When we first started drawing, there was no intention to it. There was a tool, and there was an effect of using it, but it didn't matter—the process itself was fun! Then, either you were told your pictures were beautiful and felt great because of it, or you heard someone else being told it—and felt jealous. Another value has been added to this process—the value of a finished picture.
But how is this value defined? In the modern world we often hear about some weird abstract painting being sold for millions of dollars. How can it be worth that much, when nobody wants to buy your half-realistic drawings? They're surely more beautiful than a few colorful lines on a dotted background, right? How is it possible your art is called ugly, and theirs is being praised above the moon?
To answer these questions we'll need to define art itself. This is going to be a difficult, maybe even impossible task. But how can art exist as something in our world without a definition? Even if it can, in some magic way, how can we discuss the value of art when everyone has something different in mind? It would be like a "cat vs. dog" discussion, where the anti-cat person is
really talking about a spider. So, maybe there is a definition? Let's find out!
What Is Art... for You?
There's one thing I know for sure—art is subjective. Its definition is created in one's mind and doesn't need to have anything to do with the definitions of others. However, there must be something linking them all. Otherwise, how could it even be a topic?
Let's start as objectively as possible. There's only one way to do it—go back in time, before all these various media we've got today. Let's see how art was born!
Art and Craft
Humans are unique among animals because of our ability to create things. Through the ages we've learned that various people can master various crafts and then trade the products—this way everyone could use things they couldn't have made themselves. These products were what everyone needed in their life—a house, a bed, a bowl, a candle, a horse saddle... Therefore, craftsmen fulfilled the basic needs of a growing civilization.
There's another human trait that made art—and science!—possible. We never have enough. You don't want to sleep on a cold floor—you want a bed. Your bed isn't comfortable—you want something bigger, softer. Your bed is big, with soft padding—you want something that will be easier to clean. Your bed is awesome, huge, soft, with a covering you can wash separately—but your neighbor has a bed that makes people jealous, and you want people to be jealous of you, too!
When we get what we need, we come to another level of needs. When you're starving, you don't think about the softness of your bed—you would gladly trade it for anything to eat! But when you get this dry slice of bread you were craving, you automatically start to search for another need to fulfill. You're satisfied for a mere second, and then your happiness is gone. Dry bread? I'd rather have some fried chicken!
So, imagine a prospering town with all kinds of craftsmen. The residents have everything they could need, and now they start to pay attention to the quality of the product, not just its function. And if a product functions as expected, is durable and easy to operate, another need appears—the product should be aesthetically pleasing.
When you've got everything, you want more—you reach higher, to spiritual and emotional needs. Now you can afford something that doesn't have any function except being pleasant to your eyes. This is where art is born, in its most basic, primal form. Surprisingly, a simple definition occurs here right in front of us—art is something nonfunctional that attracts us nonetheless. Something that has a value beyond its usefulness.
Of course, sometimes things will have both functional and nonfunctional value. How many times have you bought something slightly more expensive only because it was pretty? There's also one more problem with this definition—what about drawings that don't attract us?
Art and Creation
This is mainly a linguistic, or maybe a cultural problem. Drawing and art are used synonymously—you draw, so you're an artist. I believe it comes from lack of a better word; maybe it was just never needed. Look—if art should attract, and your drawing doesn't attract anyone, what is it? Is it "bad art"? But asphalt or an ordinary potato don't attract anyone either, so are they "bad art" too? Or rather... "not art"?
It may look silly, but think about it. The main problem with learning to draw/paint is that beginners feel so inferior, so weak. Why? Because art attracts, and they can't be artists—not "good artists", but artists at all—unless their works attract someone. Until it happens, what are they? Well, here comes the limitation of the English language. The works are probably creations, and their author is a creator.
This is a good name, because it's simple, honest, and objective. Let's say a kid has sculpted a snowman out of clay. It's a creation, simple as that. When you draw a stick man, you create it—you're a creator, and it's your creation. If there's ever a program that can paint realistically without human assistance, it will be a creator too. It's fully objective and definable—in fact, there's no controversy about the word "creation".
There's only one thing that should be added here. A creator is personally involved in the creation of the work. A worker in a factory isn't a creator of a product any more than your brush is a creator of your painting. They are simply tools. How to distinguish a tool and a creator? Tools are directed by a creator, and without him or her, they wouldn't be able to do it.
