What is art?

Might as well get this blog going by tackling one of the thorniest questions possible. So here we go:
Art is a mediated representation produced with artistic intent.

Mediated Representation

Something that is mediated has passed from an external source, usually via the senses, and been apprehended by an observer.  

A work of art is an externality that has been mediated by the psyche, and then reproduced as an intentional artistic representation.

In this way a drawing of a building produced deliberately as an artistic work is art, the architectural representation of a building may be art, while the plan of an actual building is not art (the plans have been mediated by the psyche and reproduced as a representation, passing the first two tests, but if there is no artistic intent either at creation, presentation, or afterward they are not art, they are blueprints - see Intention).


The difference between an artistic representation and a documentarian representation lies in intention.

A police photographer takes photographs with no artistic intent. He wants to gather evidence not to create art. But if he, or someone else, placed his crime scene photography in a gallery, deliberately displaying his evidentiary images as art, they would then be art.

Marcel Duchamp's Fountain is a classic example of this. A urinal is just a urinal until you give it a name and put it in a gallery. Every urinal in the world has been mediated and represented (in porcelain, sheet metal, brick, etc), but without artistic intent they remain only urinals.

The intention of the artist makes art art.

Technique is Irrelevant

Think of the ways in which you have heard art described: ‘deep’, ‘profound’, ‘shallow’, ‘significant’, etc. What the apprehender of art is describing is not the artwork, but its effect upon them. ‘It left me cold’, ‘It made me cry’, ‘It made me want to stage a revolution’, etc.

These descriptions always refer to way in which the apprehender was affected. No one, except a student interested in the how, or a critic acknowledging a great artist as a master craftsman, is going to describe how Van Gough painted his Sunflowers. They will tell you how the paintings made them feel, which is, after all, what we usually want to know. We may ask: what emotional reaction did it elicit? What did it make you think of? Did it change your views? Or at the most basic level: did you like it? Few of us would think of, let alone ask, about the brush strokes.

The technique is irrelevant to the apprehender, only his response to the art is important. Technique – as an end in itself – is therefore irrelevant to the artist.

Art or Great Art?

Great art moves people greatly. In its deepest form art is cathartic and, at its most powerful, transformational.

This is the test of art, that it intentionally makes the apprehender feel and think. The greater the art the greater its intentional effect upon the apprehender.

Artistic controversy erupts when a work affects some deeply but not others. Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles is a classic example. To some people it is a marvel of depth and colour that affects them at a profound level, to others it’s just a lot of spilled paint.

Transformation and Catharsis

Great art is transformational and cathartic.

Blake represents the transformational power of art in his Marriage of Heaven and Hell. When the Angel is touched by the divine spark of art he is transformed into a Devil named Elijah who can now apprehend reality.

Aristotle tells us the significance of drama is catharsis. When Medea, betrayed and abandoned, wreaks her terrible revenge, the emotional transformation of the audience purges the destructive animus, releasing their negative feelings and restoring them to equanimity. In this way Euripides can be seen as a kind of proto-psychologist using art to beat a path toward enlightenment and peace.

How to Create Art

How does an artist learn to move an audience? Two paths appear obvious: the study of other artists’ work, and the study of nature.

To elicit fear, think of something fearful in nature: a predator, a volcano, a disease. These things give the artist insight into how to create fear of different kinds. The fear of being hunted, the fear of being helpless in the face of overwhelming events, the fear of the unclean.

In art stretch back to the beginning of English literature. Beowulf has great scenes of terror as Grendel bursts into the Hall, and the Dragon ravages the countryside. The dread at the end of the poem as the poet contemplates the fate of Beowulf’s clan following his death is palpable.

There are endless further examples in both art and nature.


Artists intentionally create mediated representations – from nature, experience, knowledge, and other art – to be consumed as art: thus making art.

Great art intentionally affects the apprehender deeply, invoking catharsis and transformation.

No comments:

Post a Comment