interpreted.