What is Art?

The definition of art may just be in the eye of the beholder.

If you’ve ever stood in front of a painting or installation and quietly thought to yourself, “I don’t get it,” you’re not alone.

You may even question if what you saw was art at all. So to help you frame what you’re looking at, here’s a useful guide for the four main definitions of art. 

Art as representation: In this definition, art seeks to convey an objective, truthful vision of one’s surroundings. Representational art can range from the sharp clarity of Neoclassical paintings – so sharp it seems you’re looking at a photograph – to slightly softer Realist paintings. Think Rembrandt‘s deeply perceptive portraits that make you feel like another living soul is staring right at you. Art as representation was the prevalent definition until the 1850s, when photography became more widely used.

But, of course, there are still many painters whose work falls into this category including local landscape painter, Roseann Janzen. She creates accurate portrayals of nature by “looking for the essence in the landscape rather than the objects,” she says. The artist, who cites Salvador Dali and Leonardo Da Vinci as influences, takes hundreds of photos for reference prior to sketching her surroundings and putting them on canvas.

Art as expression: Once photography became prevalent, and could easily capture reality, art became more about what the artist had to say about his or her subject than the subject itself. Impressionism falls in this category. Art using this definition can still be representational, but the works are about the artists’ interpretations of what they see – how light falls on their subjects, its effects on colours and moods. Think paintings by Monet and Renoir: Thick brushstrokes, fragmented colours, blurred lines and soft edges.

If you use this definition of art, you would judge artworks by their ability to express a feeling or idea about the subject. Anna Gouin, a former Edmontonian who now paints in Vancouver, considers her work to be a form of personal expression. “The process is my focus rather than the outcome. It’s about being present in the moment, attune to what I’m feeling and seeing,” says Gouin. She often works with mixed media – using charcoal, nail polish, found objects and pastel on a canvas – to interpret how she views the human form.   

Art as form: When using this definition, the emphasis is not on what is being represented or expressed, but rather on its form and sheer beauty: Lines, shapes, colours and their interplay. This movement began with Pablo Picasso and other examples are Mark Rothko‘s abstract paintings of colour fields and Jackson Pollock‘s splatter paintings. It’s pure form. No content. No message. Judge it by its ability to wow your senses through the application of colour theory, geometry and perceptual psychology.

Edmonton artist Annette Ayre creates non-representational paintings emphasizing colour, space and light. “Abstract art is basically a communication between the materials and myself. It’s more spontaneous. I’ll start with an idea or a colour combination or an idea about space or light and then, from there, I let it develop,” says Ayre. “I’ve done work with an almond shape. Some people see boats; some people don’t see that at all. People will get out of the painting what is important to them. Abstract art is about emotion.”

Art as an institution: This is the broadest definition of art, where a piece is considered art simply because the art world has accepted it as such, and welcomed it inside its galleries. By this definition, art needn’t be the product of an artist’s hands, or be beautiful, or be emotionally expressive. The most famous example is Marcel Duchamp‘s “Fountain,” a factory-made, white porcelain urinal he submitted to New York’s Society for Independent Artists’ Exhibition in 1917. “By altering how the urinal was displayed, it changed its context and makes you look at the thing in a new way,” says local artist Sara McKarney, whose artwork also involves found objects. She’s created prints from a set of rusted blades, and excavated and rebuilt a Model T Ford truck, which she displayed as art. “All these different methods were applied to what the object needed to have a new life,” she explains.

This definition of a found object as art is controversial because the work isn’t trying to be art, but rather to challenge what we consider art itself to be. It’s also controversial because there’s no ultimate standard by which to judge whether it’s good or bad; it’s determined by the arbitrary tastes of the art world and the message it conveys. Would you agree that a utilitarian piece of plumbing in your home is art once placed within gallery walls? Or, is it still just something that carries the water from one part of your home to another, purely function without aesthetic?

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