What is Art?

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The Driftwood Scenario

In building an identity as an artist one must be able to answer for themselves "What is art?". Every artist has a unique perspective when it comes to beliefs about the nature of art, beauty, and personal preference. 



Suppose a well-known artist happens to be vacationing in the small community where you are curator of the local museum. One day you see him walking along the beach, and you tell him that your museum - although it is almost without funds to purchase new works - would be greatly honored to be given a work by him. He pauses, smiles in an indecipherable way, and bends over to pick up a piece of driftwood that is lying on the beach. "Here," he says with a glint in his eye, "take this. Call it Driftwood.



1. Would you consider Driftwood art? Why or why not?

2. Would you put this object in your museum if you were the museum curator? 

3. Does the act of creating a work of art or the act of coming up with an idea make something art?


Credit: Cindy Ingram, Art Class Curator


Aesthetic Theories: Approaches to Art

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What is art? When is something a work of art?

The branch of philosophy that defines the various views or approaches to art is called AESTHETICS. While this branch of philosophy is formally classified with visual arts, we extend aesthetics to all art forms.

One approach is not superior to others. Aesthetics theories are not forms of evaluation: They represent varying views of the nature and purposes of art. Here are a few beliefs about art as clarified by Erickson and Katter (1977):

  • Some artists seem to value the useful, functional purposes that art works serve.

  • Some artists seem to be concerned with the formal order of things

  • Some artists seem to be concerned with expressing feelings, moods or ideas

  • Some artists seem to want to make things look real.


Self Portrait

What are your personal beliefs about art? What do you value?


Still Life Sketches

Aesthetics applies to the art we make as well as the art we view.




The following terms and definitions overview various aesthetic theories or approaches to defining art. These theories can be applied to any image, play, dance, song, poem or other work of art; they can be used separately or in combination, although combination is more common. Some theories apply more appropriately for particular works; some were more prevalent during different ages or in specific cultures.

Other theories such as sociological and neo-rationalist are not discussed here, and new theories are being developed to help define recently proposed aspects of art and performance. The field of aesthetics is constantly evolving: How can we encourage students to let their "views" of art evolve too?



    Art should look real or lifelike. It imitates, mimics, or copies something real. Quality is judged by faithfulness to the original. Early artworks were idealized; later works included more accurate or realistic depictions of nature or life.

    Scenes from the play “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare at the Deutsches Theater Berlin, via Wikimedia Commons


    Art should communicate strong feelings, ideas, moods, or emotions of the artist. It can be ugly if ugliness is expressed. Quality is based on the ability to arouse the greatest emotions. Art in abstraction can be expressive through symbolic representation.

    Portrait of Martha Graham and Bertram Ross, in Visionary recital, 1961, via Wikimedia Commons


    Quality of art is in its perfection of form. The formalist analyzes artistic elements and principles: for example, line, color, shape, balance, and unity. Quality requires coordination of all components. Subject matter and viewer associations are not relevant to evaluation.

    Composition No. III with red, blue, yellow, and black, by Piet Mondrian, 1929, via Wikimedia Commons


    Art, according to feminists, should be interpreted through a woman’s point of view. Judgement of quality is based on aspects of being a woman. This view reduces distinction between art and craft. Economic, class, gender, ethnic, and social contexts of an artwork should be considered.

    Self -Portrait by Mary Cassatt, 1878, via Wikimedia Commons


    Objects become art because they are exhibited, displayed, or promoted. An institute (gallery, museum, or publication) considers something art, therefore it is art. Quality is based on status or recognition of the institute.

    Fountain by Marcel DuChamp, 1917, via Wikimedia Commons


    Art is valued for its potential to give pleasure. This position is based on an individual’s valuing that pleasure is good and pain is bad. A statement of quality is based on degree of individual pleasure received, not on how much pleasure others gain from it. Such art usually presents an idealized view.

    Charlie Chaplin, (1915) by P.D Jankens (Fred Chess), via Wikimedia Commons


    Art should serve a social purpose. Art is an instrument to produce desired effects; thus it should portray vivid and extensive experiences or purposes. Instrumentalist art often encourages viewers to believe a certain political, social, moral, or economic idea.

    Maya Angelou reciting “On the Pulse of Morning”, at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993.


