Why Can’t Art Be Defined?

Art can be tough to define. Sometimes when we see a work of art, we wonder if it is really art.

Art can be tough to define as art has no set standards or manual. Art can also be anything which the artist tells us is art. Art critics also use their knowledge and experience to judge what they see as great art or bad art; art critics try to define art to know what they are looking at.

Here are some reasons why art is hard to define.

Art Has No Set Standards

In today’s world, the artist, maker, creator, or seller says whether or not what we are looking at is art or why it is great art. Art has no set standards or a manual. There are no real gatekeeping organizations to define what is considered art and what is not art.

In the past, art had a lot more rules, and many artists conformed to the rules of their time. They would paint what was considered to be socially acceptable for the time.

An example of an artist being forced to conform to make a living was the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944). Today Hilma af Klint is considered a trailblazer for modern art, but she painted those works mostly in secret during her lifetime. Upon her death, she requested that the art be kept secret until 20 years after her death.

When finally uncovered in 1960, the world discovered that she had over 1,200 magnificent pieces of modern art in colors and techniques considered way ahead of her time.

By clicking here, you can learn more about Hilma Af Klint by reading Who is the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944)?

We learn from Hilma that even if art has no standards or gatekeepers, in a sense, the gatekeepers or standards are the public or art buyers who will determine what an artist can sell to make a living. Throughout time, artists like Hilma af Klint have usually had to paint what the public wanted to survive financially.

Even though Hilma af Klint really wanted to paint her modern art, she felt the world would not accept her art during the time she lived (1862-1944). Hilma af Klint hid her art from the world until she felt that the world would be really ready to understand her paintings.

Art Is Anything You Can Get Away With

“Art is anything you can get away with”

Marshall McLuhan

“Art is anything you can get away with” is an art quote usually credited to the American artist Andy Warhol; the Canadian philosopher and media theorist Marshall McLuhan first made this statement in his book “The Medium Is The Massage.”

Andy Warhol popularized the statement that “Art is anything you can get away with.”

Both Warhol and McLuhan understood that art was defined by what the artist said was art – or simply what an artist could get away with and tell us is art. After all, Andy Warhol was able to turn a can of Campbell soup into a work of art.

This is what can make it so hard to define art; art is so subjective. One person thinks of it as art (as a can of Campbell soup), and others may think of it as an everyday object (just a can of Campbell soup and not art). It is this subjectiveness that makes art so hard to define.

So in a sense, art is, like McLuhan said, is what an artist can get away with for the time and place that they live. Hilma af Klint is an example of an artist considered to have amazing art, but she never saw success for that art during her lifetime.

Vincent Van Gogh is another artist that saws no real success during his lifetime. People did not understand Van Gogh’s art, yet today he is considered one of the most important artists to have ever lived.

Hilma Af Klint and Vincent Van Gogh did not see success in their artwork during their lifetimes. Both of them were ahead of the time. McLuhan understood both Van Gogh and Hilma af Klint when he said:

“The artist must ever play and experiment with new means of arranging experience, even though the majority of his audience may prefer to remain fixed in their old perceptual attitudes.”

Marshall McLuhan

Vincent Van Gogh and Hilma af Klint both understood that the world was not yet ready to understand their art during their lifetime. Neither of them was defined by the times they lived or the art of their day. This lack of definition is what has made them such great artists.

McLuhan and Warhol both had a point that art and definition of art are in many ways also what an artist can get away with for the time and place they are living.

Art As Defined by Art Critics

Art critics define art; it is their job to view art and make judgment calls based on their experience, knowledge, and perception. Respected art critics are usually listened to; they help define art.

There are usually two types of art critics as defined below:

  • Art Critics Who Look At Norms Of The Day: There are those art critics who look at the norms of the day and will then judge the art according to acceptable norms of their day, place and time. Those art critics who criticized the impressionist made a judgment calls according to what was acceptable art for the day, time, and place when the Impressionist were painting. These art critics are usually defending the old artistic standards and values against the new ones.
  • Art Critics Looking For Something New: The other art critics are those who are looking for something new. They will judge the art on how new, creative, fresh or exciting they feel it is. These art critics are defending the new artistic standards against the older ones.

Most art critics are faced with either of these two choices: defending the old standard and values against new ones or defending the new artistic standards against the old.

An art critic responds to what they perceive as the meaning of the art and then makes a critical judgment about the work of art. Today, an art critic’s role is to help the viewer make a judgment call on the artwork and show them why they made that specific interpretation or call.

In a sense, an art critic’s role is to help us define the art we are viewing and help us view and understand the art. Because art critics are highly trained, their views can help us better define the art and what we are viewing with the art, but the art critics are still making an artistic judgment call based on their training, understanding, and own perceived point of view.

Art critics disagree on what art is good and what is not. In fact, one may love a work of art, and others hate it. So even among the art critics, they may make two different judgment calls.

This is why it can be so hard to really define art as art can be so subjective. I believe Leo Trotsky said it best when he said:

Art is the uniting of the subjective with the objective, of nature with reason, of the unconscious with the conscious, and therefore art is the highest means of knowledge.

Leo Tolstoy

This subjectiveness makes art so hard to define and why “almost anything will go in art.” What we define as great art today may not be tomorrow.

Anita Louise Art – #ArtThatMakesYouSmile -we love all kinds of art, even art we cannot easily define.

If you are interested to see any of my art, you can find out more by clicking here. If you are interested in what inspires me and my paintings, you can discover more by clicking here.

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Anita Louise Hummel

Hi, I am Anita Louise Hummel. I am an artist and a blogger. I paint mainly oil paints. I love to paint women, animals (mainly dogs and cats), and abstracts. I use a lot of gold and silver leaf in my paintings. I also love to blog about anything to do with art, business, Procreate, and all the wonderful artists that inspire me.

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