What is art?

sevag's picture

Dear All,

I'm a design student and today evening, while out with friends we had a discussion about fashion, graphic design, dance and whether this disciplines can be considered to be art and if so, then why? After all what is art? ¶A friend underlined that "everything around us is art"; while we are taught that a work of art not necessary has to have a function, nor it has to be understood. From another point of view can a gadget that was created for a specific task, without bearing aesthetics values be considered a work of art? Then again we have philosophers like David Hume who wrote that "beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them." ¶I'm in a dilemma and would like to know what are the attitudes of other creatives on this topic.

Yours,
SB

bowerbird's picture

anything beautiful created by human beings is art. period.

the golden gate is art. a threaded bolt and its nut are art.
the mona lisa is art. the smiley face. and the nike swoosh.

the difficult question is "what makes something beautiful?"

-bowerbird

JamesM's picture

> fashion, graphic design, dance and whether
> this disciplines can be considered to be art

It's a complex subject and you'll hear different opinions. But in terms of graphic design, there is some overlap with the art world but there are also many differences, including the fundamental goals.

• The artist is concerned with self expression; the designer is concerned with communicating info on behalf of a client.

• The artist often picks his (or her) own projects, but the graphic designer receives specific assignments from clients.

• The artist usually works alone; the designer often works as part of a team with writers, photographers, illustrators, printers, etc

• The artist doesn't want anyone tampering with their artistic vision; the designer routinely makes revisions based on client feedback.

• The artist hopes their work will be saved and treasured; the designer's work is usually more short term and most things you design will end up in the trash after they're used. (In fact one of my professors liked to show a picture of a trash can and say, "no matter how good your work is, most of it will end up here, and if you can't live with that you're going into the wrong profession"

• The artist can legitimately say that they don't care what anyone thinks of their art, but the designer's work is a failure (at least to some extent) if the intended audience doesn't understand the message they were hired to communicate.

Now you can certainly think of exceptions to all of those points, and there are many graphic designers who are talented artists, but in general art and design are different in many ways.

riccard0's picture

“Art is anything you can get away with”

Nick Shinn's picture

Julian Stallabrass (Art Lite) was interested in this question, with regards to the sensational, Turner Prize winning "Brit Art" of Damien Hirst &c., which, of course, defied the traditional descriptors (that, after all is what modern artists do, redefine art). He came to the conclusion that no objective descriptions were possible of the art/not art variety, and the only thing the art works had in common was that they were all created by people who had been to art school.

My typefaces are art (I went to art school).

Some typefaces have recently been "acquired" by the Museum of Modern Art, although that institution has yet to describe them in proper artspeak.

Birdseeding's picture

I greatly disagree with Nick Shinn's definition, which is a fairly universal one of you ask the top tier of art professionals - it places all the political power over the definition of aesthetics in the hands of powerful institutions, where art schools (and if not art schools then museums, galleries etc.) are the sole arbiters of what is art or not.

There's a whole lot of different art definitions going on, the classic (and well-deservedly savaged) one of which is Kant's, who first made the distinction of Form (ie. Art) and Function being two different and opposing forces, thus art being what didn't add directly to function. By that definition, of course, graphic design is generally not art, and type design practically never is.

My own take: art is an expression of a thought that cannot be expressed in words alone. If your idea cannot be described in speech, and it keeps eluding efforts to precisely pin it down with words, then it's art. :)

Té Rowan's picture

It's art if I say so.

quadibloc's picture

@bowerbird:
anything beautiful created by human beings is art.

What about a baby?

Of course, there, one can argue about the meaning of "created", and swiftly descend into theology.

How about this as a closer attempt at a definition:

Art is that which is designed, shaped, or crafted by human beings, with the intent of making it beautiful, expressive, or meaningful.

That, at least, excludes that which exists due to human action, but the beauty of which is incidental to any human action involved - and allows for art that might be disturbing or shocking instead of beautiful, but which has "something to say".