Representative to Non-Representative Art

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Some argue that art should reflect reality as closely as possible and that performance or visual product should be a literal depiction or representation of what the event, object, or emotion looks like in real life. This is what we call representational art. Others argue that the quality of the work is judged by its ability to communicate the strongest feelings, and a realistic depiction is not necessary, artwork can be non-representational. Because of these varying aesthetic opinions, all artwork falls somewhere on the spectrum of representational to non-representational art.


Mother and Baby



Forms of Abstraction


Abstraction is the method by which an artist moves their work from realistic or representational art to non-representational art. Abstraction can be done to varying degrees with artwork on the non-representational side of the spectrum being more abstract.

Depending on an artists intent, they may dutifully apply their studio training and understanding of the principles and elements of their art form to do one of two things:


  • create a literal representation of the real world (pantomime, portrait, documentary), or

  • manipulate realistic representations of the real world through methods and forms of abstraction to accentuate the emotion or mood of their message.


Below are four of many strategies artists use to manipulate the principles and elements of their art form to abstract their work and make it less representational.



the recurrence of an action or event (color, movement, image, line, energy, texture, sound, gesture, etc)


doing something over and over

Photo Credit: artprojectsforkids.org/how-to-draw-a-cupcake


The act of describing or representing something as larger/smaller than it really is


emphasizing a specific aspect or element


put upside down or in the opposite position, order, or arrangement.


to flip in the opposite direction or to change inside out


To pull or twist out of shape, to change the form


alter shape - bend, twist, stretch

Questions for Discussions on Aesthetics

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Animals? nature? children? laypersons? crafts persons? artists? Who decides that an individual is an artist-peers, critics, self, museum goers, the public, a museum curator?



It required a long time to create? It cost a lot to produce? It required great skill to produce? It required extensive training and thought? It has great historical value? It looks similar to well-known artworks? It is beautiful?



When an artist says it is? When an expert says it is? When a critic says it is? Does its price indicate its value-When was it sold? for how much? Does it have to be beautiful? Can it be ugly? What makes something ugly or beautiful?



On display in an art gallery, on a billboard, in a magazine? on television, in a book?



Communicate visually? Record people, places or events? Express ideas, thoughts or feelings? Stimulate thinking or reasoning? Imitate real objects? Abstract real objects? Influence society, elicit change? Stimulate the senses of sight or touch?



Behaviors for Discussions on Aesthetics

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Starry Night



  • Present reasons or arguments to support their view

  • Respond to what someone else says

  • Change an earlier decision if desired


  • Clarify what has been said

  • Encourage everyone to be involved in some way

  • Ask questions, present varying or opposing views

  • Summarize arguments, affirm positions, and develop closure

  • Remind students that aesthetics is not a defined science and is therefore open to change

Purposes of Art

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The arts play a major role in our lives and impact us personally as well as a society. The arts allow the expression of individual voices as well as represent the collective voice of a community. To discuss the roles and the impact the arts have on daily life and society we have categorized four possible purposes for the creation and performance of art.

The purpose of a work of art is related to the message of the artist, the intended audience, and the artist's personal aesthetic preferences. Conversely, an artist's aesthetic choices could be influenced by their message, audience, and purpose of a work of art. The development of a work of art sometimes begins with a specific purpose and aesthetic preference, or the purpose and aesthetic preference can evolve over time. A work of art could accomplish several purposes simultaneously, similar to the way a work of art may represent multiple aesthetic theories. 


Creative works of art whose products are to be appreciated primarily or solely for their imaginative, aesthetic, intellectual content or technical skill.

Fine Art

Folk Art


Works of art made in context of folk or traditional culture, often produced to unify communities, and demonstrate or teach group values for everyday life.


Works of art produced to entertain an audience and cater to trends in mass media.




Works of art produced to facilitate sacred, spiritual, secular, or religious ceremonies or rituals.

Becoming an Artist

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USE your IMAGINATIONEXPERIMENT with alternatives. 

PERSIST where others may give in. DREAM and FANTASIZE about things. 

CONCENTRATE for long periods of time. WORK HARD where others may give up. 

LOOK at things more closely than other people do. 

EXPAND old ideas to create new ideas and ways of seeing things. 

MAKE connections between different things and ideas. 

EXPLORE different ways of thinking and doing things. REARRANGE things in new and interesting ways. 

TAKE RISKS and do not fear failure. DO SOMETHING because it is INTERESTING.

CREATE or exhibit.

RESPOND to art.

SHAPE material.

