Is this art?

A view from a hill on an island. There's rock and trees in the front and forest-covered small island in the sea in the back.
This view in Pensar reminds me of certain famous Finnish paintings.

Sometimes when people encounter a creative work that challenges them, they ask “is this art?” and struggle to answer. To find a satisfying answer, you need to go beyond that question.

Epistemic status: Armchair philosophy.

I’m not going to give an all-encompassing definition of art, but the word is used in at least two senses:

  1. Art as in artwork: Creative works made with the intention of expressing ideas and skill and affecting emotions.
  2. Art as in artful: Works that are skillful and aesthetic.

When somebody says that “this piece of code is a work of art”, they usually mean the latter (there are exceptions). When you refer to the body of work by an artist, you mean the former, although the latter might apply as well. The trouble starts when you conflate these two meanings.

Some famous (if dated) works that raise the question of what is art are Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain and John Cage’s 4'33". That is just as well – they were meant to do that. They both are art in the former sense, but are they skillful? Considering their fame, I’d say yes, but the skills they demonstrate are different from the usual kind of sculpture and composition.

The word art is too loaded and leads to frustrating discussions. If a creative work has been created with artistic intention, why not just accept that it is art or at least analyze like it was art? Then you can continue to more interesting questions to poke at its artistic merits. For example:

  • Does it evoke emotions?
  • Does it convey a message?
  • Does it interest you?
  • Is it boring, or imaginative, or beautiful, or hidesome, or funny?
  • Was it made skillfully?
  • Why did the author make it?
  • Why was it exhibited or performed?

Comments or questions? Send me an e-mail.