Nick Shinn's picture

I greatly disagree with Nick Shinn's definition…

How is that possible, as I didn't give it?
(I noted an observation by Julian Stallabrass.)

Sure, I said that my typefaces are art, but that isn't a definition either.

It's art if I say so.

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.'

Arno Enslin's picture

anything beautiful created by human beings is art. period.

the golden gate is art. a threaded bolt and its nut are art.
the mona lisa is art. the smiley face. and the nike swoosh.

the difficult question is "what makes something beautiful?"

What an absurd definition!

Art is not necessarily beautiful. But if, would the explosion of a fusion bomb, which looks beautiful, be also art? Or a photo taken from the explosion of a fusion bomb? Neither nor! And if the main aspect of art is beauty, why is it relevant then, that it was created by a human? The question “Who has made it?” should be unimportant for the viewer/smeller/taster/listener/toucher. With regard to that question it’s enough, if you can affirm, that the questionable object could have been created not just by chance. In other words, if you run a computer program, that unintelligently creates one trillion images, from which one exactly looks like the Mona Lisa, it is as good as the Mona Lisa.

In case of typefaces they mostly have the function to transmit concrete information. If these typefaces would be a kind of projection surface for mind and soul of the viewer, they would not be legible anymore. The very most typefaces are not art. But this does not mean, that the creative process of a typeface designer can be similar to the creative process of an artist.

My typefaces are art (I went to art school).

Some typefaces have recently been "acquired" by the Museum of Modern Art …

That hopefully was a joke, because it sounds like: On TV they have said, that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And because they said it on TV, it must be true.

Trevor Baum's picture

Ugh, is this a freshman philosophy seminar?

Arno Enslin's picture

It's art if I say so.

Absolut yes and absolute no. I think, the courage for dictatorship and intolerance is important with regard to the question, if a concrete object or action is art. Art is not as you like. The dictatorship does not commit the dictator to like the piece of art. There are a lot of things, from which many people claim, that they are art, although they are only **** shit or only beautiful or only entertaining.

Arno Enslin's picture

The very most typefaces are not art. But this does not mean, that the creative process of a typeface designer can be similar to the creative process of an artist.

Correction: The very most typefaces are not art. But this does not mean, that the creative process of a typeface designer can not be similar to the creative process of an artist.

Té Rowan's picture

@Arno - Absolut yes and absolute no.

Of course (and I should have mentioned it explicitly upstream) I can and do only speak for myself. People's opinion of what is art differs. Even I know that.

russellm's picture

Art is a commodity. When the market that controls the sales and distribution of art says a thing is art, then it is art.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EbQ0GqX0Its

BTW, why ask type designers what art is?

Chris Dean's picture

With over 15 years of art college this horse is so dead the question doesn’t even come up any more. The end of the discussion is everything is art if you can contextualize/rationalize it. Just study 20th century art history. Some of my personal favorite include Artist’s Shit, Bottle Rack and the IKB series.

Two years ago, one of the graduating MFA’s from NSCAD University did absolutely nothing for his thesis. No work, no invitation for his exhibition, he didn’t even show up. And he got his degree. I saw an applicant to the department describe his thesis exhibition where in the gallery, he had his grandmothers bed to which he hot-glue gunned glass eyes and buttons. When you entered the room, you would trip an infrared wire which would make pubic hair fall from the ceiling. And he got a grant for it.

Heck, even I have pulled this off. In my undergrad, for a performance, I showed up to class in my bathrobe and let them watch me make a cup of coffee. They even sat there as the kettle came to a boil. The coffee cup was on a piece of plywood which I had broken the ends off. Surrounding the cup were 16 steel rods which I had sharpened and driven into the board. The spoon was welded to one of the bars so it couldn’t be removed. It was to ”symbolize the importance of security and exclusion in a family unit blah blah blah.”

I could go on for hours.

