Art Term Tuesday: What is Art?

Kaitlin Binkley, Marketing Coordinator

In this section of the blog we’ll be attempting to define different types of terms as they relate to art and creative expression. Our definitions will be rooted in what’s generally accepted among art world peers, but infused with our personal observations. And, in the art world, just as in the “real” world, terms have double meaning. “Value”, for example, a common term, refers to the lightness or darkness of a color, or it can express what the art itself is worth. For our first term, however, I hope to define “art,” a daunting task to be sure!

A man and woman stand with their back to the viewer examining a work of art on display.
Two visitors stand and discuss one, of many forms, of art. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Art, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is first defined as “skill acquired by experience, study, or observation” and then as “decorative or illustrative elements in printed matter,” but it is a combination of the two definitions that creates what most people think of as art. The highly developed skills of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, who depicted the people, places or things of real life, allowed them to create conventionally beautiful works for wealthy patrons, and these commissions are what many people imagine when they think of “art” today. But possessing skill and experience does not mean an artist will create something realistic or even beautiful. Pablo Picasso, for example, used his skill and experience to break the unspoken rules and rebel against what may have been expected of him, and in turn he used his observational skills to create something no one had ever before visualized!

There are many forms of art – visual art is commonly defined through painting or sculpture, performing arts call to mind dance or theater, literary arts come alive through novels. Many like to distinguish between fine art and craft, questioning whether a skill like knitting is a form of art in the same way skill with a brush and paint is. In our curatorial vision, we adopt a broad vision of visual art, paying attention as much to the intention of the creation as we do the excellence of the skill the artist demonstrates. One of my favorite examples is our past exhibitions of American quilts from the late 19th century created by matriarchs of families who likely would not consider their quilts fine art, but we recognize their skill sets them apart from the commercially-produced quilt found in most catalogues and big-box stores today. We’ve devoted entire exhibitions to chairs in which we examine the aesthetic beauty of a form that is most often defined only in terms of its utility and whether it fits with the rest of our decor. Our visitors have also enjoyed exhibitions of video and digital media, relatively new art forms that may have horrified the audiences of Michelangelo’s time, the possibilities of which are seemingly endless and always new.

If you ever see something in FWMoA and ask yourself, “Why is THIS here?” consider whether what you are looking at shows excellence in a skill, close observation of a thing or a concept, or if the work might be responding to another period in the long development of human creation. There are generations of history informing every work you may encounter in our exhibitions, and not just because the artist likely spent a long time creating. To summarize the history of art very briefly: pre-historic art led to medieval art, to the Renaissance, to Baroque and Neoclassicism, to Impressionism, to Minimalism, to Cubism and Modernism, and finally to work that is created in our times known as Contemporary. Each of these periods is loosely defined and overlap with one another, bookended by Pre- and Post- periods. Each period was influenced by and responded to its predecessors, immediate or not. Ask yourself what a chaotic, gestural Jackson Pollock painting is reacting to when you place it in time – what was happening in the world and in his life at that time? Was he, in fact, creating something that had never been created before? People do not create in a vacuum without influence of their environment or preferences. Medical conditions might affect how artists create, the way they move, or the medium they choose. People age and their bodies ache, so the work created later in life might reflect diminished, developed, or new skills, but the excellence of their knowledge and the breadth of their experiences can’t be dismissed.

A mother holds her child in her arms, her back facing the camera, as they view a work of art on display.
“If you ever see something in FWMoA and ask yourself, “Why is THIS here?” Discussing the artworks with others can help you see it from another’s perspective! Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

In our galleries we display art that is skillful, aesthetically engaging (which doesn’t always mean beautiful), and representative of an artist’s career or intention. We choose what work to display based on these, admittedly, subjective parameters, but we must adopt something of an identity of art authority based on our own collective skill and knowledge. This doesn’t mean we behave as though we know everything or discount the opinions of those of you who enjoy our exhibitions. But we do loosely define art (at least that which we find worthy of display) based on technical skill, historical precedence, and the artist’s intention to the best of our understanding. All that said, how do you define art?

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