What Is Art, Anyway?

Who is the one who gets to to decide what is and what isn't art? Is it the creator or the viewer who determines whether something qualifies or not?

When something really keeps me thinking, wondering, and asking questions, it's usually a sign that whatever is causing me to ask the questions is worth paying attention to. I was pretty stunned when I first watched this video; the story shared is interesting to treat as a thought exercise, and it really got me thinking about my own photography. Laovaan shares a story about his experience in dealing with these questions in school. Why are some things considered art and other things not? Is there anything wrong with creating work that is intended to be aesthetically pleasing? When it comes to photography, who is the one deciding what is and isn't art?

While Laovaan is sharing his thoughts and experience on the matter, I find myself trying to ask and apply similar questions to the photography world and the work that I follow. I'm wondering about photo contests, the criteria, and the judges. I'm wondering about social media, Instagram, and the image trends that we see time and time again gaining traction and attention. I keep wondering why I'm drawn to the style and aesthetic that I am and what my own creative motivations are.

After you've watched the video, take a moment to think about art, photography, and your own work. Ask yourself tough questions, and take time to think about your answers. Is there anything wrong with creating something that is intended to be aesthetically pleasing? Can something only be considered fine art if there is an abstract emphasis? Does a technical skill add or subtract anything, or is emotional response the only thing that matters?

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12 Comments

Deleted Account's picture

What a great video. Thanks for posting, Evan.

I suspect that much of the problem is that art is a construct and entirely subjective. The creator of the video talks about his professors, but all too often, academics are filled with their own importance and the need to justify their own existences; in short, they are human.

Ultimately, I concluded that it really doesn't matter. Just do what brings you joy.

Simon Patterson's picture

He told his story very well in the video.

The story sounds like a bunch of people's insecurity has led to groupthink, where the only accepted view happens to prop up the perception of scarcity in the fine art market. At its heart, the approach of the professors as described in the video is simply part of a marketing exercise.

It is a pity those aspiring to be within the art industry (ie the professors) feel the need to belittle anyone who doesn't follow the groupthink. Some of them have a lot of knowledge that could be used to encourage and support budding and talented artists to help them grow instead. But there are a lot of talented budding artists, and the only way to keep an appropriate level of scarcity in the fine art market is to fiercely maintain and impose the groupthink.

Michael Wollscheidt's picture

First of all. . .Do not EVER let the opinion of a university art professor have ANY effect upon you or your approach to your work. You should go about creating what you feel compelled to create, in the style you wish to use, and in that way travel your own creative path to wherever your talents will lead you. Your work will evolve over the years as you develop and grow as a person and artist. Years from now you will look back and appreciate the way your work changed and very likely improved. You will see the ongoing development of your personality, and how your work expressed your changing style and taste. You DO NOT need a university art professor to tell you how you should approach your desire to create. As you and your work progress through life you will undoubtedly produce some works that would be considered "commercial", some works that would be considered more thoughtful and revealing, some works intended to make others feel your emotions about a particular subject or event, and some works that just kind of came about as you perhaps tried working in a new medium. ALL of these works will have been worthwhile for you to have produced and learned from, and perhaps enjoyed by different people for different reasons. The LAST person you should EVER try to gain approval from is a university art professor. I know you need to graduate and earn a degree, but do not let them influence you in any way regarding the path you choose to take in your creative life. I'm an older person than you, and I have a college degree focusing on film and television production. I spent over 40 years directing "live" TV newscasts. . .But I am also an artist and a photographer. I approach any project I am working on in whatever way strikes my fancy at the moment. The end result might be something "pretty", or it might be something intended to evoke a certain emotion in the viewer. But whatever approach I decide to take is the right approach for me at that time, and I DO NOT need a professor to tell me that I need to take a different creative path for that project. . .I DO NOT need their advice or approval to create what I feel inspired to create at that moment. . .and neither do you!! Do not focus on whether something is "Art" or not. That DOES NOT matter! No matter what level of expertise you attain, there will always be some people who will consider your work "Art", and some who will not. And so what? The only thing that matters is that you have continued to develop the talents you possess. Just enjoy the process of creating, and do not worry about how someone "defines" your work. If you are truly enjoying what you do, I believe that will show in your work, and perhaps surprisingly, earn you more approval than you might think. Are MY photos ART? I really don't care if someone thinks they are or aren't. . .Taking them and editing them are something I love to do. . .And that's why I do it. . .So just keep creating, and enjoy the adventure!