Bad and Good Creators
The best thing about being creator is that you can't be bad or good unless your creations have some other function. For example, if you create boxes to store things in, you may be expected to make them strong and durable. If you don't, you're a bad box creator—but not a bad creator per se. If you create boxes that don't really work, but are supposed to attract buyers in some other way, you become an artist (again, only by this basic definition).
So, what is a bad artist? It's a creator of creations that are intended to attract people despite their uselessness, but they don't. We need to distinguish it from an unsuccessful artist—someone with potential, but nobody to share their art with. If an art-wannabe creation isn't shown, there's no way to check its attracting power.
Fun fact: there can be art without an artist. You're still a simple creator, even when your functional creations attract people by their design—as long as it wasn't your intention. Art can also exist without any creator (unless you're a religious person and you believe in a universal Creator), for example a sunset, a storm, or a human skull in a desert.
By the way, this definition perfectly explains why we often have an aversion to artists who "sell themselves". We're reluctant to call them artists any more, and why? Because they create art without the intention to attract—their main intention is to make money out of this attraction. So, even if they create art, they're not really artists any more. They're successful, good creators, but the art they create is only a by-product of their money making.
And why does it look so wrong to us? Are we jealous...? The way I see it is that we feel cheated and used—we get attracted to the artwork, but the creator doesn't care about what we feel, they only want our money (it doesn't mean you can't make money when being an artist, it's just a matter of balance).
Art Is in the Eye of the Beholder
We've managed to create a simple definition for art, so why do they say it can't be defined? Because our definition has something very subjective in it. "Attraction" is defined as a feeling of being drawn towards something. It's fully subjective—object X can be attractive to person A, and repulsive for person B. Humans are complicated beings, so we can even be attracted by something we fear or actually loathe. Of course, there are things that are considered attractive in a general sense. For example, beauty and attractiveness are treated as synonyms.
To make the art definition full, we need to define attraction. Let's try!
It's Art, Because It's Beautiful
While attractiveness is subjective (the adjective "attractive"
can't be used without at least an implicit subject), beauty can be easily
defined as something objective (as long as you cut the attractiveness
out of it). "Beautiful" means simply "meeting the current standards of
beauty". That being said, a computer may judge the beauty of people, but it
will not be able to say who's attractive, just as it can't say what the best color is.
Beautiful things are those "generally attractive" ones. Producers of movies, games, magazines, and ads use them to get to as many people as possible. What are the standards of beauty, in general? "Proportional", "pure", "symmetrical", "regular", and "clear" all fit here. There are also other factors, but they're more culture-dependent and they're more risky.
What's Good About It?
Beauty is easy to recognize. We're not only programmed by our genes to notice regular shapes and harmony, but also we've been taught the standards of beauty since early childhood. Even a psychopath who isn't capable of any emotions can easily tell "pretty" from "ugly". Putting "beautiful" in the definition of art makes it as objective as possible. It's one of the few ways to find a common ground with people of various personalities and interests. You may not like some famous model, but you can't deny she "meets current standards of beauty", no matter how much you despise these standards.
What's Bad About It?
First, beautiful things are known to attract "an average person". Of course, an average person doesn't exist—everyone is different. Even if most people will be generally attracted by something considered pretty, still there will be a lot of others who don't see anything attractive in it. What's more, they may even find it repulsive!
That's because there are general standards of beauty and personal standards of beauty. A person may adopt general standards and take them as their own, but it's not obligatory in any way. So, a beautiful artwork may not attract everyone, only the majority.
Second, since beauty is so widespread and seen everywhere, it becomes boring. That's why sometimes not so perfect models get more popular than ideals of beauty. When you see it all the time, beauty becomes a norm, and a norm isn't interesting in any way. It's safe, but at the same time it doesn't arouse any emotions, because you're so used to it.
Just think about all those pictures of sunsets or mountains. They're beautiful—meeting standards of beauty—but they're also cliché. Their beauty not only doesn't make them art—it actually keeps them from it.
Third, the beauty of an object, even when appealing, may lead the observer to the assumption that it was created this way just to attract him in the most simple way possible. We like to feel that we're free to choose, and a pretty artwork says to us: "I'm beautiful, so you've got no choice—you must like me." That may have a repulsive effect, working in the opposite way than intended.
