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Art History: A Preliminary Handbook

by Dr. Robert J. Belton

What is Art?

Any brief definition of art would oversimplify the matter, but we can say that all the definitions offered over the centuries include some notion of human agency, whether through manual skills (as in the art of sailing or painting or photography), intellectual manipulation (as in the art of politics), or public or personal expression (as in the art of conversation). Recall that the word is etymologically related to artificial -- i.e., produced by human beings. Since this embraces many types of production that are not conventionally deemed to be art, perhaps a better term for them would be visual culture. This would explain why certain preindustrial cultures produce objects which Eurocentric interests characterize as art, even though the producing culture has no linguistic term to differentiate these objects from utilitarian artifacts. Having said that, we are still left with a class of objects, ideas and activities that are held to be separate or special in some way. Even those things which become art even though they are not altered in any material way -- e.g., readymades -- are accorded some special status in a describable way. Because of this complexity, writers have developed a variety of ways to characterize the art impulse. Ellen Dissanayake's What is Art For? lists these as follows (in no particular order):

  • the product of conscious intention,
  • a self rewarding activity,
  • a tendency to unite dissimilar things,
  • a concern with change and variety,
  • the aesthetic exploitation of familiarity vs. surprise,
  • the aesthetic exploitation of tension vs. release,
  • the imposition of order on disorder,
  • the creation of illusions,
  • an indulgence in sensuousness,
  • the exhibition of skill,
  • a desire to convey meanings,
  • an indulgence in fantasy,
  • the aggrandizement of self or others,
  • illustration,
  • the heightening of existence,
  • revelation,
  • personal adornment or embellishment,
  • therapy,
  • the giving of meaning to life,
  • the generation of unselfconscious experience,
  • the provision of paradigms of order and/or disorder,
  • training in the perception of reality,
  • and so on.

Introductory books and study guides on art history usually give a variation of the following as the basic functions of art:

  • to adorn,
  • to beautify,
  • to express,
  • to illustrate,
  • to mediate,
  • to persuade,
  • to record,
  • to redefine reality,
  • and to redefine art.

A completely different approach to the question is available at Otis' What is Art? Page.

© Copyright 1996 Robert J. Belton

Last reviewed shim12/19/2012 11:07:51 PM