Face Making

Artist Gwenn Seemel’s bilingual blog about art, portraiture, free culture, and feminism.

The definition of art

2008 . 06 . 22 - Comments / Commentaires (11)

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There are as many proposed definitions for art as there are artists and art-lovers in the world, but I can’t help but feel that they all refer to the one core meaning. To my mind, art is always about causing change—big or small, personal or global. That’s its value, its reason, its purpose, and its complete definition.

Of course, not everyone agrees with me. Here are some other definitions of art and why I think they all point back to revolution.

1. Art is a profound human exercise or experience.

I agree, but what makes the exercise or experience “profound” besides its ability to cause some kind of revolution?

2. Art is a reflection of what it is to be a human.

And what is it to be human if not to be changing and growing at every moment?

3. Art is about appreciating what is already there but has somehow been overlooked in our everyday busy-ness.

So, in other words, art causes a paradigm shift? That qualifies as change in my book.

4. Art is an attempt to manifest or make material the profundity of simple human gestures, like crossing one’s legs or frowning in concentration.

Please refer to definition and argument #3.

5. Art is meant to provide recreation or therapy for the artist.

This means that art gives the artist something to do, which is a change from having nothing to do or from doing something else. And the goal of therapy is a change in how one sees oneself, isn’t it?

6. Art allows the artist to enjoy the satisfaction of creating something.

This is related to definition #5. They’re both very artist-centric and unfortunate* ways of looking at art. But, again, there’s a state change from unsatisfied to satisfied, so it’s still about revolution (albeit a rather self-absorbed kind).

7. Art is for relaxation.

This definition implies that the artist wasn’t relaxed before she-he started making the work or that the audience wasn’t relaxed before viewing the piece. Going from not relaxed to relaxed is a state change.

8. Art is for spreading information.

Yes, art is a medium—a go-between—but this doesn’t explain why the artist chooses to communicate (through art or through any other means), or why the audience agrees to engage with the work and receive that information. I would argue that the artist is trying to create a change for the viewer by giving them certain information, and the viewer looks at art because she-we wants that change.

9. Art is meant to educate.

Please refer to definition #8: spreading information is educating. Learning new things always causes paradigm shifts.

10. Art helps to convey the artist’s feelings to others.

Please refer to definition #8: emotions are just one kind of information.

11. Art is meant to delight or to amuse.

Helping the viewer (or even the artist) go from being neutral or annoyed to being happy is changing her-his state.

12. Art should be sexy or make the artist sexy.

The audience is more likely to engage with a sexy object or person and, therefore, to be changed by the work that has sexiness associated with it.

13. Art makes special. 

This is one of my favorite definitions of art, but I still don’t think it’s the root meaning of art. It comes from the anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake’s book Homo Aestheticus. It’s a two-pronged definition:

a) Art celebrates the importance of its subject. It makes the subject special since the subject is worthy of being made into art.

b) The decoration or fine-crafting of an everyday object is art in that the artifact is now marked as special in the extra care that has gone into its creation.

Both of these kinds of “making special” also happen to be revolutions, of sorts. If human (a), the subject that is “made special” in art feels special, and, if inanimate (b), the decorated object is reconceived by the audience, a version of definition #3. The revolution associated with the well-made object is of the most profound kind: it’s the difference between using an ugly functional thing and a beautiful one.

14. Art will NEVER be about causing change. The “artist as social critic” concept failed in 1937, when Picasso painted Guernica. Neither Guernica nor a million Guernica-like paintings have ever even slowed down a war for a second, let alone stopped one.

Okay, so maybe the revolutions that art can cause are not far-reaching. Maybe art can only function in the small picture. But is it really so wrong to try to make art that could effect more universal change?

15. Art is SUBJECTIVE. Please calm down.

I’m glad I get excited about things like what I see as the over-arching definition of art. And, I agree, art is subjective: it’s subjectively causing change! Art always makes revolution, but each person can word the definition whichever way she-he sees fit.

What’s your preferred way of talking about revolution?


*Art isn’t really art until it’s seen by an audience. Defining art based solely on what the artist gets out of it is incomplete and self-important way of looking at things.

- Art is not a luxury. / L’art n’est pas un luxe.
- The role of the artist / Le rôle de l’artiste
- “An artist’s job is to tell the truth.”

CATEGORIES: - English - TOP POSTS - Philosophy -

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(11) Comments / Commentaires: The definition of art

-- Steve Wetlesen -- 2009 . 05 . 21 --

Dear Gwenn:

Thank you very much for these definitions, all of which are quite useful, and I copied them for my own private use only, not forwarding.