Chris Dean's picture

And if you think Jackson Pollock is strange, check out the recent documentary My Kid Could Paint That.

I also just discovered possibly the best website ever based on IKB.

Give a room full of MFAs an afternoon, and they could convince you that this thread, heck, even the act of me typing right now, is art. Trust me. It’s endless.

Té Rowan's picture

> I also just discovered possibly the best website ever based on IKB.

Just the site to put on screen while playing Dánarfregnir og jarðarfarir with Sigur Rós.

Nick Shinn's picture

> I also just discovered possibly the best website ever based on IKB.

Looks like the font used is P22's Cage Silence.

Arno Enslin's picture

If modern art is not modern anymore, how is it called then? Formerly modern art? Or formerly art? Or art? Have I to wait, until modern art becomes art or have I to hurry up, before it is not art anymore?

I give a **** on art, that primary wants to provoke, that wants to symbolize anything, that primary wants to animate dialogues between empty creators and “consumers” or that only wants to satisfy the conceitedness of artist or “consumer” – except it is good. If the artist exactly knows the meanings of his piece of art or if a piece of art needs a manual, there already is something wrong – except the piece of art is good. Artists are not necessarily more creative or more sensible than designers. It is better to be a good designer than a bad artist. So, if you are designer, be a good designer instead of wasting your time with thinking about the question, whether you are an artist. If your product is shit, it does not become better, if you call yourself an artist. Artist is probably the most cheap job title.

I am more interested in the question, how creative processes work, than in attempts to finally clarify, what art is.

evanbrog's picture

I remember a conclusion arrived at through the history of modern art, and similar to Nick's--"art is what artists make."

One can build a box and somehow it is not art. But if one builds a box and is reacting to the prior frivolities of say, Victorian or the like, then this puts it in context and can be considered art.

I can never wrap my head around it. For one, wouldn't it seem that in this case the art is only art because it's based on something else we already define as art. As if, this new art has no intrinsic value in and of itself but only by way of that relationship?

Two things I can think of have intrigued me lately on this question:
The 2007 Documentary "My Kid Could Paint That" as well as the recently Oscar-nominated, unfortunately not Oscar-winning (though that would be quite ironic and laughable) Banksy's "Exit Through the Gift Shop."

evanbrog's picture

As Chris Dean was mentioning, art is one thing to us now and another to us later, and quite another all together by the time we're dead. We always look back and say, "Well, yes, that was art." regardless of if the people then thought it was definitely not art.
It's constantly changing.

So it is what we say it is in any given time and culture. However the distinction of fine art is usually that of having some loftier goals, a more theoretical or philosophical understanding that is trying to be conveyed. And it is for that reason alone I imagine they exist.

Commercial arts may from time to time approach those values, but they are inspired by money alone.

I think artists like to make money, and hope to, but their desire to create art is not driven by it.

Nick Shinn's picture

Commercial arts may from time to time approach those values, but they are inspired by money alone.

Might it not be a loftier goal to create something practical, rather than silly, sensational and crudely made?

John Hudson's picture

Art is that aspect of a thing that is extra-utile, i.e. that is not functional but is the focus of our aesthetic sense, our delight in beauty and ideas. Art as a class of object, refers to things whose character is wholly or almost wholly extra-utile. Such objects, like anything else we make, require craft (skilled making) to be effectively realised: it doesn't matter how clever the artist's idea or how beautiful his conception if he can't realise it. Just as art requires craft, everything that human beings consciously make is tinged with some degree of art, some extra-utile quality. Humans are aesthetic creatures, and when we make judgements about how to form a thing, no matter how quotidianly functional the object in question, we include aesthetic criteria. Some objects leave little room for art, of course, because their function really does define their form, but seldom is an extra-utile component entirely absent.

