What is Art ?

"Art establishes the basic human truths that should serve as the touchstone of our judgement." John F. Kennedy

The object of this talk is to give an overview of the basic questions in Art which remain so confusing for so many. I will try to describe more precisely the words "Art" and "artist". I do not think that these are my opinions, but rather observations that have been made over time but not well expressed. I'm talking about, and using the word, Art with a capital "A", to mean Art of historical importance.

One of the goals of this discourse is to free ourselves from our complexes around the idea of Art, which prevent us from expressing ourselves, creating, and doing for the mere pleasure, while recognising that there is a difference between Art which we consider to be some of the finest examples of human creation, from Leonardo da Vinci to Cy Twombly, and art as a form of hobby or personal pleasure. 

We have had trouble making such distinctions because they imply that art which does not have historical significance is of little value, which is not true. We need to liberate freedom of expression for everyone in whatever form, while understanding and recognising that the artists we consider to be part of Art’s history are there by virtue of having done something profoundly exceptional, original and influential.

Creating such definitions helps us towards a better understanding of how culture functions, how culture could be organised to help significant artistic practice, to devise ways for everybody to be able to access significant culture, and to enable the practice of creative activities for all.

Being an historically significant artist means doing something which becomes part of the rich and varied history of cultural forms which contribute to and substantially improve the quality of our lives by giving us meaning and pleasure beyond personal expression. Reading about art and the history of art, I have not found a definition of Art that is not very ambiguous, so I propose the following  :

Art is a manifestation of creative and imaginative faculties which, like any creative discipline, is conditioned to a large degree by the sum of its history.

Art is a story that unfolds. Artists are always aware of what has happened in the history of Art. Art grows, changes and develops, but its values - to be deep, resonant and enduring - do not change.


What constitutes Art is not arbitrary or subjective. We cannot say that Art is “whatever we think it is”. What we like is a matter of personal taste, but taste is not the same as judgement. What an individual thinks is Art may be true for that individual. But what becomes recognised as historically significant Art is decided by a consensus of the most respected artists, critics, curators and historians which recognises, through successive generations, those artists who have made work, and a contribution to the development of Art, which is significant and enduring.

Indeed, what is beautiful, looking at the history of any creative medium, is to recognise that there is a very large degree of consensus over those artists who deserve a place in history. Why did the Beatles’ music touch so many people? Why does the work of Vincent van Gogh resonate with so many people for decades and centuries? It is because cultural forms expresses universal feelings, common to, perhaps not all, but a very substantial number of people. There is something important and touching in these universalities, which says that we are all human beings - individuals of course, but connected to a common sense of understanding and humanity, and there is often a surprising degree of consensus as to what we find profound, moving, and beautiful.

Art and culture, being a reflection of common experiences, help us to understand ourselves, and to find meaning in a world that often overwhelms us. The world of art and culture is a world of feelings, thought, expression, creativity, reflection and understanding. 

Looking more closely at Art, we perceive three approximate categories:

- Art of historical importance ; recognised over centuries as the finest examples of artistic practice

- secondly, the work of people who call themselves "artists",  the majority of the art we experience day to day, but which will not belong to the central canon of Art history

- thirdly, art as a hobby, made simply for pleasure or personal expression

The real value of Art lies in the first and third categories - Art of historical significance which is rare and essential, and the unpretentious creativity done for the sheer pleasure and satisfaction of creative personal expression. And yet is in the second category that most artistic activity takes place. Many “artists” cannot accept that while their work may be intensely satisfying on a personal level, it very rarely has the qualities of depth and originality which we consider essential for Art to be Art, to be recognised as historically significant, and thereby merit the importance we attach to the word ‘Art’.

Depth, originality and authenticity are essential for culture to serve its purpose of bringing meaning and pleasure to our lives. In order to value cultural works as the finest representations of the creative and imaginative capacities of the human condition, work needs to be profound, or risks becoming a form of decoration, diversion, entertainment or commerce. When created as a pleasurable hobby, work may have little profoundly cultural value beyond the personal satisfaction for those who create it.

It is not surprising that this proposition is for many unwelcome, as so many practitioners would like to make a living from creative pursuits. But humility and realism are needed on the part of creative practitioners. Veracity and authenticity in the arts are necessary when we rely on culture to perform a central role in a civilised society. It does not seem unreasonable to make distinctions, in the name of more sophisticated debate, between historically important culture and forms of pleasure, entertainment and commerce. 


When humanity needs to show what is most profound and inspiring about the human condition it turns systematically to the Arts, to show with pride what humanity is capable of, while at the same time often holding an opinion that Art is not considered important or thought of as “work”. Partly, it seems, this is because the production of culture is simply too agreeable for us to take it seriously. We are constantly told that are lives are not supposed to be enjoyable, and that work is by definition disagreeable.

We do not fully recognise that the Arts should be supported for their human, social and cultural values alone, notwithstanding the enormous financial contribution culture makes to our economies.

There is often the question of beauty in Art, and, of course, we need beautiful things which please and comfort us. But Art often serves as an expression of the time in which it is created, which is not always beautiful. Art that speaks of its time, and which creates previously unknown forms, has difficulty being accepted.  

A wider vocabulary of  definitions, terms, and ideas would help us towards a better understanding and a greater appreciation of the Arts, their function, and help us to find ways they could be made to work in practice.

Art is a philosophy of sharing, communication and exchange. When we look at all the cultures of the world, we are astonished by the richness of the creation and invention of every civilization and culture. Materialism brings us to individualism. Art and culture bring us back to something both broader and simpler - the appreciation of what is around us, the complexity of the human being, the beauty of nature, sharing, pleasure, our place in this universe, and in this world that we are destroying.

A work of art must communicate all this, talk about all of this. We often hear that Art asks questions, but it must also provide answers. It must inspire us by its beauty, or by the force of his ideas. A work of Art does both and often more. If one is an artist, one must have something to say, say something that has not already been said, in a form that has not already been invented.


Art has accompanied humankind since its appearance. What remains of the first humans, even before the first civilizations, are its art, its crafts, its caves, decorated with paintings. The incredible beauty and skill of early jewellery show how creativity is fundamental to the human being. When societies did little but work and subsist, that work was accompanied by song.

Much has been done during these 400,000 years since the time of our ancestors. Since the Renaissance, artists have searched for new forms of expression, fundamentally realistic until the 19th century of Delacroix, Courbet, Manet and the Impressionists, when Art changed its appearance, reflecting the modern era of the industrial revolution and the liberalising social life of cities.

We more or less ignore the incredible inventions and expressions of the 20th century of Kandinsky, Mondrian and Rothko, who climbed to the summit of Art and human spirituality. Today, everyone thinks of painting their home in the colors they want, but, when Monet did it first, everyone said he was crazy.

Artists, particularly since the days of Courbet and Manet, have often faced insults, misunderstanding and incredulity, just for the fact of seeing, feeling, and being able to represent, who we are, what we are, and what Art can be, at the actual moment.

We could accept, understand, and recognise more quickly the work of a new artist. And if we do not understand, just ask them. It took 40 years before Manet’s "Olympia" was accepted into the Louvre, but he would have hoped, and known when he painted it, that that was its destiny.

If Art is not among the greatest achievements of all humanity, it may be better to say that it is not “Art” but a form of creativity and expression. Many of our difficulties in defining culture arise from words which cover a vast range of diverse practice. A bigger lexicon is needed to be have reasonable discussion about the place and nature of culture, but let us use the word ‘Art’ for what we consider to be the finest works of human artistic creation, to give appropriate recognition to those who have created works which have made such a profound and enduring contribution to the history of humankind.