But is it art?

Hardly a new question. And certainly a meme in its own right: so much so that artworthiness has not only been comically contemplated in the British hit series, Absolutely Fabulous, but even locally long before the days of Edwina and Patsy.

Several high profile works, contemporary and classic, continue to bring up the question of their status as real artworks. The recent drama surrounding the painting by Cape Town’s Mr Brett Murray culminated in a court hearing. I was disappointed to note that the discussions around the big question, How far may art push the boundaries? were pretty thin. But once this question is thrashed out properly, it will mean that we shall also need a super-duper definition of what constitutes art. Which brings us right back to that old bugbear meme.

So, if the problem of what is and what isn’t a work of art can’t be solved once and for all by a magnificent set of clear thinkers such as yourselves, I’m afraid it never will. So lets hear it. :slight_smile:


Here at work we’ve got an on-site art gallery, and twice a year or so they display new artwork with a discreet (sometimes very) price nudged somewhere on a corner. They like doing “cultural” stuff here. Anyhows, I love to go browse once they set up, some of the most amazing things are displayed in the name of art, and the prices requested for the items are an amusement in itself. I often suspect that it shouldnt be called “art” but rather “sarcasm”. Last year we had a plaster of paris pig sitting on a toilet seat on the back of a tortoise which sported ears like a bunny’s and the pig was hanging onto that with human hands. Lets imagine a combination of Orwell, Lewis Caroll and Pratchett.

What constitutes art? Beats me, its like beauty, strictly in the eye of the beholder.

Exactly … good art is awesome to behold. Little else has the potential to move us like the artistic expressions of anoter human being. Its great that your workplace takes an interest in such things. I can’t recall that we were ever much bothered with art acquisitions during my years in industry … and the paint industry at that! ;D

Then who would you say determines the artistic value of a work: the members of the public because they (on average) do or don’t like it, or the creator because he says that it is art, and art is what artists do?


Art is whatever is presented as such. The real question is whether any particular work is any good. Yes, a figurine of Christ submerged in urine, or a jewel-encrusted skull, or an artist’s unmade bed, is art. But is it worth the millions that get forked out for it?

Well what is anything “worth”? What you’re willing to pay for it. If someone markets something that people aren’t willing to pay for, it’s a short interval before that item is no longer on the market, be it art or anything else. Many things in this world are sold not according to their inherent “worth” but according to what people are willing to pay for it. We’re often willing to pay more for even the cheapest of items if it is convenient for us to pay more at the time (Like picking something up late on a sunday at the local garage-bound woolies).

Much the same the artist does set the price, but if there’s no-one who considers that item to be worth that money, he’s going to sit with a white elephant. The moment somebody does pay the money, it was worth it, to that person. The problem is usually finding that person.

However that raises another question. Is monetary value not an arbitrary yardstick to be measuring artistic value? Perhaps someone out there creates the ultimate expression of art, but no-one understands it, or values it, and thus it is monetarily “worthless”. However still a valid (perhaps profound) expression of art.

I’ve stood at length in galleries pondering the profundity of a certain work of art only to have someone else look at it, go “Hahaha that’s funny”, and walk away. So I was seeing something this person wasn’t, or he understood the piece better than me. That’s why in art, for me, there are no absolute judges.

I’m making the assumption that we all want to see artists operate without fear of their works being censored or otherwise tampered with, and that artistic endeavours should enjoy total freedom of expression. However, if art is to enjoy these privileges, as the outcome of The Spear hearing regrettably failed to conclude, then what is to stop anyone from simply labeling a defamatory or other legally dodgy creation or writings as “art”?

I think this is without a doubt the case. Legions of works are only fully appreciated after the artist’s death. Also, an appreciation of a work’s beauty, or its successful appeal to our emotions and intellect, does not necessarily equate to an urge to purchase it. Immediate monetary value, to me, is a poor measure of artistic value.

So I was seeing something this person wasn't, or he understood the piece better than me.
Even though I'm generally a bit of a philistine in that I know little about things cultural, I am, like everyone else, aware of what I like and every so often a work will leave my quite emotional. But my taste often does not reflect that of others: if I am in the vicinity, I will probably pop in to see the Mona Lisa, unless there's a queue. ;)


It is worth noting how many times the word skill occurs in association with the definition of art in the Oxford Dictionary. I particularly like this definition: “Skilful execution as an object in itself”. In this respect I am old fashioned and do not have a high regard for conceptual art that is all concept and no skill. As a matter of fact I suspect that this trend in art has evolved because of a lack of skill. I have a particular admiration for stone sculpturing where the artist cannot cover up mistakes.

