Tuesday, January 10, 2012

What is Art?

What is Art?

This is certainly a much more enormous question than those three short words make it seem.  I will probably come back to this question hundreds of times in this blog, but here are some initial thoughts:

Usually, when people ask this question, they have some rather difficult to define modern piece in mind: (is a factory-produced urinal, signed (with an invented name), and placed on a pedestal art?)

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

For many other things, we have less trouble defining them as art.  What about the stunningly intricate page of a manuscript from the middle ages:


Chi Rho Iota Page from the Book of Kells - made in Iona, Scotland, late 8th or early 9th century.

When I think of “art,” this is what comes to my mind.
Artist Unknown, Chi-rho-iota Page from The Book of Kells, eighth/ninth century

We classify this as art without hesitation, and yet, when it was made, it was part of a devotional practice, not necessarily meant to be thought of as art as such but as devotion to god.  The artist is unknown, and he would most certainly not considered himself an artist as such, but a monk, and perhaps a craftsman.  

What art is, differs across time and space, across cultures.  

But here's the definition I find most satisfying, and the one I think about when I write this blog:  Art is an object, or an action framed in such a way as to make us reflect on and/or question our understanding of the world.  

Thus, Duchamp's Fountain is art because we stop and ask (among other things) "woah!  what is this doing in a museum?  Does the artist have the right to take credit for a urinal, made in a factory? 

The Chi-rho-iota Page is art because we search for clues of a story among the intricate details.

The word "framed" is very important in my definition: art is about the context within which we interact with an object or action.  Thus a dinner party, for example, could be just a dinner party.  Or if we stop and ponder the human connection, ceremony and tradition it represents, then a dinner party is art.  In fact, the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, in his 1992 performance Untitled (Free) invited guests to an art gallery to help prepare and eat thai curry and rice, turning the act of eating, for this moment, into art.  

Rirkrit Tiravanija, Untitled (Free) 1992 David Zwirner Gallery, NY (photo credit)

So what do you think about this definition?  What is art to you?


  1. You know I have to comment on this post, Alexis! Well, I really like the definition of art that you suggest here. I think the key word here, like you italicized, is "framed". It implies intention - agency - and a man-made quality - that is, unnatural. I suppose then that, per this definition, art is objective. By the act of framing, the artist has created art - whether I like it or not! But what about the aesthetic component? We talked about this earlier. I definitely think there is a symbolic or reflective aspect to art, but what about artistry? When I see the Book of Kells, I am amazed by the colors, design, the difficulty of its creation, and the devotion of the artist to a craft that has mostly been forgotten. I am awed by the artists ability to create beauty. Although Duchamp was certainly clever, and likes causing a stir for its own sake, I can't appreciate the quality of his craftsmanship as an artist. I'm learning more about it though by reading your stuff, so keep up the interesting articles!

    1. Your right I think in some ways. Aesthetics is important in our own thoughts and often our own value judgements about art. But aesthetics are so culturally (and personally) subjective, that I think it's necessary to leave them out of my definition of art. However, I am definitely still pondering how aesthetics (and skill and craftsmanship for that matter) relate to art. A good subject for another post...

  2. Here is what bugs me about calling the Duchamp urinal 'art'. If a lay person set such an object on a pedestal or stuck it in a frame and declared it an art piece would any art critics give it a second look? NO. Not even a first. I can even imagine them saying: "Get away from this museum, with that thing, you weirdo." Yet somehow, once you've earned the name "Artist" and you bring it to your exhibition, the critics trip over themselves commenting and analyzing and oohing and aahing because you, the "Artist" must somehow be privy to some superior knowledge that caused you to boldly break the rules. This CERTAINLY must be Art and the critics don't want to be seen as blockheads that don't get it. Maybe all along it is an inside joke by the artist to see what he can get away with and who he can laugh at.