[And if that sounds familiar, it’s because I copied and pasted it from the last time we had this conversation on Typophile.]

evanbrog's picture

Point well taken, Nick. Though I do not believe such things would have to be either silly, sensational, or crudely made. But I know what you mean.

bowerbird's picture

quadiblock said:
> What about a baby?

that's something created by nature. so it's _nature_, not _art_.

but a baby _is_ beautiful, so you were on the right track there...

nature creates awesomely beautiful stuff -- mountains, ladybugs,
waterfalls, nuclear explosions, non-nuclear explosions, bumblebees,
our circulatory system, ken jennings, flowers, the man in the moon,
green grass, buffalo, microbes, giraffes, banksy, supernovas, valleys,
and those pretty blonde curls atop the head of my lovely girlfriend...

art is a feeble and failed attempt by humans to match mother nature.

-bowerbird

p.s. there's an old saying among my close friends: "poetry sucks."
we were _delighted_ when one of my friends added: "art swallows."

froo's picture

John, I agree, but... Art doesn't necessarily require craft. An object becomes the object of art, not only because of the decision of the artist, but also in the choice made by another person (so, not always skilled making but also choosing, vide your example of a stone tool). Two: some art activities don't require any workshop skills.

Arno Enslin's picture

@ alexus

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Is this spam or do you want to tell me, that Nike shoes are pieces of art? They are not pieces of art. That’s just design, even not good design in case of the most models, not less and not more.

I assume, with those shoes you are looking like someone, who threads down octopuses. They are only a bad copy of the original.

@ bowerbird

art is a feeble and failed attempt by humans to match mother nature.

Nonsense!

Arno Enslin's picture

An object becomes the object of art, not only because of the decision of the artist, but also in the choice made by another person (so, not always skilled making but also choosing, vide your example of a stone tool).

I don’t think so, because the creative process is not absolute conscious. And as better you master your tools, as better you can make use of your subconscious, because you have not constantly and consciously to think about, what your hands have to do. In the creative process you switch between different states of mind. From this point of view you already are different persons in the creative process, creator and observer. At least that’s my personal experience. This probably varies from person to person. There is something, which is holy, in the creative process. Art is not in competition to nature, but an attempt to feel home in nature, while nature is the universe and art is part of the universe as even everything else. But this can be also valid for the creative process of design. The difference is, that design has a much more clearly defined function and design always must bow to the function. Design is surface. It is not less important than art, but it is not the same. If you have to bow, it is a bit harder to feel like God, the ultimate creator. (I don’t believe in God.)

5star's picture

Everything done is done by design.

Everything.

I don't care if it's a typeface or a canvas or a whatever ...everything is done by design.

Period.

John Hudson's picture

Marcin: An object becomes the object of art, not only because of the decision of the artist, but also in the choice made by another person (so, not always skilled making but also choosing, vide your example of a stone tool).

I disagree, but perhaps because we're talking about slightly different things. An object may be called ‘art’ for a variety of reasons -- one of which is that someone has put it in an art gallery --, but what I am talking about is art as a quality of the object: a quality of aesthetic artifice, i.e. of its making.

Re. the Olduvai stone tool: I don't think this is ‘art’, because its functional purpose is so obvious and overriding, unlike a painting. Rather, it is an object that demonstrates the extra-utile, asthetic quality that I think is seldom completely absent from anything that humans make.

froo's picture

@John
Now I understand. In Polish there are two terms used. The first means pure, inutile "art" and I always think of it when I see the English word. The other term means "artistry, craft, craftmanship, skill", some proficiency that can be used in "art" as a tool. That's why for some of my friends "applied art" sounds oxymoronic. (I admit that I also would be a bit embarrassed to hear that "everything around us is art". I'd have to ask for more explanations). For me personally, the word "art" means (doing / making consciously) something absolutely unnecessary. Introducing aesthetic quality into an object can be described as "art"; no doubt.

phrostbyte64's picture

Personally, I find function to be artistic in it's own right. "Art" is a term which is completely subjective and impossible to quantify or qualify. The entire debate falls into the realm of philosophy which can be debated until everyone goes home mad. Art is whatever the "artist" can convince others to be art.

