What is Art? Answers to this Popular Question

Art is timeless, but will forever be incongruous with itself. The incompatible nature of what is art may be found upon closer inspection of its history and trajectory.

Oct 31, 2020By Jamie Rose Valera, BA Art History
what is art contemporary
America by Maurizio Cattelan, 2016, via the Guggenheim Museum, New York (left); with Lion Man Sculpture, ca. 38,000 BCE, via the Ulmer Museum, Ulm (right)


What is art? Contemplating this question requires a “starting point” to the vast labyrinth of what constitutes art. Is it an image? Must it be visual? What may it convey? These are just a couple of the many questions that are required to acknowledge before simply scratching the surface. That is one of the greatest aspects of art: dialogue. It creates conversations and narratives that might not have been prompted, at all. Perhaps there is a thread that connects all of art history together, regardless of the many styles, forms, and functions of art. While taking on the entirety of its history seems to be a daunting task, briefly exploring the popular question may reveal a few threads within the fabric of what art is.


What Is Art In The Beginning?

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Horse Fresco, ca. 34,000 BCE, via Chauvet Pont-d’Arc Cave


Art, first and foremost, is integral to our species’ cognition. Prehistoric art dates back prior to any pre-agricultural civilization. Documented on the walls of our temporary and humble abodes were images of the many animals we inhabited the earth with: horses, rhinos, birds, and the many alike. It is without question that to perceive the world, physical or imagined, is to process it.


How does man create image, without knowing what is art or creativity? Perhaps early on, the point-projection theory proved to be our prime and early understanding of the pictorial. Art, in this context of point-projection, had been a tool to perceive the world and an attempt of understanding it through imitation. However, the rudimentary reduction of images to an array of light rays does not apply to caricature. An abstracted portrait, such as that of African art or cubism, represents the individual as deformed or distorted. Yet the abstraction may be unique to those specific features of the subject, and therefore may correspond to them individually. Perhaps one of the most notable examples of this is seen through the paleolithic sculpture, Venus of Willendorf.


Art Through Imitation

venus of willendorf
Venus of Willendorf, ca. 30,000 BCE, in the Museum of Natural History Vienna, via Google Arts & Culture



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Named as an icon of prehistoric art, the miniature sculpture trumps the point-projection theory for her exaggerated proportions.  Her minute arms are unrealistically proportioned; however, this abstraction is unique to her and is therefore still an “accurate” representation of her. The point-projection theory then assumes a specific, and quite limited, definition of what it constitutes to be “accurate.” How the subject is perceived and imitated varies by the viewer and maker, and consequently manifests in different imitations of her guise.


On the surface, the period of prehistoric art poses a peculiar moment within the evolution of the human psyche: our sense of self. Littering the caves of Lascaux, France are human handprints that were blown onto the walls with saliva and crushed red ochre. Within the field of art history, some have perceived this to be our earliest examples of a signature. This moment of signing is evidence of our progress as a species, as it firstly demonstrates an identification of oneself, as well as the motivation to imprint onto the physical landscape. This advanced cognitive state continues to progress and places humanity on the top of the hierarchy of intelligent life.


Art As A Symbolic Tool Of Information

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Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Casper David Friedrich, 1818, via Kunsthalle Hamburger


The second primary theory of what is art finds itself being that of a symbolic language. In this form, a child must “learn to read the image” laid out before them. Artists themselves have held objections and reservations to the point-projection theory of representation. Art then, according to the symbolic theory, functions as a descriptor of data much like language is an informant of meaning. Articulating the imagined or non-physical worlds is highly successful within the aesthetic realm. 


Christian, Byzantine, Jewish, Islamic, and all religious art alike capture their transcendent and timeless experiences through a static moment within an artwork. Their messages are read by those who recognize their iconography. Similar experimentation with the intangible plane can be found in the depictions of the sublime. By capturing the mix of grandeur, terror, and beauty, the sublime describes a perceived and lived experience that surpasses the limitations of the material realm. Some might read the 19th-century painting with a sense of wanderlust or as a meaningful call to adventure.


Visualizing The Visceral

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The Enigma of a Day by Giorgio de Chirico, 1914, via MoMA, New York


Slowly until the more recent age, modern and contemporary art increasingly becomes disinterested in its reduction to a system of light rays with assigned points. Within the modern art movements, the symbolic portrayal of the unconscious mind grew in popularity with artists through the movement of surrealism. The visual culture of surrealism developed because of World War I and became well known for its break away from logic and reasoning. By developing techniques of creation through automatism, randomness, and chance, surrealist artists sought to allow the unconscious to unfold before them into the work itself. 


There is criticism as to whether its political associations to communism and anarchism might suggest it is separate from the creative world. What is art, with a predisposed narrative, if not propaganda? And should propagandic visuals be conflated with the same cultural integrity of the arts? It is from this point forward that modern art continues down a rabbit hole breaking away from the restrictions of what is art. The favoring of art’s overall message takes hold as the form is ever so slightly let go. Elements of psychoanalysis grasp the art world, leaving behind a vital moment that then pivots the direction of modern art to how it is known today.


When Art Becomes Conceptual

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Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps by Kehinde Wiley, 2005, via Brooklyn Museum


When art becomes conceptual, the message or function trumps its form. Art then becomes a vehicle in which difficult conversations find a safe haven that may not have been previously available. The notion of re-claiming group identity becomes celebrated and honored in the work by Los Angeles based contemporary artist, Kehinde Wiley. Like many of the 20th and 21st centuries, art permits the expression of previously oppressed thought. Such as the prehistoric handprints, conceptual art reincarnates its articulation of the human self. 


Art in this highly experimental state may even be seen as either satirical or critical, depending on the artwork and its viewer. There is much criticism surrounding contemporary or conceptual art in regards to the quality of itself. Oftentimes the critic may reminisce over the technical skills laid out by those of the Great Masters within canonical Western art history. This sentiment may refer to the idea that art’s form must be praised in order to be taken seriously for any further reading. Yet Wiley’s use of traditional Eurocentric portraiture just does that, while seamlessly integrating it with the well-favored conceptual aspects of contemporary art.


A Current Definition Of What Art Is

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Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity by Yayoi Kusama, 2009, via The Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C. 


Given the many identified periods and cultures of art and its rich history, it is nearly impossible to define what is art to a condensed notion. However, that is not to say that attempting to define it is ultimately meaningless. Outlined throughout this article are pockets of the vast timeline of art as brief attempts to capture the very essence of what is art. Answering the question is not the starting point, but asking the question to prompt its self-inspection is key to entering its tortuous labyrinth. 


One thing is for certain: art will forever be incongruous with itself. No matter the new fad of materials, narratives, and forms as time moves on, art will always find a way to take the position of all terminology it has been given throughout its known history. Art permits its existence to be timeless. Presumptions of what is art made in the past may apply to the present, just as its terms of tomorrow can be treated towards today.


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By Jamie Rose ValeraBA Art HistoryJamie Rose Valera is an art historian and theorist from the San Francisco Bay Area. Valera is a 2017 alumna of the Middle College program and will graduate in 2021 with her B.A. in the history of art and visual culture at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Currently, she plans to continue researching and writing through a Ph.D. in art history and visual studies. Valera's work focuses on representations of the body by intersecting the past with the present. Her findings have been presented at symposiums and published by arts and humanities journals. After working the contemporary art gallery scene, Valera aims to delve into Museum Education, and later research and teach as a Professor of art history and visual studies.