Art by Definition

Art by Definition

It seems to be my nature to try to reduce things to their essence. I do this unconsciously. Concepts bubble away in my mind at low temperature until some quintessential expression surfaces which satisfies my need. One of the most difficult that I have ever struggled with is the concept of art. I have made my living within the art field for a considerable amount of time, and I still feel very cautious about trying to define art, or who is an artist and who is not.

Part of my difficulty comes from my training in science and engineering. These are  objective fields whereas art is subjective. In engineering, if something works … it’s right, if it doesn’t work …. it’s wrong. Degrees of right or wrong do exist, but that is the general thrust. In art there are so many individual points of view it is quite difficult to make generalized statements. Nevertheless I am compelled to try.

Art is what artists do, and conversely, an artist is a person who does art. I know that sounds so obvious that it’s silly, but if you accept this, at least we have narrowed the field semantically. Here is what my Webster’s New Collegiate says about art:

1.a: skill in performance acquired by experience, study, or observation.

b: human ingenuity in adapting natural things to man’s use.

and Webster says an artist is:

1.a: one who professes and practices an art in which conception and

execution are governed by imagination and taste.  b: a person skilled in one of the fine arts.

I rather like those, particularly the emphasis on skill and the line about “ingenuity in adapting natural things to man’s use.” But before going any further I should say that I am referring to fine art as opposed to commercial art. I’ll explore that distinction after this lament:

A trend in art schools and among the art intelligencia (professors, critics, curators, etc.) seems to urge an ever expanding definition of art. Increasingly diverse endeavors are included under this heading. In competitions where members of this group are jurors (and that is more often than not) they usually hang ribbons by works which are unusual or unexpected and therefore original, all other qualities being secondary. Craftsmanship and beauty are frequently sacrificed on this cross of originality. In their eagerness to comply, the budding young art students often create ugly, poorly executed, but unusual pieces. In fact, it often appears that what makes them so unusual is their aesthetic shortcomings. Beauty is derided as “pretty,” and craftsmanship is mere “technique” or “facility.”

Proceeding in this manner the art intelligencia has produced a definition of fine art of such breadth that it encompasses almost everything. This reductio ad absurdum (is that an oxymoron?) is diluting the whole concept of fine art. In some cases one can no longer distinguish art from a random happening, and the artist is indistinguishable from anybody else. I have also heard art defined as a process of self discovery. Again, a very broad definition, and probably true, but you might as well be speaking of life itself. Surely we can be more specific than that.

One school of thought maintains that in order for a work to be significant art, it should make a statement usually something of socially redeeming importance. I agree that art can do this, but I believe it is of secondary importance. By way of contrast, James A. McNeil Whistler, an undisputedly fine artist, composed and delivered what he called his “Ten O’clock Lecture,” which dealt at length with the subject at hand. In it he spoke of art as:

“She [art] is a goddess of dainty thought — reticent of habit, abjuring

all obtrusiveness, proposing in no way to better others.”

Instead of “statement,” I like the word “content.” A statement is best made with words in a left brained medium like writing with its capacity to be specific and express sequential development. Art makes use of images and is, therefore, right brained in nature. Art is much better for conveying or producing an immediate impression. This, in part, accounts for the difficulty of writing a comprehensive definition of art in the first place. Because of its very nature, art is easier to recognize than define.

Art critics reviewing shows try to express with words what is best done with the brush. The resulting verbal contortions are often amusing. Of course, I could be accused of attempting to do the same thing, in a general way, as I accuse the critics of doing in particular. This defining art is a tricky business. However, I will put forth my candidate definitions, but first something about purpose and skill that I believe bear on the definition.

A second school of thought is in some ways just the opposite of the “make a statement” people. The proponents maintain that an artist should never set out to do anything in particular, that serendipity should reign supreme. One should simply begin and let the vagaries of the medium suggest a path to be followed. Works accomplished in this manner have energy, vitality, and are expressive, displaying a spontaneity which is the true measure of the artist. Further, those who begin work with an intended purpose are not really producing fine art, but instead are making illustrations, and are consequently lowered in status to illustrators.

This approach, carried to its logical conclusion, produced the abstract expressionists. I do not deny the validity of this approach as I have seen fine works accomplished in this manner. Works of the abstract expressionists can be decorative and pleasing to the eye, but often lack content. One of the largest markets for such work is the decoration of corporate and government offices. Because of its lack of content, it can be hung in the lobby of their headquarters without running the risk of offending anyone.

The trouble with being guided primarily by serendipity is it minimizes forethought. On this planet forethought is a uniquely human quality. Products of forethought, or planning, have characteristics which are easily recognizable. A chimpanzee can paint with energy and vitality. His efforts might even be called expressive, but only a human being can create a work of art in which another human being can ascertain a reasoned thought process or purpose.

Many works by abstract expressionists have the look of something found in nature. “Organic” is a term often used to describe them. I have seen slices from a moss agate or enlargements of photos taken through a microscope that could easily pass for a painting by an abstract expressionist. To the extent that a work of art resembles a random happening I am bothered by the lack of human content. I like art which speaks of the artist, art that reflects the humanity of its creator. Art is, after all, something that is done by human beings.