Alex Cooke's picture

Art professors aren’t all bad.

Cristian Perotti's picture

I have crafted this very minimalist definition of art, and I judge work base on it. For me, the fact that I or anyone likes something or not has nothing to do with art. I love a lot of things that I do not consider art, and viceversa. Having said that, I define art as the following:

In order for something to be considered art, it has to meet 2 criteria:
1. It has to be creative. (I always grant this to everything, because I do not know what was going through the maybe-artist´s mind at the time of creating the work. So, creativity is always there for me, regardless of my own opinion of creative.
2. It has to be extraordinary skill wise. This, to me, means that; if everyone, or most people can perform it, it loses the extraordinary value, and becomes ordinary. To me, if you do not establish this difference, then what is the difference between a painter who paints a wall in your house and one of these modern art paintings which are the same? (In terms of skill).

That is my definition. I do not claim it should be everyone´s definition.

Elan Govan's picture

Ah Art, nice to know there is still room for self indulgence. Maslow's hierarchy of needs is still alive and kicking.

michaeljin's picture

I disagree with this. Other people are the ultimate arbiters of what constitutes marketable art, but it's the creator that determines what is art (not all art is marketable).

If you look at what makes it into galleries or auctions, it's not only a matter of skill, but also good networking and people on the inside willing to promote your work.

michaeljin's picture

There are a multitude of factors involved in getting people to see an exhibit. Artistic talent is just one of those numerous factors. You're correct that people don't just show up to see some random paintings, but neither do they necessarily recognize the artistic merits of a work without being explicitly told that the work exhibits such merit. Do you think that the average person would look at a Banksy or Pollock in a vacuum (without any knowledge about the artist) and see artistic brilliance?

Commercial viability is a rather dubious metric for determining artistic success or artistic merit. People being willing to pay money to view or own your work isn't proof that you're a good artist. It's proof that you're a popular artist. Take some random painting and say it's by Joe Blow and nobody will show up to see it and anyone who does will likely walk right by it with little comment. Take the same exact painting and say that it's a newly discovered Da Vinci from his early years and people will likely show up in droves and probably make sure to comment about the brilliant parts of it. Did the quality of the painting suddenly change simply because peoples' perceptions of it changed? Commercial success in the world of fine art seems so arbitrary that it makes me skeptical that anyone in the field actually knows for certain what they're talking about. Listening to fine art experts seems a lot like listening to wine enthusiasts in this way. Do you think you could honestly tell the difference between a Vivian Maier photograph and a multitude of other anonymous street photographs taken during that era? If you knew nothing about William Eggelston or the history of color photography, would you be particularly stricken by any of his photos? I honestly doubt it.

Determining how good any particular work of art is comes down to what you believe the purpose of art is. If you believe that the purpose of art is to have commercial or financial success, then yes, your statements would be true. I believe that the purpose of art is simply to convey the intended message of the creator and that successful artwork is work that does this regardless of whether it is commercially viable or not.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Art... the definition of which is when the signature at the bottom has financial worth... ahem... (At least that's what most of the galleries and critics seem to think...)

For me, it needs a level of demonstrable skill in creating a unique work which provokes a feeling, (other than WTF...)

And of course, anything I create - ha.

David Pavlich's picture

"For me, it needs a level of demonstrable skill in creating a unique work which provokes a feeling, (other than WTF...)"

Excellent! I remember watching a video where a guy was hurling paint into jet engine exhaust to get the paint to smear all over a sheet or whatever the paint catching material was. And my reaction was Whiskey Tango Foxtrot!

Art being marketable doesn't necessarily make it art, at least what I consider art. And there in lies the rub; I know what I like and if it isn't within those parameters, it's not art, it's 'meh'. So goes stuff that's totally subjective.