What is Art?


mona lisa

Irrefutable art?

On the surface, it seems like a simple question. You can point at the Mona Lisa and say, “that’s art.” You can pick out a classic novel like The Great Gatsby and say “that’s literature.” You can screen Citizen Kane and say “that’s cinema.” And no one is going to argue with you.

These are works that have stood the test of time and to deny their artistic merits would involve some pretty strenuous intellectual contortions.

And yet… does the Mona Lisa move you? Does the Great Gatsby speak to you? Did Citizen Kane change your life?

Be honest.


One of the biggest problems with this whole notion of “Art” is the insinuation that a group of people far more intelligent and cultured than you and I have already made up their minds, sent their decree down the mountain, and moved on, before we were even born.

I could never get my head around that. As you may have heard, I get a little irritated by this whole notion of granting a subjective opinion the status of empirical fact. It’s understandable that certain works must be appreciated in the context of the time they were created, that they stood out and changed the landscape of creative expression in their era and inspired countless works after. But isn’t there a statute of limitations on these things? Do we still have to compare every piece of writing to Shakespeare?

This guy would agree with me.

This guy would agree with me.

And for something to be labeled “Art” does it have to feel like schoolwork, like an obligation, like a struggle? Because if so, I think that might have something to do with why Joe Sixpack and wife would rather watch Two and a Half Men than go to the opera.

By defining “Art” as something that must be placed on a pedestal, as a term that cannot be haphazardly applied to just any creative expression but must instead be reserved for only the most provocative and complex and most tormented works that only fifty people in the world will ever experience seems to defeat the entire purpose.

To take our earlier examples, the Mona Lisa, The Great Gatsby, Citizen Kane, were all the summer blockbusters of their times, the commercial hits that people kept revisiting and applauding. We don’t think of a painting hanging on a wall as a mainstream form of entertainment, but that was before there was radio and television and video games and the frickin’ Internet. The word “Art” more often than not conjures up images of things that are old-fashioned and staid, serious and scholarly, but we forget that when The Odyssey hit the streets (or the campfires, more accurately) it wasn’t something people were taking tests or writing essays about; it was escapism; it was emotional; it was fun.

The definition of “Art” needs to be reevaluated for a new time, and I’m fairly certain I’m not the first one to suggest this. When you get right down to it, no one really agrees exactly what art is. Everyone has their own interpretation.  And yet, the one thing everyone seems to agree on is that, ironically enough, like pornography, you know it when you see it. Or, in other words, it’s subjective.

I think “Art” needs to die. But “art” sans the upper-case A is a useful way of distinguishing between a piece of work that has creative merit and one that is purely commercial. There are degrees of art. Even something created for a commercial purpose can have artistry. Are most cat food commercials art? Probably not.

Probably not art?

But on the other hand, any time that passionate people actually create something, whether it’s in verse, on film, in written words, or with a paintbrush, there is a chance of art happening, regardless of the subject material or the money-making vessel that brought those people together.  For the most part, any art that survives in the hearts and minds of a large body of people ten or twenty or thirty years down the road will be something that was created to make money. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Money isn’t necessary, of course, but it certainly helps, if for no other reason than it exposes the finished work to a larger audience.

Real art is anything that moves us, speaks to us, makes our lives a little more interesting and gives us something to think about that we hadn’t considered before. It doesn’t have to hold up to scholarly analysis. It doesn’t have to win Oscars or Pulitzer prizes. It can be a hip-hop or rock album; it can be a blockbuster film; it can be an episode of a particularly popular television show. It can also be a poem your best friend wrote for you.

What is remarkable is when a piece of art speaks to a large number of people at once, when it becomes something personal and profound and special to large swaths of the population. If a film series like Star Wars or the Harry Potter novels or the Halo video games can mean so much to so many people, how can we really argue against their inclusion as “art?” Do we hesitate to adorn them with that honor because they are childish, because they are silly and flashy and fun? Because so is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So is King Kong and The Wizard of Oz. So is Huckleberry Finn and Candide. So are The Beatles.

Definitely art. Suck it, haters.

Definitely art. Suck it, haters.

The point of art is not to fill long lists of what is worthy and what isn’t. The point is that we each discover our own art and if possible, make art ourselves and share it with others, that we converse about the ideas and themes and entertainment that certain works inspired in us rather than getting hung up on whether they are objectively better or worse than some other creative work that may not even be comparable.

Instead of relegating such high cultural importance to a bunch of dusty old works that don’t speak to the modern human condition, let’s reconsider turning our nose up at that which incites such obsession in so many, that bring smiles or shocks, tears or laughter, that help us get out of the bed in the morning and through our strenuous days, that provide us both moments of blissful escape from the world around us and also tease us with new insights into the ways our world works. Because if that isn’t what real art does, then what good is it?

3 thoughts on “What is Art?

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