What Is Art?


Art is a creation that stands apart from mere design and craft. It has played a significant role in shaping civilizations and has provided a medium for people to express themselves creatively. It is often characterized by beauty and evokes emotions that words may not be able to convey. Some people believe that creating art provides a sense of purpose and even contributes to mental health.

One of the more commonly used arguments for defining art involves a Wittgensteinian type of logic, with the concept that any definition that is not a closed-out proposition is indefinable (Weitz 1955). A second common argument, also inspired by Wittgenstein, is that the very concepts that constitute the stuff of most art-related theories are themselves a part of a larger theory of language gone on a conceptual holiday, and therefore they cannot be pinned down in terms of an objective, satisfactory definiendum (Tilghman 1984).

Another way of looking at what makes something art is to consider it as created for some kind of motivated purpose. This can be a function of the culture, or it can be the intent of the artist. Illustrative arts, such as scientific illustration and maps, fall into this category as does a work that is meant to stimulate the imagination of the viewer. Art can also be used to inspire awe and reverence, as in religious works or purely decorative works that may have no specific utilitarian purpose at all but are simply meant to please.

Occasionally, the purpose of a particular work of art is more directly political, as with the works of many of the 20th century’s avant-garde movements, which were aimed at using visual images to bring about social change. Other times, a particular work of art is a celebration of beauty that does not have any specific social or political agenda at all.

Some theorists believe that certain types of artists are able to produce more artistic work than other people, and that this difference is due to innate gendered characteristics. They argue that different genders tend to have systematically unique art-related styles and methods of appreciating and valuing art, and that therefore definitions of art should be based on an analysis of these differences.

A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that making art promotes a feeling of well-being, particularly when the activity is accompanied by a high level of skill. It suggests that this is due to the flow state, a cognitive state in which a person becomes so fully engaged in an activity that they lose sense of time and space, and is similar to what athletes experience when they are “in the zone.” Kaimal, an art therapist, has seen this in her clinical practice. She recalls working with a depressed student who, while drawing on paper, experienced this sensation of being lost in the moment and was able to imagine possibilities for her future. This, she says, is the point of art.