Yes, but skill in what? What about skill in conceptual ideas? There are many highly skilled wild life or landscape artists, but their art is seldom very interesting (I’d battle to remember any of it after moving on to the next painting). I prefer art that has some effect on my often staid point of view, that makes me think a bit about my understanding of the world. Conceptual art attempts to do that, I think. Skill will probably make it more palatable.

An artist who cannot compose a concept would of course just be a copy artist. When one disposes of the requirement for skill in execution, the art is incomplete. There are forms of art where conceptual development and execution are split between parties, such as the architect and the builder. Both skills are needed to complete the building. In my mind a work of art requires more than just an original idea and I suspect that the artistic society are getting away with incompetence due to a public not insisting on skill in execution.

I’m sure this is true, but it has probably been true for quite a while (only not saying always as I’m not sure at what point art became art). It’s now possible to buy art ideas on ebay from reputable (however you’d like to interpret that) artists. I wonder what becomes of the ‘art’ if you are more skilled than the seller and render their idea in a way that they’d never be able to. And I can also imagine that artists would attempt to create an artwork that will sell for a ridiculous price (e.g. diamond encrusted skull?) where the art is not in the object but in the reaction to the ridiculous price. Not sure if I’m making sense here. Just sort of meandering…

Perhaps the issue has to do with the fact that we want to put a (monetary) value on something, and skill is perhaps easier to notice than concept?

What are the emperor’s new clothes worth? In one sense, it is exactly as you say: they’re worth a lot because the emperor was willing to pay a lot. In another sense, it is clear that the emperor allowed himself to be conned. I suspect tat with a lot of art, we have the emperor’s new clothes all over again: nobody is willing to say it’s a load of crap, simply out of fear of appearing to be an unsophisticated philistine.

However that raises another question. Is monetary value not an arbitrary yardstick to be measuring artistic value?

Somewhat, yes.I think the best yardstick is a work’s longevity: we call those works masterpieces that remain popular over many different centuries and cultures. They have a certain whatever-it-is that manages to speak to many people from many different backgrounds. But of course, in this the emperor’s clothes effect might also be at work and the Paris Hilton effect, i.e. works that become famous for being famous. It can be difficult to untangle these various influences on a work’s popularity, though I like to think that over the centuries the cream will rise to the top.

Perhaps someone out there creates the ultimate expression of art, but no-one understands it, or values it, and thus it is monetarily "worthless". However still a valid (perhaps profound) expression of art.

It is not clear to me how a work can be said to be great if it leaves everyone cold. :slight_smile:

Any ass can come up with 50 conceptual ideas in a week; everything lies in the execution. Shakespeare isn’t great because of the stories (many of which are pretty humdrum), but because of HOW he told them.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that technique is literally everything. I know what you mean: even very finely executed paintings can somehow still be very forgettable. And perhaps, for some people a weird installation of a pickled cow in an otherwise empty room (or whatever) may elicit some powerful response. It tends not to do much for me.

Bouguereau is technically breathtaking, but many modern viewers find his work cloyingly sentimental. It is commonly dismissed as “mere illustration,” though it is not clear to me that there can be anything “mere” about this:

By comparison, Van Gogh’s work is technically crude but enjoys great popularity; it has a certain expressive force to it that somehow manages to speak to many viewers despite the relatively simple technique:

But now I wonder: can something like Tracy Emin’s “My unmade bed” (which consisted of exactly that: her unmade bed) even begin to compare to either of the above paintings? Yes, it has a certain zany originality to it. But how difficult is it really to dream up concepts like that? What do they mean anyway? What’s the point other than to try to out-outrageous all other artists? What kind of training is really required to come up with such stuff?

Or, in a nutshell, the answer to the question of what art is, is, “A certain mix within a fairly wide window of possibilities of consensus and controversy.”

The extremes of “yes” or “no” in relation to a given work of purported art are merely endpoints on a continuous scale from 0 to 1, neither of which endpoints is conclusively attainable because of the essential and insurmountable subjectivity of the decision. It’s a waste of time aiming at a definitive answer without a much deeper understanding of how the human mind/brain works. Some of humanity’s greatest minds have wrestled with this question.





