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Humanities LibreTexts

1.S: What is Art? (Summary)

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    When studying a subject, it is important to have a working definition of that subject. Our subject is art. The four historical attempts at defining art surveyed here each had limitations. Ancient Greek mimesis excluded art that does not re-present objects. Tolstoy’s communication theory is unverifiable and is spectator-dependent, Bell’s significant form is circular reasoning, and Dickie’s Artworld theory is about who has the power to decide what art is, not about art itself. The operating definition of art used in this text is “from the mind into the world.” The images used in this survey are considered works of art. It is the task of the student to be able to recognize, analyze, and interpret works of art, and to integrate this understanding into a coherent worldview. The purpose of this effort at understanding is to practice recognizing value in new and diverse forms of visual art. One end result is to then have a greater appreciation of and to simply enjoy looking at art.

    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.


    Architecture: the design and construction of buildings or other complex structures.

    Artworld theory of art: an approach to defining art as whatever the artworld says it is.

    Catharsis: the process of releasing pent up emotion resulting in personal change.

    Circumambulate: to “walk around”—a ritual practice of circling a sacred site, following a set path either inside or outside of a structure.

    Communication theory of art: an approach to defining art as a transfer of feeling from artist to spectator.

    Convention: group consensus about the way something is usually done.

    Icon: a person or thing regarded as representative of something, often religious.

    Institutional theory of art: another name for the Artworld theory of art.

    Labyrinth: similar to a maze, but generally has only one intricate and twisting path to the center.

    Mimesis: an approach to defining art as a copy of perceived reality.

    Monument: a statue or other structure meant to commemorate a famous person or event.

    Mural: a work of art executed directly on a wall.

    Relic: an object thought to have belonged to or been part of a holy person’s body.

    Secular: lacking in religious or spiritual content, not bound by religious rule.

    Significant Form: an approach to defining art as what we notice.

    Symbolism: the use of images to represent ideas or qualities.

    Trompe l’oeil: art so realistic that it “fools the eye.”

    Zeuxis and Parhassios: an ancient Greek myth about two competing painters who vie for the title of greatest artist by copying reality most faithfully

    Test Yourself

    1. List and describe the four ways stated in the text in which people have defined art in the past.

    2. Briefly re-state the operating definition of art for this text.

    3. What is the significance of the ancient Greek myth of Zeuxis and Parhassios?

    4. What do each of the four historical definitions of art reveal of how people thought about where truth is to be found?

    5. Draw parallels between the sea snail shell necklace of c. 100,000 BCE and modern practices of personal decoration, for example, a pearl necklace.

    6. Speculate about why images might be important in non-literate cultures? What might be one concern about images used in religious rituals? Can you identify an example of a non-religious icon other than the one noted in the text?

    7. Speculate about why most early American federal buildings were built using classical Greek and Roman columns and imposing stone facades. Why were buildings in the twentieth century built with little reference to the architecture of classical antiquity? What ideas were lost and what ideas were gained with this shift in architecture?

    8. Consider the change in the conventional presentation of public monuments by comparing how the monuments of Verrocchio and Rodin are presented, one on a high pedestal, the other at ground level. What does this change suggest about changing ideas about the heroic and monumental?

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