It's Art, Because It's Realistic
Abstract artworks are rejected by people because of this very reason. "Wow, looks so real! I thought it was a photo!" is the reaction that the person who uses this definition expects from an artwork. Anything else deserves a simple "Meh" and can't be called art. The more realistic the creation, the more artistic it gets. It doesn't even need to be beautiful—ugly things can be realistic too.
What's Good About It?
Again, it's easy to evaluate. A good computer would easily tell you if a picture it scans is realistic or not, and even give you a percentage of realism. A common ground is obtained as well—no matter what your art definition is, you are able to tell if something is realistic.
Appreciation for realistic artwork supports an artist who probably has spent thousands of hours learning how to imitate the real world. Given that reality is unbelievably complicated, a skill to create realism is indeed something worth admiration—especially when the artist makes unreal things look real.
What's Bad About It?
An extreme version of realism, photo-realism, is based on re-drawing a photo. That's how similarity to a photography is obtained—the artist only copies all the pixels/dots and re-creates the original in a different medium. Yes, it's time consuming, but at the same time it's extremely simple to do. Not easy, but simple. It takes time and patience, but apart from that the creator needs only manual skills. There's a chance that an artist wouldn't draw anything better than you without a photo.
Painting realism is a part of artistic studies and it doesn't need to be the final goal of an artist. Creators re-create photos or nature to learn how it works and to be able to break the rules later. As a result, you may sing the praises of nothing else but a study, and ignore something that the artist put a lot more work into.
When you're in love with realistic artworks, you only see things that either are realistic, or aren't realistic enough. This way you completely give up the idea of different styles, of something that isn't realistic, but doesn't really try to be. Subconsciously, you treat artists as servants of realism, and when they don't do their "tasks" properly, they're simply bad.
It's Art, Because I Couldn't Do It Myself
We're coming to a bit more subjective ground. A person using this definition compares creations to their own abilities in this field. When they can't imagine how something could have been created, they call it art ("Impossible", "I can't believe it", "You're so talented", etc). It's not really about the time used for the creation process, but about the outstanding effect. In this definition art must have an author to compare skills to. A sunset, though beautiful, can't be called art, unless you have a God-Creator in mind.
What's Good About It?
Well, not so much. Let me tell you why:
What's Bad About It?
By taking this definition you place yourself at the center of the universe. Your skills become an indicator of whether something is good or not. Let's say you despise an artwork because you "could do it yourself", but a person next to you says she couldn't. Whose opinion is more important?
Since this art definition is based on a fully personal opinion, its fans are very likely to get defensive when talking about art. It's because they make a discussion about an artwork a discussion about themselves. When they hear "It's not art" said about something they admire, their first answer is "Well, would you do it better?" For them you can't tell that something is bad unless you can do it better, so you actually need to be a professional to give any negative critique.
This approach is also the base of belief in mystical talent. If you consider yourself to be a smart person and you can't see any way you could achieve someone's skill level, there certainly must be no way—because if there was, you'd do it! So, the artist must be gifted with talent.
This definition is the reason why some people are not able to understand modern art. If they could do the same in a few minutes, how can it be art? Blind faith in this definition is therefore quite arrogant, without any space for the opinions of others.
It's Art, Because It's Hard/Time-Consuming
It's similar to the previous definition, except that maybe you could get the same result. The thing is you are not patient/determined enough, and you admire the patience/determination of someone who spent so much time and put in so much effort to achieve something. The quality of the creation isn't that important if only the huge amount of energy and work spent shines through it.
What's Good About It?
It's always good to appreciate someone's hard work. When in our bustling world someone finds time—a lot of time—to make something pretty/important to them, but otherwise useless, respect and admiration come quite naturally.
What's Bad About It?
This is where the disdain towards digital art comes from. It's too easy, it's too fast, it can't be art! "I miss the times when artists had to actually work to draw something instead of letting the computer do the job" is what a fan of this definition could say.
The huge amount of work leading into creation is not always so obvious. An artist may practice for two years, over a dozen hours every day, to learn how to create something in five minutes, but you, as a viewer, can see only those five minutes. That's all the work you can notice! It's very easy to go from here to the conclusion that it's all about talent/software/tools. Nothing worth admiration.
