What is art?

What is art? It’s a big question, but one that any artist needs an answer to. Of course, there’s no definitive answer – it’s all so subjective. Art can be all sorts of things for different people, in different contexts and at different times. But if you want to make art, then the only way you can start and the only way you can know whether you are succeeding is by knowing within yourself what art is for you.

A definition

This definition of art from Tolstoy is among the best I’ve seen for me.

Leo Tolstoy

“To evoke in oneself a feeling one has experienced and … then, by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling – that is the activity of art.”

Leo Tolstoy

This definition neatly encompasses the two main facets that I think art is made up of.

The first facet is the visual – lines and colours. More broadly, perhaps this could be called the physical nature of the art – movement, sounds and words serve the same function in other forms, but I’m focusing on images here.

The second facet is the ‘feeling’. This is a more abstract concept, but we can think of it as the idea that art should evoke an emotional response in the viewer. Generally, we’d think of these responses as being related to the content of the image rather than the nature of it. For example, a photograph of a gargantuan gorge might stir awe and wonder. Scenes of war might raise fear and horror. These are examples of responses to the subject and make the experience of viewing art more than just visual.

The qualifier

The second facet – the emotional response to the subject matter – is often what people define art by. It’s seen as the ‘qualifier’ that distinguishes Art with a capital A from pictures with a small p. In deciding what counts as art, all the attention gets directed to the subject matter and its effect on the viewer, but little consideration is given to the visual experience. But the feeling evoked by art is not independent of this visual experience – in fact, I believe it’s so dependent on it that the visual experience is the real qualifier.

If a hugely significant moment in history is photographed with no attention to visual design, the impact of the image is diluted and possibly even lost altogether. By contrast, images that have no obvious subject matter and provide a purely visual experience can still elicit an emotional response. Think of Mondrian’s abstract grids, Rothko’s panels of colour (below), Picasso’s abstract cubist compositions. These are all captivating works of art because they evoke a response to their visual design alone. 

No. 61 (Rust and Blue), Mark Rothko

The example of the diluted photograph illustrates that the ‘feeling’ cannot exist – or at least is not as strong – without the visual experience. The abstract paintings demonstrate that visual experience alone can produce a ‘feeling’. So the visual experience is the most fundamental element of art – the visual experience is the qualifier.

Art for me

My artistic journey started many years ago, and its intended destination was a career in graphic design. That direction changed, but this initial gravitation towards graphic design is an important indication of what makes my artistic self tick. Graphic design is, at its heart, about the use of the visual experience to evoke a response, and it requires use of the most fundamental aspects of visual design – lines, shapes, colour etc. – to do that.

These ideas followed me into fine art and photography. As a student, my studies of artists focused on the visual aspects – mainly the colours of the Impressionists and the compositions of the Cubists. My own drawings, paintings and photographs have always centred on the compositions rather than the concepts. I admit that conceptual aspects of art add layers, and combining evocative subject matter with strong visual design probably makes for the best art. But, for me, the visual experience always comes first, and is what defines art.

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