What is art?

Picture 1. Cloud Gate (2006) by Anish Kapoor, Chicago, Millennium Park. (Photo: Vincent Desjardins/Flickr)

As the modern world constantly evolves, so does the notion of art. What is considered to be an artwork is no longer confined to the traditional or figurative, but rather a vast area of mediums which become projected as art. So what is really art now a days? And how can we say that these mediums, which seem strange to some viewers, are in fact art?

Traditionally, most nonspecialists will say that art is consistent with beautiful paintings and statues. Works such as Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel, and the classic Greek and Roman statues are considered to be but a few of the world’s greatest artworks. However, contemporary art forces us to re-evaluate these views. For example, Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (Picture 2), which consists of a preserved 4,3 meter tiger shark in a vitrine, proves difficult for ordinary viewers to grasp. Yet it is considered to be one of the most iconic works of the 1990s, representing the new British art scene and revival.

Picture 2. The Immortal (1997) by Damien Hirst (another shark version, not The Physical Impossibility of Death…), Saatchi Gallery, London. (Photo: Gazanfarulla Khan/Flickr)

The fact is that art as we see it today is strongly influenced by the people who say that something is art. Museums, galleries, curators, art dealers, professors, critics and collectors; these institutions and people have a great power of influence when it comes to shaping the values of the current art world. They have the ability to expose and support emerging artists, revive works of already established artists, brand, commercialize and bring forth new artistic impulses.

Take Hirst’s shark as another example. Commissioned for advertising businessman and art mogul Charles Saatchi at £50,000 and unveiled at Saatchi Gallery in 1992, the branding and publicity of the work became such a discussion that it ultimately “sealed its fate” being sold for a whopping $12 million. Would it still have become iconic without the involvement of Saatchi and others?

Picture 3. Everything Must Go (2015) by Jean-Francois Boclé, Saatchi Gallery, London. 

Apart from institutions and people, one also has to consider the artists as well. Artists are, naturally, another driving force behind art. Like author Sylvan Barnet explains, “If someone with an established reputation as a painter says of a postcard she has written, “This is a work of art,” well, we probably have to be very careful before we reply, “No, it isn’t.””. Though the professionals possess great influence, the artists also play a key role in defining their work.

So, back to the question, what is really art? How can, for example, Hirst’s preserved shark be considered a great contemporary piece?

As a budding, ever-learning art historian, I firmly believe in the words of musician Brian Eno, who borrowed British theorist Roy Ascott’s phrase: “Stop thinking about artworks as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences.” The professional opinion of people in the art world may define something as art, but art is also a personal, individual experience – a feeling – just as valid as that of an art specialist.

Art can truly be whatever you want it to be; good, bad or ugly, or not art at all. Contemporary installations such as Boclé’s (Picture 3) consisting of 90,000 blue plastic bags or Kapoor’s architectural work (Picture 1) consisting of a shiny sphere/bean might not be art for one person, but for another individual it might be valued as such. And that is exactly what the professionals do so well – they “feel” a work of art and question the reactions it triggers within them instead of rejecting it, like some viewers do.

So the next time you’re attending an exhibition or seeing a work of art, keep in mind that the theory or definition of the art should not deter you from exploring your own opinions. Because that is what art really is – a process of personal experience.


Sylvan Barnet. A short guide to writing about art. 9th ed., New York, 2008, 1-365.
Damien Hirst. The Physical Impossibility of Death in Someone Living 1991. http://www.damienhirst.com/the-physical-impossibility-of
The Independent. Art of making money: How does a dead fish sell for $12m and who’s writing all the cheques? http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/art-of-making-money-how-does-a-dead-fish-sell-for-16312m-and-whos-writing-all-the-cheques-769504.html (published 11-01-2008)
Brian Eno. Miraculous cures and the canonization of Basquiat, 1993. http://flackart.com/bog/2015/02/26/miraculous-cures-and-the-canonization-of-basquiat/ (published 26-02-2015)


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