Simplification and minimalism only look simple, when in fact a lot of work must be done to get this effect. By looking only at the time spent on final rendering, you ignore something that actually meets your definition.
This definition may also come from wishful thinking that every artwork that was hard to create should be admired, no matter what the final result is. If you spent hours trying to get something right (but didn't), and as a result didn't get any praise, you may feel deeply hurt when something done in five minutes gets the admiration you wanted. You need to keep in mind that everyone doesn't create for praise and admiration, like you. Professional artists work for money, and they "produce" art for someone, never for your own pleasure. Being fast and effective is a part of their job; being admired isn't.
It's Art, Because It Amazes/Surprises Me
Sometimes it's not really about quality, beauty, or the time spent on the work (though they're welcome). You look at the artwork and think: "It's brilliant! Why didn't I think of that?" The concept itself is a powerful thing. You can learn everything else, but concept is a clear spark of creativity and it's only obvious once someone has already said it aloud. It brings admiration, but also joy—you can't believe it was that simple.
What's Good About It?
The concept is usually based on something known to a group of people. By common admiration they feel closer together, and they also feel a need to share their thoughts about it. A special bond between the artist and their admirers occurs, because they understand each other. There's also an illusion that the message was directed specially to you, because others wouldn't get it
Because the message doesn't need to be very clear, this kind of art requires a bit of thinking on the side of the viewer. It's a puzzle to solve. The satisfaction makes the experience more personal, and therefore more lasting and true.
What's Bad About It?
Concepts can't be controlled. Creative people may "produce" a lot of them, but usually only a few are really brilliant. This kind of art is almost impossible to create—it rather creates itself through the mind of a creative person. Therefore, it's hard to say who the creator really is, if even the artist can't tell where the idea came from.
But what if you don't get it? If there's some aesthetic value beside the concept, the artwork may defend itself, but what if there isn't? When something doesn't meet your standards of beauty you can still guess it is appealing to some people, but a confusing concept makes the work utterly empty.
It's Art, Because It Makes Me Feel Something
Sometimes when you look at an object/person/situation, you get a mysterious feeling. It doesn't seem to have anything to do with what you're looking at, but it's as if it has awoken something inside you. That feeling, no matter whether pleasant or crushing, for some people can be a clear indicator of looking at art.
In fact, this is the base of most of other definitions, too. The only difference is that they usually narrow the meaning to a few emotions, like delight or admiration. The one we're talking about now is far more open, and this is why abstract art is called art despite being rejected by a majority of people. This definition accepts everything as potential artwork, no matter whether it was created by someone, or was a result of some random occurrence. It's because the work isn't art—its "artness" is awoken through you and doesn't exist beyond you. It actually applies to other emotion-based definitions too, but it's never as clear as when you compare an abstract painting and a picture of a crying baby—the only thing that's linking them is you.
What's Good About It?
You can see art everywhere! You don't even need any creator—you can go to a shopping mall and it will become an art gallery for you, if you look closely. You become more open to the world, less judgmental, and you notice things that others ignore. It may also make you a better artist, because you learn about feelings and what can evoke them.
When speaking about art according to this definition, you automatically stress the fact that it comes from you. While other definitions may sound like objective truths ("It's not art, it's too ugly", "You call it art? I could do it myself"), this one will sound more subjective ("I almost cried when looking at it, it's art"). This way your opponent in discussion quickly understands that you're talking about your feelings, not about the artwork itself.
What's Bad About It?
It's as subjective as can be. If even you don't know why you feel so, how can you find a common ground with someone else? If someone isn't as sensitive as you, you may start to despise them, when in fact they didn't do anything wrong. Others aren't "blind" only because they don't feel what you do. Keep in mind that your interpretation doesn't even need to be the same as the artist's!
To use this definition fully, one needs to be quite sensitive. Otherwise it gets limited to "easier" emotions, like admiration of beauty or jealousy of amazing skills, and automatically becomes one of the narrower definitions we were talking about.
At the same time, being overly sensitive may be very exhausting and make every other art experience less special. Also, when everything can be art, what isn't? The concept itself loses its point.
