This series of essays talks about why commonplace definitions of art are wrong, simple heuristics to make it easier, and why it matters.

In this first part, I’ll talk about problems with some common definitions of art, and, in Part 2, I’ll give some recommendations for how to think about art instead. In Part 3, I plan to talk about some of the different eras that inform these notions of art.

Why it matters

I’ve often heard people assert the impossibility of defining art, and the absurdity of even trying; and, simultaneously, other comments offering simple definitions of art. Just in the past week I have seen variations on: “art is about intent,” and “art is emotional expression,” and “art is about beauty” and other statements that contradict one another. Sometimes the same person asserts that “art is about intent” and then later goes out of their way to tell me that it’s a waste of time to talk about the nature of art.

Art in the Western world is a confusing thing. The better I’ve come to understand art, the more I see this confusion as harmful. I have an art degree (mostly studio art) and, yet, all my life, I’ve experienced and witnessed anxiety around it: “I don’t understand Modern art,” “I’m not a good artist,” “I don’t have very good taste.” The word Art carries so much baggage seemingly designed to tell you that you’re not good enough. Anxiety about art prevents people from appreciating it, and from making it, even as an amateur hobby. To deal with this confusion, people come up with heuristics for describing art, but these heuristics often fail to provide useful guidance.

Moreover, recent debates around “AI art” underscore how badly our language around art and artists serve us, because the words “art” and “artist” mean totally different things in different contexts. Leading to all sorts of confusion. Definitional claims with hidden value judgements stand in for underlying agendas about what is valuable in art, such as in this Twitter debate.
We’ve decided that because defining art is hard, and we’ve abandoned hope of meaningful terminology, and so we’re stuck talking past each other, using the same words to mean totally different things.

Art—and the technology that supports it—changes continually, and we need language and understanding to help us navigate these changes, rather than being stuck in 18th-century myths about artistic expression.

Just a few days ago, an “AI” artist (not from a traditional art background) wrote to say that my essay on understanding contemporary art helped to her to understand some art-world conflicts she’d experienced first-hand. Gaining fluency in that conversation is very hard, in part because of confusing terminology around art. Ideally, understanding provides better conceptual tools for appreciating art, opening one up to new experiences and ideas.

Classification vs. Evaluation

Consider the following three usages of “art:”

  1. Classificatory: Film, like theatre or painting, is naturally an artistic medium. A bad movie or a bad painting is still art, even if most people don’t like it.
  2. Evaluative: Some movies rise to the level of being art.
  3. Combined: Film is an art form because some movies rise to the level of being art

These three statements look very similar, but they suggest totally different attitudes toward what “counts” as art. The first is the classificatory usage, and the second is evaluative, and the third is, confusingly, both. If you say “this movie is good enough to be art,” then you are making an evaluative assertion. Confusingly, the word “art” occurs in a classificatory sense and a evaluative sense. Writers rarely—if ever—make it clear which sense they are using. And sometimes they are using both simultaneously.

In the classificatory sense, we are making statements about which forms are arts and which are not. What makes live theatre an art form but spectator sports not, despite their similarities?

The evaluative sense judges whether a work is “good enough” to reach the elevated, rarified plane of capital-A Art. Is it special somehow? This judgment varies from speaker to speaker. In everyday speech it seems to refer to creating an extraordinary experience in the viewer, or arising from extraordinary skill. The contemporary art world uses it in a totally different way, to indicate whether the work fits with their own current interests.

Why to Avoid Evaluative Usage

These evaluative usages makes no sense to me. When someone writes that a movie rises to the level of art, they imply that film is not, by nature, an artistic medium. I find the evaluative sense to be elitist and gatekeepery, denying not just the qualities of the work, but that it could have artistic value for anybody. It turns a subjective judgment into an absolute, categorical rejection. For these reasons, I avoid the evaluative usage and recommend you do too.

Martin Scorsese made such a distinction saying that Marvel movies aren’t cinema, drawing a rhetorical line between “commercial mass entertainment” and “art,” while referring back to earlier eras’ debates about whether cinema is art. I share many of his preferences, but just because you don’t like it doesn’t make it Not Art. So many of our past “cheap entertainments” are now treasured art forms.

What if we made all evaluations like this? Then, if you loan your favorite novel to a friend but they don’t like it, they would say “it’s not a novel.” Or, a hiring manager would reject your job application by saying “thank you for applying, but we have concluded that you aren’t a person.” This kind of talk is utterly confusing (and possibly dehumanizing)!

People are going to keep saying “that’s not art.” Just remember that when someone says “that’s not art,” they’re expressing an opinion based on what they value in art, disguised as objective fact.

The Combined Usage

In 2010, Roger Ebert’s wrote that video games are not art, saying “No one in or out … has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.” He then describes a few video games he’d played, For Ebert, whether or not the form had given him great artistic experiences determined whether or not it was an art form. His title gave the conclusion: “Video games can never be art.” Likewise, some critics nowadays say that generative (or “AI”) art isn’t art because none of it compares to Shakespeare or Rembrandt.

But it’s hard to predict the future. Suppose, at the start of the 19th century, you were watching the films of the Lumière brothers, or Georges Méliès. Could one have concluded that film is Not Art And Never Will Be, because these trifles failed to reach the level of Shakespeare?

"A Trip to the Moon," 1902, by Georges Méliès. It's not Shakespeare, but it's still art.

He later acknowledged that, just because he himself hadn’t had profound experiences with video games does not mean that others hadn’t. This points to yet another definition of art, i.e., potential to create profound experiences in people, which I think a lot of people share.

