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What is art?

by Lorenza Mezzapelle January 19, 2021
What is art?

Discussing aesthetics, Dadaism, and intention

Art has long been a disputed form of self-expression. The topic has garnered debate among philosophers, art historians, and artists, and even has an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to its controversiality.

Many jokes and memes have been made around the notion of art’s subjectivity. Books, such as Leo Tolstoy’s What is art? have attempted to answer the question, while Instagram accounts such as freeze_magazine poke fun at and ridicule how absurd the art industry can often be. And you’ve definitely seen the prank where a group of friends placed eyeglasses on the floor of the museum to observe viewers’ reactions and point out how almost anything can be considered art.

This dispute has veered towards problematic for the reason that it ultimately validates an artist’s career. What one might deem to be worth thousands of dollars can be viewed as a piece of old junk to another. We’ve all heard of the stories of someone selling a famous painting for close to nothing in a garage sale, merely because they did not know its “worth.”

So, let’s look at this etymologically. “Art” is derived from the Latin “ars” meaning “acquired skill” or “craft.” In this sense, it is commonly understood that art requires a certain level of skill in order to achieve a desired aesthetic result. Herein lies the problem. “Aesthetic,” like the notion of “beauty,” is inherently subjective.

Dadaism is an ideal example because it, at its core, rejected standard notions of aestheticism and poked fun at art in society. Let’s take, for example, Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades. The acclaimed artist began using and presenting everyday objects as pieces of art. This absurd approach to art-making helped redefine what could be considered art and challenged the idea that art had to be something beautiful and visually appealing. Instead, demonstrating that art could be intellectually appealing.

Constantin Brâncuși’s infamous 1923 work Bird in Space (L’Oiseau dans l’espace) is another prime example of the challenges in defining an object as art. The sculpture faced a number of legal controversies when the artist tried to have it shipped to the United States. Customs officers did not believe that the work was art — art, at the time, was not subject to import taxes — and instead were charged with a 40 per cent tax for “manufactured metal objects.”

According to an article titled Is it Art? published by Harvard Law, after a number of years of legal debate, Brâncuși’s Bird in Space was part of the first court decision stating that “non-representational sculpture could be considered art.” In part, on the basis that the artist intended for the sculpture to resemble the movement of a bird.

Intention brings us back to the eyeglasses meme mentioned earlier. Had the glasses been placed on a coffee table in your home, you wouldn’t have thought much of them. Having been placed on the floor of the gallery, viewers automatically begin to search for a meaning and begin to decipher what they believe the artist’s intention was.

For this reason, art is and will remain subjective. While there may never be one true answer as to what constitutes art, one thing is certain: it is personal, self-informed, and different for everyone. So, what do you consider a work of art?


Graphic by Taylor Reddam

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