It's Art, Because It's Expensive Despite Being Worthless
It may look like a joke, but some people may have no idea about art at all. When there are so many definitions and so many different things being called art, it's easy to get confused and actually give up. Such a person may admire a beautiful painting, or may be jealous of the skills of others, but they will not call it art. Art is a higher form of an object—it's art when it's useless, and people still are willing to pay big money for it. It can be beautiful and refined, but also ugly and sloppy. It doesn't matter—people vote with their wallets.
What's Good About It?
Can you be more objective? You see the price of something nobody could need, and if it's high, it becomes art. Simple and pure. Nobody can argue with it!
What's Bad About It?
That's a lazy approach, because you let others decide. You can't even create art, because it's not up to you. Actually, you could say art is created by the person who pays for it!
Art or Not Art, That Is the Question
Can art be discussed at all? With all these definitions, I guess not. Every discussion about an artwork sooner or later becomes a discussion about the definition—except that the disputants have no idea about it. Just look how a discussion between a "beautiful art" fan and an "exciting art" fan could look:
|What They Say
||What Talker Means
||What Listener Hears
|Astounding piece of art||It's so beautiful
||It's so exciting|
|Are you serious? It's trash||How can you say it's exciting when it's not?||How can you say it's beautiful when it's not?|
|How can you not see how beautiful it is!||There's something wrong with your standards of beauty||I don't understand how you can be so blind|
|Dude, I've seen hundreds of pieces like it. It's nothing new||It's cliché, I don't like it||Work must be new to be called art|
|Since when does art need to be new to be appreciated?||You know nothing about art||I know nothing about art|
|Do you want me to appreciate something I've seen hundreds of times?||If the artwork is cliché, it can't be appreciated
||I don't understand what art is
|It doesn't stop being beautiful only because someone has drawn something similar before||Art doesn't need to be exciting and new, it only must be beautiful|
|Actually, it does!||You couldn't be more wrong
||I really know nothing about art|
|You're so stupid||You don't understand a thing, it's pointless||I can't understand you, I give up|
Isn't it funny? When you read the middle column only it looks absurd, as if they were talking in different languages—similar enough to think they understand each other, but not enough to actually do it. That's why art is so hard to define. We all know what it is—it's something that evokes a certain emotion—but we don't agree about the nature of this emotion.
By the way, this kind of "transcription table" is a great way to understand your opponent in a fierce discussion, when you get to the point "how can you be so stupid and not understand what I'm saying?" There's a good chance you're actually talking about two different things!
Who Decides What Art Is?
Since art is subjective, well, you do. But you need to remember it's your opinion. Any time you say "this is art", there's an implicit "for me". That's why a discussion about a certain artwork doesn't make any sense. You may talk about definition, just as we did here—what's bad and good about a certain way of thinking—but the artwork doesn't really have anything to do with it. No matter how sure you are that your opponent is wrong, they simply can't be. Let's see once again:
|What They Say
||What Talker Means
||What Listener Hears
|This is art||It's art, because it meets my definition of art||I say it's art even though it doesn't meet your definition of art|
|You're wrong!||It can't be art, because it doesn't meet my definition of art||It doesn't meet your definition of art|
Absurd? This is what I hear every time someone say: "They call it art? I could do it myself!" Yes, you could, that's why it's not art... for you. But is it a reason why they can't call it art? Only because it doesn't meet your definition? Quite arrogant of you to think you've got the power to set an objective definition of art that everyone needs to obey!
This is why we call art hard or impossible to define. Despite our simple, basic definition from the beginning of the article, we're not able to come to full agreement about every artwork possible. We seem to know it, yet every time someone admires something that for us isn't worth it, we get a little bit mad for arguing with our definition. When big money comes into play, it also awakens a strong emotion, jealousy, making it even more personal: "It's not art, so why do they pay so much for it? Do they say my definition of art is wrong? How dare they!"
Art can arouse many positive feelings, but it may also be a seed of contempt. Any time you feel hate because "not-art" is called art, think about it once again. Why do you hate something for getting admiration it doesn't, in your opinion, deserve? Do you really consider yourself to have the power to decide what people can and can't admire? Or are you simply jealous that something unworthy gets attention, while your hard work stays unnoticed?
Anyway, it's all about you, never about the artwork. Remember, when they say "astonishing art" about something, it doesn't mean you're supposed to think the same. It's simply their opinion, so don't get defensive thinking they're trying to force something on you.
