What Is Art?

Art is anything that expresses a thought, feeling or world view. It is an important part of every culture, transforming with time, shifting from having more of an aesthetic element to having a more socio-educational function and back again, depending on the era.

However, many people still struggle to define it and can feel a deep emotional reaction to works of art that are not obviously artistic in nature. In fact, the more a work of art doesn’t immediately resonate, the more likely it is that it may be deemed not to be a true piece of art at all.

Despite this, art has long been seen as something special, a gift to the human race. It has been used in rituals to celebrate, remember and honor important events, such as births and weddings. It has also been used to evoke feelings such as fear, courage and sadness, to instill empathy for others and to convey an idea or story.

The value of art has been debated since antiquity. A common belief is that the value of a piece is derived from its ability to produce desired emotions in the viewer, such as joy and sorrow. Other theories include a desire to communicate an idea or message, such as political, spiritual or philosophical art; to provide pleasure; and to explore the nature of perception.

Art has a long history of changing and evolving to reflect new social and technological developments. In the nineteenth century, painters experimented with abstract compositions, using unconventional materials such as electricity to manipulate colour and shape. This led to the development of cubism and surrealism, and in the twentieth century, artists explored different aspects of art through different genres such as appropriation and conceptual art.

This article by Emily Armstrong and Kit Messham-Muir explores how a number of different fact-finding traditions can be beneficial to arts research, including the use of natural environments instead of laboratory spaces to preserve real-world context. They argue that embracing these different fact-finding traditions allows researchers to test different art theories in diverse and exciting ways. For example, their study shows how original conceptualizations of paintings test the hypothesis that an artist’s concept is more influential than their technical skills or artistic intent.

In this provocative book, Ellen Dissanayake takes a radical new look at art along with play and ritual by considering them from a biobehavioral or evolutionary viewpoint. She argues that art, along with speech and toolmaking, evolved as means of making life’s socially important activities memorable and pleasurable. Art is not just a product of cultural conditioning, but a fundamental characteristic of the human species, with its own four-million-year evolutionary history.