When I was in college, I loved this debate because it was so easy to get a room full of "artists" worked into a frenzy.

Garabond, just out of morbid curiosity, why did you ask this question in a type forum? I would think that there are bound to be far better venues for this type of debate - back at the coffee shop maybe or a nice pub.

Frank ADEBIAYE's picture

art is freedom

Khaled Hosny's picture

Science is what we understand well enough to explain to a computer. Art is everything else we do.

Kristians Sics's picture

We can draw a line here: a broom you can sweep floor with is a design, a broom that is useless is a piece of art. A typeface you can read is a design. A typeface you can't read is art.
As once the guys from typography explained me the difference between a book and a booklet - you put it on the edge, if it falls it's a booklet.

John Hudson's picture

James: Personally, I find function to be artistic in it's own right. "Art" is a term which is completely subjective and impossible to quantify or qualify.

You don't need to be able to quantify or qualify something in order to have a concept of its distinguishing characteristics and be able to talk meaningfully about it. I have suggested what seems to me a very sound definition of art as an extra-utile aesthetic quality of human creations. We don't need to know what percentage of an individual creation is utile and what percentage art, nor do we need to make judgements about whether it is good or bad art.

When you say that you find function to be artistic, I think what you really mean is that there are elements of utility that you respond to aesthetically. I'm not saying that only the extra-utile is beautiful, I am saying that only the extra-utile is art. There is beauty in much that is not art.

Stickley's picture

There's a lost distinction between artist and artisan, which leads to confusion between art and creativity.

There was a show on a few days ago where guys were restoring a classic car and as they worked the body lines down to a smooth finish, they declared it art. Well, no. They are talented craftsmen, and there's a great skill and technique to it, but it's not art. If everything is art, nothing is—like if everything is bold and underlined to stand out and be important, nothing stands out as important.

In an interview with Moby several years back a question about whether DJs make music made a good point for how I see things. Paraphrased: "What DJs do is creative, it isn't music, but it is creative."

Are many things creative? Yes. Does it take great skill and ability? Yes. It is art? No.

phrostbyte64's picture

John, your definition works within the boundaries of your culture and your culture's aesthetics. Other cultures or individuals might find no value aesthetically or otherwise in what you might call art. I agree that beauty and art are different subjects. Many things that are deemed artistic are disturbing and even abhorrent to some people. That still means that art is defined by the individual or the culture as an entity. Perhaps a more precise definition would be - that quality of a object which stirs the aesthetic and emotional sense of the viewer or viewers, possibly beyond the utility of its function (or lack there of.)

Of course that takes away some of the mysticism that artists like to robe themselves with.

russellm's picture

Let's define exactly what we mean by the words, "useful", "Utilitarian", "Functional" and all those other words people use when trying to explain what art is which imply that art is a frivolous pastime. We humans have been making art since we were living in caves and the most lethal weapon we could think of was a heavy stick. To me, defining art as something with no apparent purpose misses the mark by a country mile.

John Hudson's picture

John, your definition works within the boundaries of your culture and your culture's aesthetics. Other cultures or individuals might find no value aesthetically or otherwise in what you might call art.

You're still not getting it. What I am calling art is the extra-utile quality of what humans make which appeals to the delight in beauty. Since this extra-utile quality of the made thing is, first and foremost, something that appeals to the delight of the maker, it is entirely irrelevant to the definition if someone else, whether from a different culture or the same culture, shares that delight.

Of course that takes away some of the mysticism that artists like to robe themselves with.

I'm all for taking away mysticism. Art is a quality of making, and while that quality has degrees -- including both failure and exceptional genius -- it is born of the same impulse in a painting as in baking a cake.
_____

There was a show on a few days ago where guys were restoring a classic car and as they worked the body lines down to a smooth finish, they declared it art. Well, no. They are talented craftsmen, and there's a great skill and technique to it, but it's not art.