It’s interesting how “what is art?” has become such a common question. There really is so much out there, but it does seem to have become a rather “cliquey” affair. Personally I feel monetary value is the worst yardstick for measuring the true value of art. Modern art especially seems centered more around eccentricity and shock value than around any kind of skill.
I once remarked to a highschool art-class classmate that went on to study art at varsity, that the art-world seems to have become an “industry” very similar to the music industry, where there are a lot of fakers and “industry manufactured” artists, with only a few great talents sprinkled inbetween. In many cases an artist gains noteriety only because one of the movers & shakers of the industry took a shine to them. Other times it’s pure novelty, where the artist’s background or peculiar style (or age) plays more of a role than any kind of skill.
I used to think that it was about conveying emotion, which should be easy for a master of any craft. Whatever the emotion might be, having the skill to create something that induces a similar feeling in others is what defines an artist. And the method used should be a question of which medium and style would best accomplish that.
It’s like a story I heard about Abdullah Ibrahim: he apparently said that only Jazz musicians are real musicians, to which someone else (the name escapes me) replied that he only thinks so because all he can do is Jazz. (I’m not entirely sure how much truth there is to that story. Muso’s can be pretty mean. But it has a point though.)
Perhaps art is the same in that regard. I know some of my favourite artists, like Picasso, Dahli, and Bacon, were perfectly capable of producing a normal portrait/still-life in other mediums, they just chose to use a style that they felt best suited what they were trying to convey.
As for Brett Murray’s “Spear”, I thouht the concept was great, but there were probably better ways of executing it other than the slap-dash looking application of cartoonish genetalia where a loose belt buckle and open zipper (a-la Zapiro) woul have conveyed the message just as strongly. Hasty addition perhaps, or I’m just being unnecesarily critical. Either way, its noteriety alone has turned it into somewhat of an icon. You can’t buy publicity like that…

From the posts so far it follows that, at the very least,:

An artwork is an intentional artificial arrangement

An objective qualifier. Clearly natural wonders and events are out. Accidental works submitted post hoc are also out. For example, the unmade bed mentioned earlier must be made unmade, not simply discovered that way. An exhibition of blank canvasses qualifies. Score a= 0 or 3.

skillfully executed

Still a fairly objective criterion. Score the compliment of the fraction of the adult population capable of essentially reproducing the work using the same methods and materials, s = 0 to 1.

aimed at affecting an observer emotionally

Emotional response to the work would be the first subjective part. It could conceivably be measured by considering the responses of say, 30 individuals right after exposing them to the work. Score e= 0 to 1.

and in a desirable manner

Also subjective, desirability is not only meant in the commercial sense of acquiring the work, but also in that the largest part of the population must be pleased that work was created in the first place. Lobbing a housebrick into a crowd of people will probably not qualify as art, because even though the emotional reponse may be intense, the population is unlikely to find the work desirable. In addition, it will also score low in the “skills” department. Score d= 0 to 1.

such that a + s + e + d > 4,5

Seems it does boil down to voting! ::slight_smile:


I have found that I have a more intrigued response to artworks that are ‘old’. Something I know shouldn’t be, but is.

One time I stood in a gallery admiring a quite ordinary painting of a croissant, some grapes, table setting, etc… executed beautifully. But what struck me was the vividness of that painting, calling out to me from across the ages. I noticed the details, the construction of table, the tablecloth… all transporting me back in time to another era. Did the artist ever contemplate that 100’s of years later a man “from the future” would be standing there contemplating back at his thoughts, techniques, setting, etc? More intriguingly, people from the same era wouldn’t have given subject a second thought. Moreover, there is probably a lot of art out there that we don’t give a second thought, but which may appeal to people in the distant future much more, due to it reflecting our age.

Arty people like to carry on about the importance of the “provenance” of a piece, and I do think it does make a difference to the appreciation of a work. Not so?

It’s upwards of 1.3 million times as complicated as that…


ugh, back to the real world then… :slight_smile:

What about illustration, which is often intended to be accurate rather than to elicit an emotional response? I find that if it is very well executed, it sometimes elicits an emotional response anyway, in the same way that any display of technical virtuosity will. But the whole intention of the paintings of birds or plants in your field guide is to allow you to recognize them, not to convey any deeper meaning. Yet, at least to me, they are often more magnificent as art than most of what I see in galleries nowadays.

It shouldn’t make a difference, but I guess it does, looking at some old painting and realizing that this was touched by the master’s hand, and viewed by people who would find our age utterly alien. Still, there is too much hype about that too, e.g. the way in which an old painting suddenly acquires or loses value if it is discovered that it was/wasn’t made by some big name in art. Goya’s “The colossus” comes to mind. Well, not by Goya, as it turned out, and now suddenly its monetary value has plummeted and it has been demoted in general. But I think it is a pretty neat piece of painting, Goya or not. If it was great work before we discovered it’s not his, then why is it suddenly no longer a great work when we discover it isn’t his?

This effect is of course even more marked in modern art, where the “my four year-old kid could do that”-effect is at play. With such works, their ONLY is the signature on them.