What is Art?

The subject of, what art is, seems to have always been a topic of debate . A lot of art history is about pushing the boundaries of what art is. The impressionists broke away from the ideology that art had to look “real” or be completely finished. They wanted to capture the motion and atmosphere of a scene. They weren’t concerned with every little detail.

Wassily Kandinsky - Composition 6
Wassily Kandinsky Abstract Art

Paul Cezanne and Picasso explored the notion of simplifying shapes in a painting to make a stronger composition. Henry Matisse used bright colors, that weren’t naturally there, to express emotions in his scenes. Wassily Kandinsky pioneered abstract art. He explored the idea that a painting doesn’t have to look like anything, it can be a composition of shapes, much like an instrumental song (see my post on how visual art compares to music).

Marcel Duchamp Ready Made Sculptures
Marcel Duchamp Ready Made Sculptures

And, maybe the most radical of all, Marcel Duchamp argued that a piece of art didn’t even have to be made by the artist… it could be found! He called these sculptures “readymades” and said each one was “an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.”(1) My take on it is that he was showing his personality through these objects. They amused him or showed his sense of humor (especially the urinal sculpture :).

So, what is art? I think the rebellious spirit of all these artists urges us to keep the definition of art very broad. In my humble opinion I think visual art is… Something you make or find (or a combination of the two) and put on display so that people(s) lives can be enriched by viewing or experiencing it.

Art is more than just using your talents and skills. It’s about expressing your self and experimenting with things that interest you. In the end, for some pieces, only the artist knows if it is truly art.

To be an artist you need to be open… open to new ideas, open to your own thoughts and open to fails and victories on your journey.

  1. Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Readymades_of_Marcel_Duchamp

Enjoy the Journey

When I first started out doing art, I lived from painting to painting. Each new painting was going to be my masterpiece! I would pour everything I had into it. I did have fun and was usually fairly happy with the piece but it was never quite as glorious as I expected. I’d post a painting on facebook and get 20+ likes… then post another and get 5! Was I getting worse?

While taking an art history class and studying the lives of artists, it dawned on me that most of them weren’t concerned with that one big dynamite piece. They were interested in experimentation… in learning something as they painted or did other art forms.

Pont Neuf wrapped by Christo in Paris 1985One of the most obvious examples of this is an artist named Christo. He’s done projects like covering buildings with canvas and making a canvas fence that ran for miles along the coast of northern California. His projects take years!… tons of paper work, permits, planning, promoting and city meetings. But he doesn’t consider only the final project a work of art. He considers the whole process a work of art. In an interview Cristo says… “Jeanne-Claude and I, we do these things for ourselves. If somebody likes it, it’s only a bonus. We do things we enjoy visually. But you should understand, the work is not in the results. The journey is the work—it’s incredible.”(1)

Marcel Duchamp Large Glass SculptureAnother example is Marcel Duchamp’s piece titled “Large Glass”. He worked on this piece from 1915 to 1923. The “canvas” of the piece is a large pane of glass. The “paint” used on the piece is mostly dust! Over time the dust would collect. He would then varnish the part of the dust he wanted to keep and clear the rest. The piece was even dropped by movers. Duchamp put it back together and pronounced the piece finished! This obviously was very time consuming but turned out amazing.

So the lessoned learned was that art wasn’t just a pinnacle you reach. It isn’t that huge glorious painting you crank out after a couple years of practice. Art is a life long journey and experience. By thinking of it like this you can relax and enjoy. Maybe a work didn’t turn out like you wanted but you learned a lot for the next one. Maybe your art wasn’t excepted into the show, but you put it out there and you can get passed it and try again. Maybe you spent weeks on a little painting. Painting parts over and over but it didn’t even matter because you were having fun and you were experimenting.

I believe that art (not just visual… music, writing etc.) isn’t perfected by your talent but by your determination and love of doing it.


1. http://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/christo/#page4

2. http://www.christojeanneclaude.net

3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcel_Duchamp


Like Music, Visual Art Has A Composition

When I was taking art classes, one thing that I was taught totally changed the way I looked at visual art and design. It was the idea that, similar to music, art had a composition. Instead of a composition of beats, notes and tones… visual art has a composition of lines, shapes and colors. Like the rhythm of music, a lot of art pieces have a rhythm of lines and shapes. You can see this very pronounced in the dark lines that cut through the painting in “Blue Poles” by Jackson Pollock. In this image the music bar was overlayed to show the rhythm of the painting.

Jackson Pollock painting Blue Poles with music notes

This idea opened up the possibilities in my mind. Painting and drawing weren’t just about rendering objects the best I could in the middle of the canvas. It was now about creating a scene. It was about how the shapes interacted with each other.

I could create a symmetrical composition to show stability…. or I could create an asymmetrical composition with the focal point on one side to add drama and motion.

Also, like music, visual art can create a mood. Rigid shapes and contrasting colors can give a harsh exciting mood like a full rock concert. You can see this is the painting by Paul Klee below. While organic soft shapes and light analogous colors can give a calm mellow feeling like a mellow acoustic song. You can feel this in the Monet painting below. Sometimes this is even illustrated in the album art of a band.

Paul Klee painting - Collection of figures at the Met in New York-1926
Paul Klee – Collection of figures
Claude Monet Painting - Branch of the Seine near Giverny 1897
Monet – Branch of the Seine near Giverny

Of course just adding calculated notes doesn’t make good music. Music comes from the heart and soul. It comes from the expression of the musician. This also carries over to visual art. Drawing shapes on a canvas doesn’t make art. Art is the expression of the artist. The mood they are feeling and the journey of exploration they are taking.

That being said… like music… it helps to practice and build your skills so that you can more accurately express yourself. 🙂

Break down:

Music composition = beats, notes, tones…
Visual art composition = lines, shapes, colors…

Music rhythm = spacing of beats
Visual art rhythm = spacing of lines and shapes

Rock Concert = Electric guitar, crashing symbols, loud vocals…
Striking Art Piece = Rigid shapes, contrasting colors, asymmetrical…

Mellow Acoustic Concert = Acoustic guitar, smooth vocals…
Soothing Art Piece = organic soft shapes, light analogous colors…

Good Music = Comes from heart and soul
Good Art = Comes from heart and soul!

Thanks for reading!

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