See, I would say that there is art in the work, regardless of whether the object is something classed as art. There are elements in the original making of the car, and quite possibly in the restoration, that are extra-utile, that are unnecessary for the function of the object, but which appeal to sensory aesthetic delight. There isn't really another word for the quality of those elements except art.

The class of objects called ‘art’ is something else, and I strongly recommend a distinction between art as a quality of objects and art as a category of objects. I would define objects as ‘art’ if either they lack objective function beyond their aesthetic enjoyment or their objective function is minimal relative to their aesthetic value. This invites a kind of holistic engagement with objects, because while something like an aboriginal mask might be appreciated only as an art object by a non-native observer, he can and should be aware that it also served a functional role in its original society.

Stickley's picture

See, I would say that there is art in the work, regardless of whether the object is something classed as art. There are elements in the original making of the car, and quite possibly in the restoration, that are extra-utile, that are unnecessary for the function of the object, but which appeal to sensory aesthetic delight. There isn't really another word for the quality of those elements except art.

I had a conversation like this about boxing. A friend said boxing was art because of the skill required and the finesse used. I said no, there is an art to boxing, but boxing is not art. Quality of execution doesn't automatically make something art.

I design letters using my hands, it doesn't make me a calligrapher.

Something being beautiful doesn't make it art either, and being art doesn't mean it's beautiful. Yes, there is great subjectivity is what one would classify as art, and time and context make a difference as well, but just because there is skill in the work doesn't make it art. That doesn't make an object any less worth while either, it's context. Artistic, skillful, quality, amazing, but not "art".

It may be the conversation of art versus Art. Or art versus Fine Art. I'm protective of both. If some yokel painted a copy of a soup can label I designed and became famous for it, that'd just make me cranky.

bowerbird's picture

art cranky! he was on "the honeymooners" with jackie gleason, right?

-bowerbird

froo's picture

Then, secondo me:
- exact revival of cancellaresca isn't art;
- typeface revealing some hidden aspects of cancellaresca or those times, I mean work that tells something new behind technical aspects - is art.
- exact revival of cancellaresca made by someone who claims "I did it, because I think that copying someone's handwriting for mass reproduction is stupid" - is art.

BeauW's picture

Art is craft superfluous to function.

quadibloc's picture

Yes, "craft superfluous to function" is a good short definition of art.

A broom can still be a work of art, even if it sweeps the floor well, if effort was also put into making it look good, for example.

Almost all typefaces, therefore, are works of art - because aesthetics is a consideration that can hardly be ignored in typeface design. Of course, that's because it's bound up with function - so the line is perhaps more profoundly blurred there than in many other places.

russellm's picture

Art is craft superfluous to function.

nonsense. of course art has a function.

Arno Enslin's picture

Here is a good approach to a definition of the art term. The article is in German.

There is also a proposal for a short definition of the term. I think, there is much truth in that short definition, but if you don’t already have an idea of the meaning of the term, the definition does not help. But as longer I think about the short definition, as more I come to the conclusion, that it is precise. I am trying to translate it:

Art aestheticises the antinomies of life without resolving them. It is ingenious objectivity.

(“Kunst ästhetisiert die Antinomien des Lebens, ohne sie aufzulösen. Sie ist geniale Objektivität.”)

The second phrase sounds a bit paradox, because there is probably nothing as subjective as ingenuity. But I already wrote in a former comment, that art is not any (“beliebig” in German) and that art is a dictatorship. It is objective, because humans are conflicting beings with regard to their evolutionary stage. On the one side they are conscious and intelligent. But on the other side they are inable to understand the origin and the sense of the world. Humans are intermediate beings. So art is the attempt to feel home with this conflict and to remind this conflict. And in contradiction to that design is the attempt, to forget the conflict by covering it with beauty or by adjusting objects to the human anatomy. Art is also an attempt to surmount the own mortality.

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