Regardless, the Combined form is still an Evaluative definition, effectively defining “art that didn’t move me” as “Not Art.” Philosophers of art have spent considerable effort trying to define objective qualities of art independent of individual preferences, while still elevating those profound art experiences, but this is what they all boil down to.

Folk Definitions and Their Problems

Some notions of art seem to come up again and again:

  • “Art is about expressing emotion”
  • “Art is about the artist’s intent”
  • “That’s not art, because there’s no craft”
  • “That’s not art, it’s just craft”

and so on. I think of these as “folk theories.” They’re not rigorous philosophical theories but, rather, heuristics that help people make sense of the art world. These are often the tools we’re taught in school or by popular culture. They seem to be widely held. But, not only do they contradict one another, none of them stand up to the slightest bit of scrutiny, or provide genuinely useful tools for understanding art.

It’s fine to say that you prefer art based on these things like craft or emotion. But these statements make no sense as universal theories of art, because there are too many different ways in which art functions.

Perhaps it doesn’t help that art history is full of proclamations of what art is and must do, expressed as universals. So many things art must be!

“Art is about expressing emotion”

This idea that art is about conveying the artist’s emotion is widespread in popular descriptions.

Let’s think through what this idea implies. It implies that a viewer should get a sense of the artist’s emotions—or the ones they mean to convey—through the work. It implies this is the primary goal of art, and a work of art is only good insofar as it conveys emotion effectively.

Yet, most of our most famous artworks—paintings, movies, novels, plays, etc—either convey no obvious emotion, or, if they do, embody a complex set of emotions involved. Do any of the following paintings convey clearly the artist’s emotions?

The School of Athens Spiral Jetty

Raphael's painting School of Athens, and Smithson's Spiral Jetty earthwork

If so, what was the artist’s emotion when making each of these works? How do you know? If your answer involves making inferences from the artist’s biography, then does that mean they failed at directly conveying emotion?

But, more importantly, even if some of these works have some emotional content, they are not primarily about emotions. Artworks have important aesthetic, social, political, and/or conceptual elements that cannot be distilled down to emotions. For example, Raphael’s School of Athens (image on left) glorifies ancient and contemporary philosophers, for the benefit of the Papal Apartments in Rome, a seat of power and privilege. The idea that emotional expression played a role in this work would have been entirely foreign to Raphael or to Pope Julius II who commissioned it.

Or consider this work:

Barbara Kruger artwork

Untitled (You are a very special person), 1995, Barbara Kruger

It suggests various ideas around advertising and consumerism. These ideas in turn have some emotional connection; perhaps the artist is angry at consumer culture or wishes to convey a feeling of alienation. Or maybe not. Regardless, this piece too cannot be summarized purely in terms of emotion.

In so much important film, theater, fiction, music… emotion is just one part of the whole package. If art were primarily about emotion, then the history of art would be little more than a Twitter feed of hot takes.

“Art is about the artist’s intent”

Many non-artists I’ve talked to say art must have an intent. “Intent” is another word that is often used to mean multiple different things. Here I’ll focus on the view that art is the expression of the artist’s goals—which could be to express emotions, or something else.

But this is often just not true of how many artists work. Just in my own reading I’ve found numerous examples of artists describing their processes in terms of exploration and discovery, just as I’ve found in my own experience as well. For example, here’s Gerhard Richter describing his studio process:

Here are The Beatles, improvising “Get Back” from a formless jam:

At one point, The Beatles considered making “Get Back” into a protest song, which would have had a very different “intent.” The lyrics of the final song sort of might mean something, but they’re mostly just evocative phrases around some vague theme; it just ended up as a good song with a particular feeling. It does not reflect an “intent.”

The meanings and goals of so many works of art are ambiguous. Works often create an experience for viewers that can’t easily be expressed as the author’s “intent.” Contemporary art prefers ambiguity. And consider all the famous artworks (e.g., Shakespeare) that have been analyzed, interpreted, reanalyzed, reinterpreted, over and over, offering up new meanings for each new generation.

Art critic Jerry Saltz writes “Art is not about understanding and mastery, it’s about doing and experience. No one asks what Mozart or Matisse means.”

If we generalize “intent” sufficiently to describe all this artwork, the definition becomes vacuous and circular: art must have an intent; the intent is to make an artwork. Is the “intent” of a pizza to feed people? Then it’s an artwork. This isn’t a definition of art, it’s a definition of a planned activity.

There’s another, totally different usage of “intent:” something becomes art simply by the artist’s intention to make it art, which I’ll discuss more in the next post.

“Art does/doesn’t require craft.”

Craft produces more paradoxical opinions about art. On one hand, everyday crafts may be seen as being “elevated” to the level of art by extraordinary workmanship or creativity. On the other, the contemporary art world dimisses work that’s “merely” technically skillful: a realistic landscape painting considered a historical masterpiece would be ignored today. Such disctinctions reflect the values of the speaker—specifically what they value in art—rather than any sort of broadly-true belief about what is “valid art.” Certainly, one can find numerous examples of highly-respected artworks that involve technical skill (e.g., historical masterpieces, Amy Sherald paintings), and others that do not (e.g., much conceptual art, like appropriation art or taping a banana to a wall).

The word “craft” carries many meanings and connotations. I prefer “technical skill” instead of “craft”, to avoid that baggage and to avoid making a distinction between art and craft.

How should we talk about “art” instead? Go to Part 2 for my recommendations.