why art?


Roy Lichtenstein, ART, 1962; oil on canvas; 39 3/4 x 71 1/2 in. Gordon Locksley and Dr. George T. Shea Collection; © The Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

As hard as it may be to define the word “blog,” attempting to define “art” is a far more herculean task, one that I will not even attempt. I have spent countless hours in classrooms discussing the topic, while each person in attendance knew fully well that no consensus of definition will (and perhaps should) ever arise. But, I do feel it is important to at least pose the questions, offering up a few different philosophical classifications that have been/are used.

Stick with me, a lot of philosophy here. But once it is out of the way, we can move on to more diverting and colorful things. Or, for you insatiable scholars out there, I’ve provided citations for further reading (and I mean a lifetime of further reading).

What is the Origin of Art?

  1. Art as something universal, innately shared/communicated by all humans across time and culture.
  2. Art as a specific conveyance of cultural values, dependent on time and location.

What is Art?

  1. Art and representation of life.[i] [ii] [iii]
    What do we do with abstraction, because who doesn’t love Kandinsky?


    Vasily Kandinsky, Several Circles, 1926, Oil on canvas, 55 1/4 x 55 3/8 in. (140.3 x 140.7 cm), Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP Paris

  2. warhol_ft

    Andy Warhol, Brillo Boxes, 1970, Commercial silkscreen on industrially fabricated plywood boxes, each 20 x 20 x 17 in.

    Art and expression.[iv] [v] [vi]
    What about 20th century works that instead investigate the “idea” of art (Warhol and his pesky Brillo Box identical to the mass produced laundry detergent)?

  3. Art and form.[vii] [viii]
    How then do we ever classify Robert Morris’s action work Steam which has no premeditated form?


    Robert Morris, Steam, 1974, Installation at University of Washington

  4. Art and aesthetic experience.[ix] [x] [xi]
    What about John Cage’s 4’ 33” or better yet, what about bad art (something many art insiders deny existence, but everyone knows is out there)


    Alfred Stieglitz, Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

  5. Art is unified by a network of crisscrossing “family resemblances” or “cluster theory.”[xii] [xiii]
    This is a long group of different criteria that would take us too far down the rabbit-hole for this attempt at a short blog post.
  6. Art determined by history or institution, known as the “artworld” (artists, critics, curators, collectors, or “anyone…if only they acquire some knowledge and understanding”[xiv]).[xv] [xvi] [xvii]
    Duchamp and your “readymades”—thanks for bringing on these mind games!

(If you haven’t noticed, modern/contemporary art really threw a monkey wrench into everything.)

I personally have to agree with Neo-Wittgensteinian theory that: “the phenomena of art are, by their nature, too diverse…A definition of art, were there to be such a thing, would exert a stifling influence on artistic creativity.”[xviii]  Or according to Weitz: “Art’s creative, rebellious, transgressive nature prevents its definition.”[xix] Luckily, being able to define something does not necessarily account for its value or importance, so perhaps we should move on from the question of What is Art?[xx] and instead ask…

Why Art?

Art is everywhere — the food we order, movies we see, clothes we purchase, Instagram accounts, objects in museums, etc.

 “Art is the appearance of the idea.” —Hegel-Schiller          

“Art is too serious to be taken seriously.” —Ad Reinhardt

 “In your light I learn how to love. / In your beauty, how to make poems. / You dance inside my chest, where no one sees you, / But sometimes I do, and that sight becomes this art.” —Rumi

“Art is the highest form of hope.” —Gerhard Richter

“We have art so that we may not perish by the truth.” —Friedrich Nietzsche


“How important are the visual arts in our society? I feel strongly that the visual arts are of vast and incalculable importance. Of course, I could be prejudiced. I am visual art.” —Kermit the Frog

 “Whatever adds richness to the experience of being alive is an art.” —Quang Ho

“I expect art to make me scream, art to reveal soul.” —Kay WalkingStick

“Art, as far as it is able, follows nature, as a pupil imitates his master; thus your art must be, as it were, God’s grandchild.” —Dante

“Art is anything you can get away with.” —Andy Warhol 

 “Art is guaranty of sanity.” —Louise Bourgeois

 “Art is about paying attention.” —Laurie Anderson

 “Our cultural productions and our art will define us, whether we like it or not…A civilization that does not value its artistic expressions is a civilization that does not value itself…The arts teach us to respect both the diversity of our communities and the strength of our traditions.” —Makoto Fujimura

“Art is not a pleasure, a solace, or an amusement; art is great matter.”
—Leo Tolstoy

[i] Plato, The Dialogues of Plato, translated by Benjamin Jowett, 3rd ed. (London: Oxford University Pres, 1892).
[ii] Arthur Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).
[iii] Aristotle, Poetics, translated by Ingram Bywater (New York: Random House).
[iv] R.G. Collingwood, Principles of Art (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1938).
[v] Leo Tolstoy, What is Art, translated by Almyer Maud (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company: 1985).
[vi] Susanne Langer, Feeling and Form (New York: Scribner’s, 1953).
[vii] Clive Bell, Art (London: Chatto and Windus, 1914).
[viii] Roger Fry, Vision and Design (New York: Meridian, 1956).
[ix] John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Putnam, 1934).
[x] Monroe C. Beardsley, “Redefining Art,” The Aesthetic Point of View, edited by M.J. Wreen and D. M. Callen (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982).
[xi] Noël Carroll, “Beauty and the Genealogy of Art Theory,” Philosophical  Forum, vol. xxii, no. 4 (Summer, 1991).
[xii] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe, 3rd edition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1968).
[xiii] Berys Gaut, “’Art’ as a Cluster Concept,” Theories of Art Today, 25-44.
[xiv] Noël Carroll, Philosophy of Art (New York: Routledge, 1999).
[xv] Stephen Davies, Definitions of Art (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1991).
[xvi] George Dickie, The Art Circle: A Theory of Art (New York: Haven, 1984).
[xvii] Jerrold Levinson, “Defining Art Historically,” British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 47 (1979).
[xviii] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations.
[xix] Morris Weitz, “The Role of Theory in Aesthetics,” JAAC 15 (1956).
[xx] Nick Zangwill, “Groundrules in the Philosophy of Art,” Philosophy 70 (1995), 533-44.

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