What Is Art?

Whether or not you consider your own creative endeavours to be art, you will certainly have noticed and appreciated the beauty of others’ artistic works. You will have also seen the many different ways that art can affect you and your moods. Art can be uplifting, soothing or simply a source of entertainment. For some it is a form of therapy and helps them cope with mental illness. For others, it’s a way to de-stress and boost their confidence, or to confront their fears and emotions head on. But what exactly is art?

Art has always been a tricky concept to define. Attempts at definitions have varied over time and are often influenced by the current cultural and intellectual climate. For example, in ancient times, art was thought to be a craft; something that could be learned through practice and taught. But with the advent of Romanticism, this changed and art was deemed to be something original. This gave rise to movements such as cubism and futurism, which challenged the boundaries of what could be considered art.

It has been suggested that one of the main functions of art is communication. Illustrative art, such as scientific illustration or maps, are a classic example of this. But it can also be used to communicate emotional and mood states, or even whole ideologies and cultures. Many artists, particularly in the early 20th century, aimed to use art to bring about political change; this is sometimes referred to as ‘avant-garde’ art.

Whatever the function of art, one thing is clear: it requires imagination. Artists must imagine not only the final outcome of their work, but how it will be received and how it will impact upon those who experience it. They must also think about the materials, texture and colours used and how these will all feed into the meaning of the piece.

The resulting creations may be popular or unpopular, significant or trivial, but they will have been created with great care. Hours will have been spent staring into a blank canvas, page or stage; a mind trying to remember itself and what it is capable of. From the outside, this can look like idleness or even terror; but from inside it is hard to know what else to do.

So, in an age that is so fine-tuned to boosting productivity and maximizing efficiency, maybe it’s time to start thinking about what the purpose of art really is. It might be that in a society where we are increasingly disconnected from nature, our spirituality and our own emotions, art is a vital link to remind us of our common humanity. It can also connect us with diverse lifestyles and history, bridging gaps that language and time would otherwise divide.