Enter “What is art?” into any search engine and a multitude of similarly worded statements will appear. Ask a group of ninth graders the same question, as I do several time each year, and the answers will range from discipline specific “Art’s, like, a painting,” to the glittering generality, “Everything is art.” Encouraged to distill their thoughts further, words similar to those from the internet search emerge. Art is a human activity, an expression, an exercise of creativity and imagination played across various disciplines. Painting, drawing, and sculpture come first, but music, theater, dance, and some form of creative writing follow fairly quickly.

Listing the student responses on a whiteboard provides a better understanding. Some, however, still hold “art can be anything and anything can be art” – as if all human endeavor, done well, merits consideration as a candidate for art. At this point, I find it necessary to quote a few lines from The Incredibles. Helen is explaining to Dash why it is unfair for him to compete with his normal peers. “Everyone’s special, Dash,” she says, but Dash disappointingly mutters “Which is another way of saying no one is.”

Albert Zahn Hessian

Seated Hessian
Albert Zahn (1864-1953)
Polychrome Carved Wood, circa 1940’s
Private Collection

They get my point, and this is why I ask such questions. I want our students to challenge every assumption they have about art. I want them to know that the answers we give to simple questions, not only names our place of understanding, but also provides the keys to our future learning  by challenging the fundamental conclusions we no longer think to doubt. This is why the question “What is art?” is a good one. Regardless of what we think we know, no set of lenses is complete.

One way to challenge commonly held definitions of art is to view art not as an abstract idea or a physical entity, but as a means of social interaction, because if art has anything to do with being human, it will be rooted in our biology.

Every living thing has the power of communication. Birds call to birds, whales send sonar waves to other whales, dogs mark trees with scent, even fungi communicate to others of their species, if only for the sake of reproduction. Humans, as the dominant species on the planet, share – sometimes unwittingly – many of these basic forms of communication. Unique among living things, though, we humans have evolved additional ways of sharing ideas and concepts. From pictographic cave drawings to internet memes, human interaction is varied and complex. Regardless of how complex it becomes, it is the biological need for communication that is important.

So, here is a statement about people which I believe is generally true: If something is important, important enough to express in a meaningful way, people, more often than not, will carefully plan both the content of the message and its means of delivery. Outlines, bullet points, and drafts help us select just the right words to give voice to our intentions. The timing of delivery, the moment of sharing, the right environment, all are important in getting the optimal response from the intended receiver. Artists, being people, are no different in this respect. However, whether poets, musicians, dancers, actors, or visual artists, they also have the option of communicating through their art.

Painter’s paint, dancers dance, and sculptors sculpt. Vocalists sing, actors act, and performance artists perform.  It is as simple as that. Art is the talk of artists, the way in which they speak best. And, this provides us with a clue to answering the question, “What is art?” from a slightly different perspective. Given the above, at its most basic, art is a sharing, a way in which artists communicate to others.

C DePasse002

È tenebris deforme Chaos
Crispin de Passe (1589-1637)
Engraving, 1602
Private Collection

Given this, it would be appropriate to entertain a question about the necessary components of art. It is obvious artists make art, but what of the audience, is their presence important? We can consider this with the help of an old philosophical query: “If a tree falls on an uninhabited island, does it make a sound?”  The logic of physics would suggest with air, gravity, and falling tree, all being present, sound would occur. However, if no human ear could objectively verify the presence of sound, because the waves created by the falling tree never reached something designed to sense it, the ever so slim chance of trees falling silently should be considered.

Pharaoh being greeted by the Goddess Isis

Pharaoh Being Greeted by the Goddess Isis
Funerary Jar Fragment
Egg Tempera on Wood, circa 100 BCE
Private Collection

In like fashion, if an artist paints a picture and no one ever sees it, has art happened? Is a painting, never viewed, art? Logic, again, would conclude the existence of an artwork would make it art. However, if a composer wrote a piece of music and placed it in a closet, would this be art? This may be a case of mental gymnastics but its consideration leads us to an important observation: the process of art finds completeness only when it involves the action of the artist, an artwork, and an audience. This sharing between artists and audience is the nexus central to the process of art. Any ideas of historical importance, critical understanding, or aesthetic purpose begin here.

This gets us closer to defining art, but we should not stop here. If art is the action of an artist experienced by an audience, then the first question we might begin to ask of any artwork is, “what is the artist saying?” Answering this question involves identification of the subject of the artwork.  Every artwork, even those lacking identifiable objects, has a subject. In the parlance of art, the subject is the stimulus that provokes the artist to creative action. It is what the artwork is about. It may be as simple as the name of the person in a portrait, like George Washington, or as complex as a philosophical concept, like nihilism. The subject may even be the act of creating the work itself. Identifying the subject helps to determine what the artist is thinking about the subject, or, to put it simply, what ideas they have about the subject at hand.

Ideation is the process of forming and relating the content of thought about a subject.  Ideas, even those filtered or formed through cultural norms or group efforts, originate in the individual and evolve from a synthesis of many components: objective sight, subjective thoughts, memories, and imaginative ventures. Ideation is not to be confused with originality.  Not all ideas are original thoughts. Often ideas are combinations of well-known components that project a sense of novelty or newness. This is perhaps why the Hebrew Scriptures remind us that there is “nothing new under the sun.” There are, however, new ways of looking at what we know.


Las Cargrueras
Jeronimo Mateo (1936-2015)
Oil on Canvas, 2001
Culver Art Collection, Gift of J. Brooks Family

Therefore, the question “What is art?” can be answered very simply: Art is the communication of an idea, about a subject, by an artist, through an artwork, to an audience. Whether the artwork is a print by a 17th century engraver or a painting by a 21st century Mexican painter, all art is a basic sharing from one person to another. The caveat for artists is that ideas do not always translate clearly beyond the intended audience. On a basic human level, however, since the elements of line, shape, and color are universal, the path to appreciation has multiple access points, though the message may be lost. Even the patterns, shapes and colors woven into an object as geometric as a Navajo blanket, though rooted in the cultural memory and imagination of an artist working within the tradition of the Navajo, can be appreciated as a work of art. However, here is where the study of art history has its importance to the quality of the experience: only those who have developed an understanding of the societal values of the particular period in Navajo culture will be able to go beyond the visible and see something of the mind of the artist.

3rd phase navajo 2

Third Phase Traditional Blanket
Anonymous Navajo Weaver
Wool, circa 1890-1900
Culver Art Collection, Gift of Dr. Samuel DiBona

Given this approach to art, what response can we give? We can start by asking better questions of the artwork we encounter and allow these questions to help us identify new questions to ask of other artworks. We can recognize the importance of our place in the process of art and increase the depth of our appreciation for works of art beyond formal concerns. Lastly, we can recognize the connection between the artist’s voice speaking to the culture in which they lived, and the culture in which the art work survives today. All art has the ability to communicate; some will even cross the expanse of space and time to provide sustenance to the present. Let those who have eyes, listen.

Posted by theunintendedcurator

My name is Bob Nowalk. I am a Master Instructor Emeritus of Culver Academies, a college preparatory boarding school in Culver Indiana. Having retired at the conclusion of the 2022 school year, I plan to continue working to share stories about art, artists, and the creative process through this blog and the exhibitions at The Unintended Curator Gallery at 114 North Main Street in Culver, Indiana. Please follow us on facebook for current offerings. Thanks for visiting.

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