Art History 101 – What Is Art?

When students study art history, they learn to examine the visual, sensual evidence found in diverse works of art, architecture and design in combination with textual evidence. Art history also teaches students how to analyze, describe and interpret the wealth of visual culture that surrounds us.

In addition, it teaches students how to analyze the relationships between people and events through a wide array of social and cultural contexts, from ancient times to today. This broad understanding of the world and its connections to our lives is essential to developing a global, interdisciplinary perspective of the human experience.

Art is a fundamental aspect of human experience, not just because it provides a visual medium to express the imagination in non-grammatical ways (like music or poetry), but also because it can provide a sense of balance and harmony in our lives. At its most basic level, art is a natural human instinct for beauty, and therefore it can be considered an aspect of humanity that transcends utility.

Because of the diversity of human experiences and perceptions, it is difficult to come up with one universal definition of art. One such definition is that art is anything that stirs emotion in the viewer. However, this is misleading because the emotions that a piece of artwork creates depend entirely on the individual experiencing it. Three different people can see the same piece of art and have wildly different reactions to it. One might think it’s the most beautiful thing they’ve ever seen, while another might hate it and the third might not feel any reaction at all. Each of these responses is valid because they are based on the individual’s personal experience and history.

A second definition of art is that it is whatever the majority of people agree to be a work of art at a given time. This approach is problematic because it can lead to a censored canon and a system of art-related beliefs that are systematically biased, corrupt, and incomplete. Furthermore, it is possible that the concepts that make up the majority of definitions of art are not objectively valid and are instead prime examples of language gone on a conceptually confused holiday.

Another problem with defining art is that the process of creating and appreciating it is not a simple one. In order to understand a work of art, it is necessary to consider its creators’ intentions and the historical context in which it was created. This requires a broad range of analytical skills, including close looking, comparison, and synthesis.

To help students develop these skills, instructors should encourage them to use the Smart Museum’s collections in their classrooms and explore art from a wide variety of cultures. It’s also important to expose students to the history of artistic production, both past and present, so they can build a solid base of knowledge that will help them better appreciate the richness of art in all its forms.