Let me share one thought with you. In all humility and modesty, having no sketching nor painting ability at all whatever, but aching to convey and communicate a VISUAL (as opposed to literary) aesthetic or motif, I have created a brand new genre to express this said visual perception. I use rhythmic poetic verbal cadences to communicate what my eyes are experiencing or my inner mind’s vision is imagining in a dreamy fantasy, so I have named what I do “poetic art” and dubbed myself a “Poetic Artist” complete with busienss card. NO, it is most definitely NOT poetry, though it bears a superficial resemblance, just as ice dancing looks somewhat similar to figure skating to the utterly uninitiated. It is not the same, it is utterly different on a deep level. The starting point, artistic sight versus an auditory orientation, is as unrelated as night is from day, and therefore, the result is very different.

One other thing is different as well. While most people won’t pay a dime fr poetry, however good, I make saerious commission money on poetic art, at least several a year (average price $250) for about the last dozen years or so. I have started a serious, if part time, VISUAL artistic business. I have also collaborated just a little with other visual artists.

I am NOT asking for a collaboration now (see Craigslist Rules!), just for your honest opinion as a visual artist. I value the input of progessionals like yourself.

Thank you very much.

Steve Wetlesen

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-- retro art -- 2009 . 05 . 21 --

Wow.. Huge list of Art definition. Great post! I have learned a lot about art from this post. Will visit again.

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-- texas -- 2009 . 05 . 21 --

Interesting post… Maybe you can submit to wikipidia under other definitions of art…

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-- EFAmericana -- 2010 . 08 . 11 --

how is art different from farming or hunting (for survival, not sport)?

what is unique about what we call art that requires a category of it’s own?

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-- cjy -- 2010 . 10 . 10 --

Two things :

1. Is Steve Wetlesen pulling your leg?
2. Why does art need to be defined?

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-- Gwenn -- 2010 . 10 . 10 --


Art doesn’t need to be defined, but I find that when artists are more thoughtful about what they’re doing it shows in their work.

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-- cjy -- 2010 . 10 . 10 --

If you mean thinking visually, then I agree. But thinking visually does not include intellectualizing or categorizing or defining for me. There are so many ways to approach creating and so many people doing it. There is no one size fits all when it comes to art.

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-- Madeline Bishop -- 2010 . 10 . 12 --

All of these posts remind me of Magritte’s observations about what a pipe is (or is not.)  Just bringing up the topic makes us think!

Here is a question:  Does art show itself after the creator acquires
a certain level of skill in expressing him/herself?  Or can it be created unskillfully, even by accident?  In other words, is art production both trained and intentional?  Because humans bring about change all the time, and some people who are not yet trained are quite intentional.  Do they produce “art?”  Or…. unfortunately…. “bad art?”  Or shall we say, kindly, “developing art?”  Or perhaps “art in someone else’s opinion?”

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-- Gwenn -- 2010 . 10 . 12 --

Interesting question, Madeline! 

My partner agrees with me that art is change, and his idea is that everything is art—everything just as you described, as well as everything done or made by humans.  That said, he thinks that the only art we notice is the stuff that’s done in some exceptional and/or noticeable manner. 

I like David’s concept, but I tend to be more invested in intentionality.  While it’s not always possible to know the maker’s intention for an object or activity, it seems to me that a certain purposefulness can usually be detected. 

So, in other words, YES!  I may not be a fan of the art, but if the intention seems present I won’t deny it that label.  I hold enough to the word “art” to say that it can’t be everything, but I don’t hold so much to it that I think only art that I like can be called “art.”

What do you think?

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-- me -- 2015 . 04 . 06 --

First of all, your description of art, its definition, includes artists and art lovers. Of course, this sort of bogs down any definition in a perpetual world of meaninglessness. Using art to define art (There are as many proposed definitions for art as there are artists) is kind of like witnessing the virgin birth. You can’t define art by using an artist in the definition, because you haven’t yet defined art! I could easily say, then, that since most “artists” are really not artists at all, there are actually very few definitions of art!

Perhaps art is essentially just cause and effect, action and reaction, which might or might not cause change. It may simply be a response to change.

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-- Gwenn -- 2015 . 04 . 08 --

O me, o my! To me, your definition seems so simplified as to be meaningless, whereas my definition gets me excited about making art. As far as I can tell that’s all that really matters where defining art is concerned. I hope you enjoy your “reacting” art!

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