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Humanities Libertexts

1: What is Art?

  • Page ID
    10107
  • Learning Objectives

    After completing this chapter, you should be able to:

    • Recognize various historical arguments about the definition of art and who is an artist.
    • Engage arguments that distinguish between art and craft.
    • Critically evaluate claims about whether an object is or is not art from multiple points of view.
    • Engage questions about who is considered an artist and the role of the viewer.
    • Productively speculate about various reasons why people have made and continue to make art.
    • Recognize your intuitive understanding of art, and potentially build a broader, more comprehensive view of the nature and definition of visual art, one which incorporates historically and culturally diverse art objects and answers conceptual challenges.

    • 1.1: Introduction
      Wherever we find human beings, we find visual art. Works of visual art raise questions not only about our ancestors, but also about the nature of visual art itself. What is art? Who is an artist? Why do artists make art? What is the role of the viewer? Does everything count as art? How have people defined art through time? How do we define art today? In this chapter, we will examine these questions in more detail.
    • 1.2: What is Visual Art?
      The idea of art has developmentally progressed from human prehistory to the present day. Changes to the definition of art over time can be seen as attempts to resolve problems with earlier definitions. The ancient Greeks saw the goal of visual art as copying, or mimesis. Nineteenth-century art theorists promoted the idea that art is communication: it produces feelings in the viewer. In the early twentieth century, the idea of significant form was proposed as a definition of art.
    • 1.3: Who is Considered an Artist? What Does it Mean to be an Artist?
      In much of the world today, an artist is considered to be a person with the talent and the skills to conceptualize and make creative works. Such persons are singled out and prized for their artistic and original ideas. Their art works can take many forms and fit into numerous categories, such as architecture, ceramics, digital art, drawings, mixed media, paintings, photographs, prints, sculpture, and textiles.
    • 1.4: The Role of the Viewer
      As the viewer of art, then, we are often aware that we do not have full knowledge of what the artist intended or, at times, even what the artist depicted. Not having that information, however, is not necessarily frustrating nor does it dampen our enjoyment of the piece. Instead, we may find the colors vibrant, or the subject intriguing, or the composition relaxing; in other words, we may simply enjoy looking at the work of art without feeling the need for particulars about it or the artist.
    • 1.5: Why do We Make Art?
      Some of the earliest evidence of recognizable human activity includes not only practical things like stone tools and fire pits, but also decorative objects used for personal adornment.
    • 1.6: Concepts Explored in Later Chapters
    • 1.S: What is Art? (Summary)
      Art is found wherever we find human beings. Art fulfills a basic human need for expression. This need can be sub-divided into personal needs and needs of the community. Personal needs include art created for delight, decoration, for political and religious devotion, and for personal catharsis. Communal needs can include architecture, monuments, murals, and religious and secular icons.

    Thumbnail: Burghers of Calais, Artist: Auguste Rodin, Image used with permission (CC BY 3.0, "Razimantv”)

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