Carl Mastrangelo

A programming and hobby blog.

What is Art?

The question of what is art is something I have being toying around with in my mind recently and thought would be good to get it down in words. Art is often used in a somewhat nebulous sense, increasing in scope from each person who wants to apply it to something new. Are drawings and sketches art? Of course they are, and I would bet that a picture is the first thing you thought about when I said the word art. But, examining the word Artist, I would also be willing to bet that musicians come to mind as well. The ambiguity makes it hard to say with any conviction that someone is or is not an artist. So, in order to resolve this, let's pick a definition.

Art is the expression of human emotion.

Sounds like a pretty reasonable definition right? It doesn't conflict with what we typically think of as art, and it ties in pretty well with what an artist is. I like this definition, but haven't fully internalized it as it seems to comb me the wrong way in a couple of cases. Still, it’s a fun definition to explore, so let's explore it. Here are some questions that it decides:

Is drawing, sketching, painting, coloring, shading or other means of applying a form to a canvas art? Yes, on the whole it is. When you look at a painting or drawing, you can feel a little bit of what the artist felt when they drew it. You can tell just by the color scheme, the shape and direction of the lines, and the parts left blank how the artist was feeling. Better artists can more strongly convey these emotions. Going further, an artist can make the viewer feel these emotions. It isn't just that the artist felt it, but that the viewer can feel it.

Is playing music, composing, or orchestrating music art? Again, yes! Creating and playing music is certainly an expression of human emotion. When that scary part in the movie comes up, you know it by the music they play. When a sad part of a play comes up you can identify with the characters by the music too. Whether it's watching TV or listening to the radio, playing music on your computer, or going to sporting events, you can clearly hear how you should be feeling. The better the musician is at their craft, the more affective the music will be.

Is writing art? Put another tally in the Yes column. Writing is the transcription of thoughts and emotions. How many love letters, novels, or heartfelt newspaper articles have been written in the passion of an emotion? Literature in general was hard at first to categorize as art because it is a pretty basic form of communication. It lacks the channels of expression that other art forms have due to be being constrained only to words. No amount of description can explain the beauty of Beethoven's work as accurately and concisely as listening to it. What words can be written about a larger-than-life sized sculpture that compare to standing before it? This is not to say that writing is lesser than other means of expression. An intricately woven story is delight to read and no less artistic than any other tapestry. That said, writing cannot stimulate the senses as other forms of art can.

In the same vein of sensory stimulation, one odd case that arose was cooking. Is cooking art? After thinking a lot about it (notably while I was myself cooking), I don't think it fits the bill of art. Is the preparation of delicious and ornate food a skill deserving of recognition? It certainly is. However, what emotion is expressed or conveyed by creation of a meal? I struggled and failed to find a palatable example. Therefore, by the definition of art established above, cooking does not qualify.

The definition has some roughness to it that is hard to reconcile with existing notions of art. Is boxing, wrestling, or other forms of fighting art? The participants could be expressing their anger towards each other, and would thus be artists. It would be a stretch to accept this, even though it fits the definition. Is regular speech art? Is smiling art? Both of these are expressions of emotion but they go against the grain again. If there was a picture of a person smiling, that could be art, even if we said that the person's real life smile wasn't art? I don't have answers to these yet.

It is fun to explore what art is and isn't. Expecting to pin art exactly correct is not the goal. Rather, we just want to see if it works with pretty good accuracy without delving into hair-splitting. For the time being, this definition is a good, general purpose way to classify things as being artistic.


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