How many times have you heard a person standing in front of a large abstract painting say, “Oh, I could do that.” The usual retort is, “Maybe, but you didn’t.”

Unfortunately, a large degree of truth exists in such spontaneous reactions. The abstract expressionist loses his uniqueness as an artist and human being. His skill is not readily apparent. In essence, the medium becomes the artist and the artist simply an applicator and that is something that most people can do.

Human endeavors are recognizable as human endeavors because they display intelligent purpose. When an archeologist goes into the field to search for evidence of ancient human presence, how does he know when he has found it? He knows when he sees the randomness of natural elements ordered in some way to serve a purpose. The particular purpose may not be apparent, it may be symbolic, but the fact that a purpose was involved is easily recognizable. The archeologist suspects  that human beings were present, even if only several stones are found in a straight line. When gazing at the night sky the human eye is quickly drawn to Orion’s Belt for the same reason. Three stars of equal magnitude, evenly spaced, in a straight line, it looks like the work of the human mind. Consequently, I see no harm in approaching a work of art with purpose. Serendipity is a valuable tool and it will add spontaneity to a piece, but it should not allow the medium to overrule the artist.

At this point I should separate art from other human activity. Art, fine art, tends to be symbolic rather than functional. It often tends to represent something rather than be something. It attempts to capture an essence. But that is not quite enough. It must also do this so as to create a harmony of its various aspects and elements. I suspect this relates to the structure of the human brain. Certain patterns and combinations seem to fit our brains better than others. A tune is more pleasing than a kitten on the keys.

If all artists are human beings, are all human beings artists? I think not. Since all human characteristics are distributed on a bell curve or normal distribution, some human beings will be better at creating the “fit” than others and they are the artists. It’s all a matter of degree, of course, and it’s entirely possible that no human is completely devoid of this ability, but the difference from one end of the spectrum to the other is pronounced enough to deserve a word to describe those with the ability, and that word is “artist.”

The skill or talent of an artist is most apparent when he or she displays control over the medium. When, through innate ability and/or experience, artists are capable of causing the medium to serve their purpose, it will be readily apparent to the observer. Works produced in this manner will have content. They will say what the artist intended, and they will say something about the artist.

Control over the medium can be carried too far, of course, resulting in a stiff or slick look, but most of the shortcomings I see are in the other direction. After all, mastering composition, perspective, light, form, and color takes time and effort, not to mention the handling characteristics of a particular medium. Many people would like to “leap frog” the whole process, but as an art teacher friend of mine is fond of saying, “the only way out is through.”

As for difference between fine art and commercial art, the distinction is fairly clear. When the artist selects the image, medium and content, then he or she is at least attempting fine art. How fine it is will depend on the artist. When someone else pays the artist to produce what they want, the result is commercial art. As usual, a considerable gray area exists. For example, where do you place a portrait artist? The art intelligencia will often stretch the term “commercial” to include any work an artist undertakes with an eye toward its eventual sale. They feel that the selection by the artist of a popular subject matter or style sacrifices the all important originality. By scorning popular subject matter and style as “commercial” and thus removing popularity with the art buying public as a measure of merit, the art intelligencia is able to control the nature of art that will eventually receive critical acclaim.


Pity the plight of the fine art student. Perhaps in high school they discover that they enjoy creating in art classes, and maybe an innate ability reveals itself. Consequently, they decide to become a fine arts major in college. There they encounter the avante garde of the art world who direct their efforts toward the unusual and bizarre. Upon graduation, they are focused on what is probably the smallest segment of the art market, which, in total, is too small for them all anyway. And whereas all of their fellow students were prepared by the university to survive financially in their chosen field, just the reverse is true for them. Plenty of exceptions to this scenario exist, of course, but it is a common enough story. The lucky will find work in related fields as art teachers, curators, critics, etc., where, if they persist, they may eventually become part of the art intelligencia and thus perpetuate the cycle. I once read in an editorial of a national fine arts magazine that less than one percent of those formally trained in fine art actually make a living selling their work. It is something that I have never been able to accomplish.

I started this discourse with the intent of creating a comprehensive definition of art. Along the way, I realized the impossibility of that task and I spun off on a few tangents while developing a rationale, but now I feel the need to carry through. Here are my candidates for the great art definition competition:

Art is a skillful arrangement of elements assembled by a human being to produce a symbolic essence of the human experience.

An artist is a human being who possesses the skill to arrange elements in an order that produces a symbolic essence of the human experience.

These are inadequate, I know, but they are the best I could do. . . .  with words.

“The things we deal with in life are usually too complicated

to be represented by neat, compact expressions . . .”

“. . . in any case, one must not mistake defining things for

knowing what they are.”

Marvin Minsky

R.L. Mason

On the road in Alaska, 1986

Revised 2007

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Monday, February 23rd, 2009 Art by Definition 1 Comment