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What is art ?

A couple of painter friends and I meet for coffee every week on the Cape to talk about our work and big questions like what is art. My contribution comes from the period when I was first entering shows and confronting exclusions that suggested that photographs might not be considered art. I wanted to know what terms could be used to enter a rebuttal discussion.

Also, as I was making inkjet prints on watercolor paper from digital files created from scanned negatives, I got myself into the question of just what is a photograph and how to call what I did....what to put on that little line of the entry card that said "medium".

This is what I came up with and have been working by.

First, I would hesitate to call this a definition of art...maybe elements.


1. the artist or subject.

2. the object...something the artist/subject engages with or reacts to. might be the artist him/herself. The easy example to imagine is a painter looking at an inspiring scene. We have subject and object.

3. the medium. what stuff is the subject going to use to convey something about the engagement with the object? Oil on canvas? Clay? Ink on paper? Sounds on a flute? Body motions?

4. the method. highly related to medium, but not the same. paper is a medium. painting on it is a method. printing on it using an engraved plate is another method. drawing on it is another method.

5. the art. this is the hardest part. something intangible that results from the artists engagement with the object and takes form in their application of method to the medium and elicits a reaction in the viewer/audience.

6. the audience. art is not complete without an audience. maybe art does not exist without an audience. if a tree falls in the forest and there is noone to see the painting I made of it, is the painting art? But this is a little sterile. It is not just the existence of the audience, but what happens in the soul of the audience when confronted with the art. Is it shocked? Stimulated? Pleased? Inspired? Amused? Turned on? Made thoughtful?

What is more important....what Leonardo did to make the Mona Lisa, or what the Mona Lisa does to us? Not sure, but if there were no "us" there might be a Mona Lisa, but it wouldn't be art.

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