Man viewing art in a gallery

What is Art?

The problem with definitions is that they evoke a binary choice: yes or no? Is it or isn’t it? While that can be useful when identifying insects or trees, it’s (increasingly, I think) less helpful in thinking about human experience, which is a broad and shared thing. And what is art if not the voice of existence?

There’s an opportunity to mimic and model that level of inclusion when thinking about, making or looking at art. As E. M. Forster has one character put it: “By the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes – a transitory Yes if you like, but a Yes.” (A Room with a View).

Art, which is a response to what it means to be human or alive or sentient, is inevitably about the big Why of existence (as well as the how and the what and copious other questions), yet the definition can be simple and generous:

Art is a representation of subjects within human experience or aspiration, both real and imagined. Art is a creative response.

Or, as I’ve come to think of it, the answer to “is it art?” is usually just “yes”. We tussle in the margins over who controls such definitions and artistic spaces (on canvas and commercially, in galleries and on the streets) but still, art happens.

Importantly, defining (or, at least, thinking about what it is) says nothing about what art looks or sounds like. When we debate whether something ‘is art’ we’re talking about viewer, reader or listener response, or the lack of it. In fact, you could say that posing the question itself supplies the answer – by evoking a response, the piece has performed a function of art. So a definition of art doesn’t have to be limiting:

  • It isn’t about the medium. Photographs can be art. So too music, words, fabric, clothing, mime, pots, products … anything which is human endeavour may be art
  • It isn’t a value judgement. “Is it good?” is undoubtedly a wholly different question – as is what art is for, what functions is should fulfil, and how we respond to it
  • It hangs on the artist. Deciding if art has happened is often a shared task – after all, if viewers aren’t convinced, they’re unlikely to pay to visit exhibitions. But art isn’t just about commercial or even public spaces: it’s a creative act, for any one at any time. Art is a verb, and what comes after is open country.

Are selfies art?

If there’s no gatekeeper to What Art Is, couldn’t all sorts of terrible things happen? Does it mean selfies are art? What about the photographs in sales listings – they’re a representation of human experience: are they art? What about wedding photographs, news reels, No Limits, ads for toothpaste, cake decorations, curtains … and on and on, until liberalism drowns us all in the happy clappy tides of inclusion.

Perhaps the issue here is that we think of art as a single thing – an act or creation which is fixed once in the moment and is ever the same after that. But of course they can be separate events: little kids make a fundamental kind of art (response to and recreation of the world) but not all parents would pay to have it framed. Graffiti, too, is a fundamental kind of art (scratching on rock with spray paints as our ancestors did), but not everyone wants to look at it. And then we argue about it, and some councils rip it down and other people pay incredible amounts of money for it … and on it goes … art and response and art and response.

I do think response is key to the question of art, if only so that we don’t drown: it’s our life vest or Get Out of Jail Card, depending on how you view it. Things can be art at one time, and other times not – it’s about timing and intent and context. News reels and sales listings are not by themselves art, because they’re not creative responses (or at least, we’d hope not). Toothpaste ads – which are a kind of sales listing – can be artistic, for sure. They’re a creative response, but to the commercial question, not of human experience. They rarely accurately represent our world or what it actually means to be human, alive or sentient: forget that at your peril.

Selfies are strange territory: they’re part of a medium and number of platforms which remind us of the breakneck speed of change. They’re a response to what it means to be human within a particularly narrow type of experience, and they also elicit response (in likes or hearts or plain old jealousy). As with ads, they can be a little or a lot fake – but then art is often about the imagined. Imagine a viewing platform 100m up which looks down on an eternally scrolling screen of selfies. Viewed like this, selfies can be just another artistic movement. Like impressionism, they’ll have their moment, say something about how we once viewed the world and ourselves, and then will be transform into or be evicted by something else.

Selfies – or any kind of unfamiliar modern art – are not the death of art or artistic endeavour. If anything, that kind of judgement is surely more deserved by the celebrity portrait, which has evolved out of high fashion photography and the general adulation of advertising, and dominates more and more of our public and gallery spaces. It mimics introspection and reflection, but is a curiously blank kind of perfectionism; it’s peak escapism for the critical faculties. We can be outraged by an unmade bed, yet we feel ‘nothing’ in gazing on a very made-up perfection. How appropriate, and yet how wrong.


Words: my own. All rights reserved: no copying, pasting or re-using without permission.

Art gallery viewer: Igor Miske, via Unsplash