Art Without Beholders
All this time we were talking about the reactions of others. Is it possible to create art without any viewers? The simple answer is yes, as long as it meets your definition of art. But the truth is everything is art and nothing is, depending on who's looking.
It may be hard to accept. We usually stay under the illusion that the more people believe something, the truer it is. So, the more people call your work art, the more artistic it'll be. Hence the temptation to force everyone to admire your creations. You should already know it's impossible. Even if you study all the definitions and create an artwork to meet them all, it will cease to be art for you (unless your definition of art is: "a work that made people love me").
Let's come back to the conception of creation. Your intention as a creator is crucial to evaluate the value of creation. If you create to make people laugh, and they don't react, your creations are worthless—again, for you. If you create to make people laugh, but instead they admire your style and technique, your creations still remain worthless—because your intention failed.
However, if you create to be admired, but hide this intention and use "I want to make people laugh" as an excuse, and then they indeed admire you (even without laughing), that's your huge success. Finally, your creations are very valuable for you, because they got you what you wanted.
That's why you can be a successful artist without showing your art to anyone. If your only intention is to draw something you will like, you don't need anyone for it. "I don't care if you like it, I draw for myself" said under a published artwork is a huge lie. Why did you post it? What do you want to get by it? What is your true intention?
We've got to the point now. The value of an artwork is as hard to define objectively as art itself, because it's born inside a viewer (or the creator), and everyone creates it in a different way. Some people will love your creations, some won't—and they're all right. You may appreciate more those who meet your intention, but they have nothing to do with it. It's you who gave them power to change the value of your work!
Pain of Creation
You need to ask yourself: what do you want? Why do you create? If your love of drawing started in childhood, ignited by the praise of friends and teachers, it's likely you create to feel that amazing feeling when someone praises you. Your intention is to create artworks that will be loved and admired, that will amaze people, make them feel something, and, as a result, will increase your value in your own eyes. At the same time, you and your creations become their slaves. Every time someone doesn't react as intended, you feel bad. It doesn't matter any more if you yourself like your work—you gave away all power to the opinions of others.
That's why people get disappointed and give up so easily when learning to create. When your only intention and motivation is to feel you're great, and the learning process doesn't give it to you (or even takes it away), it's very easy to lose your spirit. If you realized I'm talking about you, that's the first step towards recovery. If drawing is only a medium to make you feel you're a worthy person, your problem lies so much deeper than in your drawing skills.
I'll be honest—the feeling of worthiness is the main motivation behind almost every human action. Therefore it's nearly impossible to eradicate it completely. However, your value as an artist shouldn't be the only thing that makes you feel better about yourself. How many times have you looked at your drawing and thought: "It's terrible, I suck, I'm hopeless". You have the right to suck as an artist, there's nothing wrong with it! You don't even need to be an artist; stay a humble creator.
When someone says it's bad to be a bad artist, it doesn't mean you should automatically think the same. Stick to your opinion—why should only good artists be allowed to draw? How can you get better if you don't ever try?
Try to change your motivation, your main intention, and you'll see how drawing gets easier. For example, instead of trying to be the best, make it your goal to draw as well as some artist you admire. This way you'll become independent from the opinions of others, because no matter whether they like your works or not, only you know what "good" means. You can also focus on the drawing process, not on the result. Instead of judging everything you draw (even studies), just set your goal to "finish a drawing" and see how much easier it gets to succeed!
Art can't be defined, because everyone creates it in their own head. Therefore, the value of art can't be defined either. When someone says your creations aren't good enough, they're only stating their opinion, not a real, objective value. What's more, even if you think something looks ugly, it could have been the intention of the creator. For you it's bad, because it's ugly; for them it's good—for exactly the same reason!
If you think other people define the value of your art, it's only because you gave them this power. If your intention wasn't to make them admire you, the lack of admiration wouldn't touch you at all. Once you realize it, you can finally be free! Change your intention, and make admiration only a by-product of your creation. Focus on what you want to achieve and don't wait for others to tell you if you're doing well or not. When you give up on admiration, you're finally free to be bad. And you know what? I can tell you for sure that those you admire the most need it the least!
I'd love to hear your thoughts about this topic. Did you find your definition of art in my article, or do you use some other? Have you participated in some less or more formal discussion about art? How did it end? Why do you create, and what's your intention? Would you still create if nobody could ever see your art?