What is and isn’t Art

Table of Contents

  1. Pure Art
  2. Modern “Art”
  3. What Happened?
  4. How Do We Find “Real” Art?
  5. More Specifically…
  6. What Happened to Emotion?
  7. Beauty?
  8. I’m Vague
  9. Conclusion

Pure Art

The words “art” and “craft” have their origins in ancient ideas that entailed skill. Skill, while related to talent, is not limited to such. However, it does require more exertion of energy than simply pressing a button on the top of a camera (I’ll get to that in a bit). Skill is something that you can either have from childhood (if you’re lucky) or can acquire with time and practice. It is the ability to assemble something in a manner such that it fulfills its purpose and exceeds what is minimally necessary.

Consider, for example, making a pie. Making pies is just baking, but it can be also be an art. How so? While it may not require much skill to make a pie, even correctly, it does require skill to make the pie delicious. Making pies is a skill that requires practice.

Art does not have to be beautiful with respect to the eyes or sensory appeal. In fact, it doesn’t have to do anything to the senses. What makes it art is that it could only be assembled or created with skill.

The same is true with crafts. Some skill is necessary. Crafts require less skill than art and have nothing to do with food, but they do require specialization.

Modern “Art”

The melancholy of modern art began (in a matter of speaking) with a photograph of a toilet – a foreshadowing of the fact that everything would go to pot. It was a pointless work, but it began a chain reaction that led to a complete abandonment of the origins – and intentions – of the original words “arts” and “crafts”. Everyone wants to do art, but not everyone can, so why not change the definition?

What is the definition of “art”? If you try to prescribe to the modern definition, no doubt, you will have your own definition of art – probably one that disagrees with your neighbor’s definition one way or another. If you try to be ecumenical, you will find that “art” has no definition beyond the simple “expression of creativity”. However, this in itself is almost completely meaningless (despite using very large words). Why? Anything can be considered as having an expression! A computer can express things – from which we now have fractal art. An elephant can express things. Even a math equation is an expression! One might then consider all of these things as art, unless they are considering the word “creativity” to be the limiting factor. But even here, the word “creativity” has become less defined because of modern thinking.

“Creativity”, in my line of thinking, means a unique manifestation of an idea or solution – one that could never have been formed by the random events in the universe or has ever been seen done before. No doubt, my definition probably differs from yours in various ways, even if our experiences are relatively the same. I might add that creativity cannot be expressed by non-persons – that this be part of the definition, regardless of whether non-persons are able to fulfill the rest of the definition.

Today, “creativity” seems to span just about every idea as well, although the word “creativity” usually limits the sphere of ideas to things not seen before. Ironically enough, something can be considered “art” without being creative, even though the above definition of modern “art” included “creativity” in the definition.

What Happened?

A friend of mine pointed out that art began overlapping with culture. Overlapping – not just integration – with culture is dangerous for the preservation of something that is supposed to be constant. Culture is always changing, as are its words and definitions. Popular ideas change. The things that stay constant are usually those things that have been abandoned and left in their historic epoch.

How Do We Find “Real” Art?

It is my impression that most people actually do have an intuition of what is really artistic, even if their definition of “art” maybe whacky. The secret in finding out what is art is finding out what they value. Notably, people value things, even if they don’t like them. It is this specific kind of value we appeal to; it is that value system that comes out when a person says about a work “I could never do that”. To find this, we go straight for the gold with the question: “Subject matter aside, would you be willing to pay for this quality?” Yes? It must be that a person values it. No? Obviously, there is not as much value.

Notably, I said “quality” and intentionally excluded subject matter, since the latter plays the most important role in purchasing decisions but does not play as big of a role in whether or not something is truly “art”.

Some “artists” might object on the grounds that I’m putting a capitalistic definition on the word “art” and also limiting their creativity. However, this objection is merely a selfish cry for unfair play by artists who want the boundless, meaningless definition, and so protect their possession of the title.

More Specifically…

Certain categories of human construction and creativity generally are more or less artistic than others, regardless of their emotional appeal.

For instance, beat-boxing and rap is generally not as artistic as orchestral music. However, it could be if more skill was needed.

Fractal art is also generally not artistic, but there are some people who have mastered the usage of certain fractal software, able to create beautiful or very difficult-to-design images, and might be called “artists”.

Out of all artists and craftsman in the world, I’m particularly impressed with architects. While in many cases, the exterior of the building is very boring, the overall job is almost never easy (although now, if you are designing a house, there is software that helps). The architects must not only think about the exterior design (which is often a last priority) but have to think about the interior – the arrangement of the rooms, the piping and electrical, the floor supports, the weather conditions, and countless city codes and regulations, both for building and for the completed structure. Not to mention the extra demands – initial and late – of the person or persons paying for it. “Will it be economical?” “Will it be environmentally friendly?” “Can you make it as cheap as possible?” “Will it be well-lit?” Etcetera. And by the way, none of this can be fudged like in programming. If something isn’t done right, there could be an unexpected hole in the roof.

What Happened to Emotion?

What about emotion? Emotion has nothing to do with art. Modernists have often associated the emotion to art, but that’s because there is nothing else going for modern art. When you throw away the definition, you often replace it with something else more or less suitable. Hence, at one point, people asked “What were the artist’s feelings about their art” or “What emotions led to this work” and now they ask “How do you feel about it”… I don’t know about you, but I want to puke on most things labeled “art” these days.

Edit 3/30/2014: The emotional aspect, I speculate, comes from the emotional association people have with good work. Building something out of rock seems boring, but after building a castle, people become proud of their work and start to think about all of the extras, such as how to make it look nicer. The beauty in works causes people to be even more proud of their work, which in turn causes them to work even more towards making something beautiful. But I think the emotional aspect probably took more dominance with the rise of what I call “impractical arts”, such as painting (which does “nothing” from a utilitarian perspective). Consequently, focus turned from utility to beauty, even though skill was still required.

However, the exploration of the various forms of artistic techniques resulted in an artistic world of “same old same old”. Until the invention of the computer, there would be nothing “new” in the “artistic” world, except in architecture. By this time, the definition of art had degraded to focus on the emotional appeal over skill. All that was needed was the last step of throwing out the necessity for skill. In came “post modern” art, which satisfied the desire for artists to somehow break free from the “same old same old”. With such freedom, however, there is a loss of definition, and since this time, the definition of “art” has become a matter of pure opinion.


The word “beauty” in my book just means appealing or valuable with respect to its physical characteristics. Those characteristics could include everything from the color in a woman’s eyes to the strength of the girders in a steel bridge. The phrase “nice job” is often superseded with “beautiful work”, describing value, regardless of whether the object being described was intended for entertainment or emotional appeal or not.

What I consider “art” can and often is described as “beautiful” in the sense given above.

I’m Vague

Yes, I know. The description of “art” here did not go into many specific examples, and thus my poor audience might be lost on that end. But of course, there is definitely some leeway in the definition. It applies many forms of human works, including drawing, painting, music, baking, sales, construction, … and the list goes on. It’s also the kind of definition such that, regardless of whether we share it, we can still disagree on specific examples and what degree of skill is required to make something “art”.


While “modern art” is an attempted redefinition of the word “art”, it has proven to be a meaningless construct. Hence, I prefer to use “art” by an older, clearer definition – one that says it requires skill to construct art, or – for those without the “skill” – enough time such that they’d consider it worth paying someone else to do.

That’s my take on “art”. Sorry about the lack of pictures. It wasn’t really necessary for explaining such an abstract idea, but it did make my article alittle boring.

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