What is art? (Project 1: Arts and Ideas – Exercise 2)

Record your thoughts on the questions below. Spend just 15 minutes or so on this activity

  • What is art?

  • How do we know it is art?

  • Who decides what is art?

  • Is it enough just to display a found object and say ‘this is art’ because it is in an art gallery?

  • Duchamp said he wanted “to put art back in the service of the mind”. What do you think he meant by this?

This response is in two parts. Part 1 is the 15 minute response. In the second part, I wanted to find a definition of art in three art history books I own.

Part 1

What is art?

Art is the output of human creativity. Given the huge breadth of that output, it does tend to be defined within various categories. These include Performing Arts, Creative Arts, Art and Design, Applied Arts, Fine Art and so on. I think a question follows from this very broad definition; does any creative output justify being described as art?

I think art has another meaning. It also describes the development of original and different ways in which that creative output is expressed. This second definition may then start to limit the amount of creative output above, which may be described as art. I wish to explain this with an example. Consider a painter who produces a work on canvas which is in the style, say, of Monet, and the subject matter is water lilies. That work might not be considered a work of art as it lacks originality.

How do we know it is art?

My immediate thought is that we know it is art because it is displayed in places called galleries, it is written about in books called art books, it is subject to comment in the media by people called art critics and it is bought by people because it is “art”. If the buyers are rich enough, they might even open their own galleries in which to display the art they have bought, thus confirming what they have bought is art.

Who decides what is art?

The curators of the galleries, the writers of the art books, art critics, the art dealers that facilitate the buying and selling of art and the judges of various art competitions appear to me to be the arbiters of what is art. I suspect that once a person has been deemed to be an “artist” that they then also contribute to this decision-making.

Is it enough just to display a found object and say ‘this is art’ because it is in an art gallery?

I really don’t have an answer to this question. My suspicion is that if the found object has been found by a person deemed to be an “artist”, then the short answer is yes.

Duchamp said he wanted “to put art back in the service of the mind”. What do you think he meant by this?

I think he was suggesting that art should be an intellectual activity not just the craft of applying a skill to certain materials. If I have sufficient technical and drafting skills to produce a realistic reproduction of the view of the South Downs from Ditchling Beacon, using paint, then I think he is saying that my skills are not enough to justify calling my work a piece of art. Rather it has to have an intellectual quality or characteristic that justifies that epithet of “art”.

Part 2

I decided to start my brief research by going back to the three art history books I own. I am using the term “art history” loosely here, but the purpose of the three books is to present an overview of art or a specific period or phase of it.

The introduction of DK’s The Art Book (2017:12) opens by stating:

“Art is one of the building blocks of civilisation; no significant culture or society has ever flourished without it.”

No attempt is made to actually define what that art is. The illustrations that accompany the introduction are largely paintings, along with two sculptures, one readymade, the Bayeux Tapestry and a stained glass window.

Art The Whole Story (2010:8) opens its introduction in a similar vein:

“There is no society throughout history, however low its level of material existence, that has lacked art.”

Again, no attempt is made to define art. The accompanying illustrations, however, differ in tone. Whilst the Art Book appears concerned to show a variety of art, Art The Whole Story has used (largely) paintings, most of which show artists at work. They include an ancient Egyptian relief showing a figure making papyrus.

The introduction of The Story of Modern Art (2010:9) is more concerned with explaining the particular problems of documenting that history of twentieth century art.

This is not a large enough sample from which to draw general conclusions, but these three books are not concerned to define the art they present. This suggests a number of possibilities. The books may assume that their readers have a definition of art which suffices to access these books. They may assume that a definition is simply not necessary.

When reading these introductions, I was reminded of a book I read many years ago; The Existence of God, edited and introduced by John Hick. The book was part of the Problems in Philosophy Series. The book included discussion points, one of which was written by John Baillie and entitled The Irrelevance of Proofs from the Biblical Point of View. In short, his contention is that the Old and New Testaments and Epistles were not concerned with proving God existed. The assumption was that, at that time, none would dispute the existence of a God. Hence the biblical texts were intended to inform the readers of the characteristics of God and the behaviour expected by God, of us, the product of his act of creation.

And so when reading the three books’ introductions, I felt as if there was an assumption that I accepted some pre-existing notion of “Art”. Rather the purpose of the books was to present the authors’ and/or contributors’ view of the history of art.

Does that then suggest that there are various views of the history of art and I am following one particular direction of study? Worse still, is it possible I don’t even realise that I am doing this?


Baillie, J. (1974) The Irrelevance of Proofs from the Biblical Point of View In: Edwards, P (ed) The Existence of God. London: Collier Macmillan

Bland, D. and Reid, P. (2017) DK The Art Book. London: Dorling Kindersley Limited

Lynton, N. (1980) The Story of Modern Art. Oxford: Phaidon Press Limited

Farthing, S (ed) (2010) Art The Whole Story. London: Thames and Hudson



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