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What is Art?

What is Art?

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The city of Calgary has experienced a large number of complaints about the newly installed public sculpture entitled Traveling Light (scroll down for links about the sculpture) Due to the strong polarization of opinions form local and national citizens, “what is art” has become a hot topic at local coffee shops and office water coolers. The discussion of “What is art?” has come up for me many times with friends, artists, lawyers, doctors, physiotherapists, the postman, neighbors, art critics, and collectors. Everyone claims to have a definition of art. Everyone’s definition of art seems to be a little bit different depending on his or her own experiences, knowledge base and personal aesthetics. I’ve also noticed there is a strong inclination to want to judge the art. Is the art good or bad? What makes the artwork good or bad?

Few topics generate such controversy apart from politics or religion!

Is it possible to define art? Has the definition or purpose of art changed throughout the centuries? There are several ways to go about defining art. I was taught that art was the communication of ideas in visual form. The Oxford dictionary states that art is the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

I think that we’ve all heard Gauguin’s definition of art as “either plagiarism or revolution.” or Andy Warhol’s words, “Art is what you can get away with.” Is there so much confusion because there’s really no consensus within the art community itself? Maybe we can’t come up with a lasting definition because art is constantly changing.

Religion took on a key role within the visual arts for hundreds of years. Religious leaders wanted to convey ideas to the people and they did this through commissioning artists. The Renaissance emphasized skill level and beauty while most works of art were still commissioned by the church or by the aristocracy. Artists were commissioned to communicate the ideas of their client and therefore didn’t have total artistic freedom. There was an expectation to make the client happy. As art movements evolved over the centuries, the purpose for creating art changed. Artists began to challenge old ways of working and to use their creative abilities to spark new ideas and styles.

Skip ahead through all the isms such as Impressionism, Cubism, Realism, Structuralism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and Conceptual work. With each movement came different intentions–diverse reasons for creating the artwork. Is one better or worse than the other? I think that there are things we can learn from each of these movements.

So why has the definition of art and its quality become such a hot topic? Does contemporary artwork fail to connect with the viewer? Is it because there’s a lack of understanding? Perhaps there is a common way that people are wired to see and appreciate creative ideas and beauty?

Maybe it’s enough that each of us interpret what the artist presents; love it or hate it, it is art and we are all richer for having taken the journey. ~Jean Pederson

• Pricey sculpture nicknamed ‘The Big O’ raises ire of taxpayers
• Artists Defend Traveling Light Public Art Sculpture Widely Panned By Calgary

Learn more from Mixed Media Artist Jean Pederson
• Mixed Media Painting Workshop: Explore Mediums, Techniques, and the Personal Artistic Journey (book or download)
• Expressive Portraits: Watercolor and Mixed Media Techniques (paperback)
• Wet Glazing Watercolor Portrait (DVD)
• Watercolor Artist, August 2011: Create the illusion of depth in your paintings with these simple tips and helpful illustrations of linear and aerial perspective. (article)
• See her work at

Watch the video: Brian Eno - What is Art actually for? (August 2022).