The Definition of Art

In many ways, art is a uniquely human activity. Not just a form of entertainment, nor a tool to teach morality and social behaviour, but an endeavour to understand the world around us, to communicate ideas, emotions and experiences in a way that words alone cannot, and ultimately to create new, shared meanings within society. As a result, art plays an important role in forming civilizations.

Yet the definition of art has become a subject of great debate. On the one hand, there are those who believe that art should be defined in traditional ways, having to do with order, harmony and representation; on the other, those who define it by what it is not – anything that fails to meet some vague standard of novelty. There is a gap between these two sides that has widened as more people have come to appreciate the importance of new forms of art, which break with tradition and try to see the world anew.

Some people argue that art should be considered a kind of design or craft, and that the goal is to create functional objects that can be used in everyday life. Other people say that while functionality is an important part of art, it is not the only purpose, and that there are other functions that are equally valid, such as aesthetics or communication.

Aesthetics is the study of beauty, and it includes consideration of the balance, harmony and proportion of a composition. It can also include the choice of colour, texture, pattern and light to create mood or emotion. It is a basic human instinct to seek visual unity and coherence. This can be achieved by using symmetrical or asymmetrical compositions, overlapping and clustered or dispersed items, repetition of shapes or patterns, frames within frames, patterned edging or broken borders.

How is the pictorial space in this artwork arranged (i.e. does the work have a shallow or deep space; is there a foreground, middle-ground or background; are elements anchored to a horizon line; does the work use the principles of perspective to create depth; do the edges of shapes blur or fade away?); does it create the illusion of 3D by adding sculptural elements, foreground and/or background?

Do the forms in this artwork have a structural or functional purpose, or are they ornamental? Have they been designed with ergonomics and human scale in mind? Do they have clear silhouettes, or do the edges blend into sketchy lines or drips?

How did the artist’s background influence this work? Was it created in response to a specific request or commission? Was it created to reflect local traditions or craftsmanship? Was it a celebration or commemoration? Was it to be an object of entertainment or to sell a product? Did it have an educational, promotional or illustrative purpose? Did it have any religious or spiritual significance? Was it to communicate a message or idea?