EXPRESS feelings.

CONNECT and tell stories.

COLLABORATE or inspire.

FORM ideas into pictures.


Sketch Book Wonders

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Visual records can be used in classrooms to encourage and develop student creativity, individual expression, and self-reflection. Sketchbooks are not designed to be formal or finished works of art, but rather emphasize the enormous process-based benefits of creating visual art and engaging the right side of the brain. The principles and activities discussed in this section are designed for teachers and students alike, and can be implemented in classrooms in myriad ways.




Sketchbooks are not just for artists: everyone can benefit from using a sketchbook, visual journal, idea book, or bullet journal. Maintaining a sketchbook or similar visual practice is a useful way to hold and develop ideas. Creating or using an idea book helps develop concentration and focus. Making a visual record aids deeper thinking, which develops meaning-making skills and links memory with experience. Sketchbooks guide thought-process mind-maps by developing cognition and enhancing observation skills. Journals and sketchbooks cultivate curiosity, inquisitiveness, exploration, and imagination. Writing or drawing ideas can encourage questions and generate new and different ideas, creating previously unrealized links between new thoughts and old ones. This process lends a sense of freshness and vitality to a personal vision, related goals, and overall life mindset.




Some ideas, experiences, or memories cannot be held or expressed with words. Visualizing these through drawing or other artistic expression gives motion, life, and physical space to life's unspoken moments. Keeping a sketchbook of these moments helps note progress over time and is a safe environment for brainstorming and big ideas, mistake making, and cathartic release that creates greater confidence. Instead of focusing on the perceived perfection of a final artwork or masterpiece, a sketchbook nurtures an appreciation for the process and journey of art making and personal development. Art can link memory and learning in unique and indelible ways, and gives the creator a greater sense of expressive freedom and self-awareness.




SCRIBBLE: Make a line, then take it for a walk and see what happens. Put a mark on the paper and observe as the line transforms into something else.

KEEP AT IT: Draw, sketch, or scribble daily to promote creative thinking. Embrace the process. Remember the words of artist Vincent Garriano: "Drawing trains you to follow what your eyes are showing you, rather than what your brain is telling you."

EXPLORE and EXPRESS: Use a variety of media, or drawing tools. Try a pen, colored pencils, ink, watercolor, or collage. Test new tools, vary what goes in, and experiment with space, lines, shapes, colors, shadow, and scale. 

TEXT HELPS TOO: Written text has its place in sketchbooks: date each exercise, and try to include a place as well. Express thoughts, add poems, words, feelings, ideas, or select one word to describe the daily entry. Using words with images adds depth to specific studies, fosters self-awareness, and generates new mental links and deeper understanding.

COLLECT CREATIVITY: Staple or tape meaningful notes, receipts, ticket stubs, lists, or photos to sketchbook pages. Focus on items that spark a memory or experience. Adding these elements is a great way to integrate other curricular topics like math, reading, science, writing, history, and other art forms into the overall function of a sketchbook.

HAVE FUN: Invite students to add personality and individuality to their books. Encourage the addition of color, text, drawings, patterns, or collage to the cover. Giving the book a name, or physically changing it in some way (using hole punches, stickers, or stamps) can be a fun and useful exercise for self-discovery. Sharing sketchbooks with other class members can ignite new ideas and create more profound personal connections with others.

Live Artfully

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Live with excellence, insight, authenticity and passion. Embody each experience for deep knowing. Articulate the beauty, anguish and irony in life. Develop new skills, actively participate, exercise your judgment, broaden your perspective, do what you love, know who you are, let your voice be heard and your gifts be seen. 


Engage in the arts and experience what each art form can do for you.



Dance engages the body, the primary instrument for living. Draws people to the community. Introduces you to yourself. 



Music propels the dance. Provides the beat and rhythm for life to open and release the melody of your personal voice.



Drama brings form to the dance as you craft your own story. Characterizes elements of oneself and of others. Elicits empathy. 

Visual Art

Visual Arts crystalize a single moment for observation and reflection. Improves perception and discernment. Clarifies one's point of view.


Literary Arts

Literary Arts articulate meaning with words to inspire ideas and to evoke images and imagination.


Media Arts

Media Arts capture the experience so you can distill the message, edit the content, and disseminate your thoughts.


What arts skills would you like to learn or refresh?   Begin today ...


Contributed by Cally Flox, Director of the BYU ARTS Partnership