What is Art?

Deliverance of Saint Peter, Raphael, 1514, fresco, Stanza di Eliodoro, Vatican, Rome

"What is art?"  This ages old question is often discussed and has widely varying answers.  We consider painting to be art as well as sculpture and architecture.  Opinions are more divided on the decorative arts such as pottery, textiles and stained glass. Art is sometimes the result of creativity and other times the result of political propaganda.  Art can be all of these things or none of them. 

A better question may be- can a single blog post successfully answer the question of what art is?  Let's look at some of the components involved in the creation of art through the ages.

I often begin art history lectures by stating: "Art is a reflection from the society that created it."  The values of a culture show through in art, when looking at any work of art the more you understand about the culture and society at the time, the more you will understand the art coming from it.  

When viewing art ask yourself several questions such as: 
  • Who was in power when this was created? 
  • How did they come into power? 
  • Who commissioned this and what is known about them? 
  • Who created it and what is known about them? 
  • Where was this meant to be seen originally? 
  • Why was this work of art commissioned and/or created?
For example in the above fresco by Raphael the Pope (Pope Julius II) was in power and as was the case with most popes he came into power after his predecessor died and he was elected into office by a council.  It was also Pope Julius II that commissioned this from the highly talented and sought after Renaissance painter Raphael.  This was in the Pope's private apartments where the general public was not allowed, today those apartments are part of the Vatican museums and hundreds of visitors see these frescoes daily. 

Here is a sampling of some objects which have been considered "art" let's ask what do they have in common and what separates them?

Pictured above from left:
Chartres Cathedral, northwest tower c. 1140,  west façade and southwest tower c. 1160-16th century

David, Michelangelo,1501-1504, Accademia Gallery, Florence, photo- © Rico Heil /public domain, via Wikimedia Commons  

Woman Holding a Balance, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1664, National Gallery of Art

Here we are comparing and contrasting a medieval French church, a larger than life Renaissance marble sculpture of a man and a rather small, realistic oil painting from the Dutch Baroque.  They were all created in different centuries from vastly different materials. These examples are all beautiful objects which express the creativity of the artist and they also all are expressions of Christianity and the religious faith of the creator. What else do these things have in common?  Can each of these be considered art?

Wall painting of Reindeer, Lascaux Cave, France, c-15,000 B.C.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines art as-
The conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects; also : works so produced

I agree with that description, whatever style, medium or use that objects of art have they are created with a combination of "the conscious use of skill and creative imagination."  Even as far back as the cave paintings from Prehistoric society that definition can be applied.

 Ixion, Jusepe de Ribera, 1630, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Today one may think of art as being created to be a beautiful object, but for millennium art was not created with the primary purpose in mind of being beautiful.  While often beautiful, the aesthetic value of the object was typically its secondary purpose.  Though many examples of art weren't beautiful at all and were meant to be purposefully ugly, grotesque, disturbing or frightening such as Ribera's work above.
What then was the primary purpose of a work of art? This is often very apparent such as art as a historic record, a form of propaganda for those in power or a way of spreading a message such as the message of Christianity to those who couldn't read.  

 In other instances the primary purpose of works of art are still debated and not known, such as the case for nearly all Prehistoric art.  Even later art can be difficult to interpret, the primary purpose of some art works may need the equivalent level of research of a Ph.D. thesis to decipher them.

Let's look at some examples of art with a specific primary purpose-

Pictured above from left:
Column of Marcus Aurelius, c-193 A.D., Rome, photo- © Matthias Kabel / public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola, Anguissola, late 1550's

In the first example we see a monumental column built during the Roman Empire, its primary purpose was that of political propaganda.  The images carved into the marble relief panels winding up the length of the column show a victorious military campaign fought by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

The second example is a panel which was created for Christian devotional purposes painted by the artist Cimabue in the late 13th century.  The final example is a clever type of self-portrait by the painter Sofonisba Anguissola.  She painted this to show her skill, cleverness and importance as an artist.

Symphony in White no 1: The White Girl - Portrait of Joanna Hiffernan,  
James Abbott McNeil Whistler, 1862, National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.)

The phrase "Art for art's sake." didn't come about until the late 19th century.  It refers to the creation of art to be a work of art as its primary purpose.  Artists such as the French Impressionists, Eduoard Manet and James Abbott McNeill Whistler subscribed to this idea and it is the root of artistic ideas in the 20th and 21st centuries.

What then of architecture or the decorative arts?  Are they too to be considered art?  There are many examples of both which feature prominently in art history books and courses.  

Pictured above from left:
"Il Duomo" Santa Maria del Fiore, dome by Brunelleschi, 1420-1436

Temple of Hephaestus in Athens, Greece, 449-415 BC, photo- © Sharon Mollerus / public domain, via Wikimedia Commons 

San Giorgio Maggiore, Andrea Palladio, Venice, 1566-1610

When I am teaching I always explain that if architecture weren't art then all buildings would look the same and would only be created to protect people from the elements. I have always strongly felt that architecture is art when it falls under the definition of "production of aesthetic objects."  

Meaning that not every structure ever created would be considered an art form, but those structures that transcend their primary purpose by also being aesthetic objects art are in fact art.  I apply the same idea to the decorative arts such as the Greek Amphora shown below.  

Not that every single piece of pottery, glass and textiles falls under the category of art, but again those that transcend their primary purpose, combining skill and creativity to become an object with aesthetic value are certainly to be considered art.

Greek Attic Amphora, 550-560 BC 
photo- © Jean-Pol GRANDMONT / public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The 14th edition of Gardner's Art Through the Ages has an interesting way of describing the role of art in its opening paragraph:

“Except when referring to the modern academic discipline, people do not often juxtapose the words “art” and “history.”  They tend to think of history as the record and interpretation of past human actions, particularly social and political actions.  Most think of art, quite correctly, as part of the present- as something people can see and touch.  Of course, people cannot see or touch history’s vanished human events, but a visible, tangible artwork is a kind of persisting event.  One or more artists make it at a certain time and in a specific place, even if no one today knows just who, when, or why.  Although created in the past, an artwork continues to exist in the present, long surviving its times.”1

I agree with this statement and think that it is well phrasedWorks of art are visible manifestations of the cultures that they were created in.  In this way all the political and historic events that have led to 


What then blog readers is your definition of "art" and why do you think so?  I think the question can have many answers and I am interested in hearing them all.



1. Kleiner, Fred S. Gardner's Art through the Ages: A Global History. 14th edition. New York: Wadsworth Publishing, 2012. p. 1.


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