Updating a Definition of Art

Published on July 29, 2008 (↻ March 25, 2024), filed under (RSS feed for all categories).

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When I tried to define art, design, and decoration, I described art as

Art hides. Art has a meaning, and it hides it, on purpose. Art delivers a message, and that message is hidden, on purpose. It is an art to create art. Art is unusable, by definition.

Several months and discussions later I wonder if it wasn’t more appropriate to at least extend this definition to:

Art has a meaning, and it hides it, on purpose; art intentionally creates emotions, creates feelings. […]

I think that this updated definition, albeit still not complete, does not only raise the bar and underscore the value of art, but also makes it more “compatible” with the definitions of design and decoration (as design or decoration could very well refer to art as well, especially when triggering emotion). It is also more reliable, as “art hides” is kind of ambiguous, and could still leave the door open to all the people labeling “put paint on something” or “throw your keys on the table” as art.

Yet, there seem to be two more dimensions to consider: On the one hand art, like other disciplines, depends on context, so some cultures may have a different understanding of it, meaning that art might trigger something else, or nothing at all. On the other hand, there is a craft dimension, emphasizing skill in the vein of masters. I wonder how to include both dimensions in the definition, so I appreciate your thoughts.

In general, I write about art because of an urge to stop debates that wind up defining everything as art. Many people have a sense of what art is, but only a renewed definition might preserve “real” and unveil “pseudo-art.” I think there exists a definition that is more helpful than other principles of art.

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About Me

Jens Oliver Meiert, on September 30, 2021.

I’m Jens, and I’m an engineering lead and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for companies like Google and as an engineering manager for companies like Miro, I’m close to W3C and WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly and Frontend Dogma.

With my current move to Spain, I’m open to a new remote frontend leadership position. Feel free to review and refer my CV or LinkedIn profile.

I love trying things, not only in web development, but also in other areas like philosophy. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.

Comments (Closed)

  1. On July 29, 2008, 22:20 CEST, Duluoz said:

    I really like this topic. I have thought about this quite a bit myself and come to inconclusions and talk myself in a circle.

    I have one complaint:

    Most people have a sense for what is art,…

    I think this is a false assumption. I think everyone has a preference, rather a predjudice, as to what they want art to be or not be. Or am I confusing this with design?

    Also, is there a taste for “pseudo-art” as an artform? 😉

  2. On July 31, 2008, 13:08 CEST, Thorsten said:

    Ich bin mir ziemlich sicher, daß es kaum gelingen wird, eine ausschließlich verbale Definition von Kunst zu formulieren. Erst recht, wenn man versuchte, sie positiv zu formulieren und nicht in Abgrenzung zu anderen Begriffen.

    Den Befund, daß dennoch darüber hinaus den Meißten im Konkreten klar ist: Das ist Kunst! - oder eben nicht, teile ich.

    Ein Kunst-”Konsument” fällt sein Urteil aufgrund einer bestimmten Wirkung, die er an und in sich feststellt - in Interaktion mit dem Kunstwerk. Das scheint mir - wie auch immer - wesentlich.

  3. On August 2, 2008, 14:13 CEST, Jens Oliver Meiert said:

    David, interesting; what do you think makes something art for most people?

    Thorsten, in English, please… Then, defining art still isn’t easy, no. But do you have something in mind that would go beyond “causing an effect”?

  4. On August 3, 2008, 20:21 CEST, Thorsten said:

    Ok - I’ll try. I think it’s not alone “causing an effect” or “creating emotions” (this does design, too, isn’t it?) but a real extraordinary state, achieved by the interaction between the work of art and the one who joins it. Perhaps it’s what Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi and Andreas Burzik call “flow”. I posted an articel (german) about it here.

  5. On August 4, 2008, 3:51 CEST, Duluoz said:

    I really am not sure why people tend to see things as being art or not. I presume many times people are told something is art and they don’t question it. Even if its premise is wrong, they have formed a definition of what is art or what art should be. I think if we were left alone, in seclusion, we’d label less things as art, since we’d have no outside influences swaying judgment. Though I’m not so sure what then would be labeled as art since the very definition is in question. Hmm.. only more questions…

  6. On August 18, 2008, 17:43 CEST, Uli B. said:

    1_ Art has no purpose.

    2_ Art is made by human beings for human beings.

    3_ Art deals with rules.

    . . . . .

    ad 1_ With purpose I mainly think of political or financial aspects. It is a misuse of art when its created to achieve advantages in these fields. The worth of art can’t be estimated with political or financial terms.

    ad 2_ This emphasises the communicational aspect of art.

    ad 3_ I think, rules are the theme of all arts.

    . . . . .

    Art is a very complex thing and therefore defining it is a paradoxical task. I hope my 3 little sentences make sense - at last a litte bit 😉

  7. On August 22, 2008, 8:16 CEST, Jens Oliver Meiert said:

    Thorsten, interesting idea, though I struggle connecting “flow” with art (apart from an artist being in “flow” while working on something).

    David, indeed, things truly don’t get easier when thinking about the “told something is art” case. I wonder about that as well (and need a moment to apply that to what has already been said).

    Uli, interesting, and I’d like to hear more about that; especially, does art really have no purpose, and what rules do you mean in particular?

  8. On August 24, 2008, 11:03 CEST, Kroc Camen said:

    Art is personality.

  9. On August 25, 2008, 14:15 CEST, hall groat sr said:

    art is” feeling and emotion “. the combination of negative and positive allows the visual and/or audio experience to transcend from its mark or selected form. art only exists with interpretation . it must be percieved by a living creature or remain dormat.

  10. On August 31, 2008, 18:59 CEST, Uli B. said:

    Perhaps its best to compare art with games: Do games have a purpose? I think they have none.

    All kind of rules can be the theme of art, f.e. proportions, visuals schemes, grids, aesthetical principles, moral standards, conventions.

    While “playing” with them, art will either change these rules or affirm them.

    That happens without “purpose”, it happens automatically, just by playing with rules. Of course this playing is a very intense process, sometimes it is more fighting than playing.

  11. On March 3, 2009, 19:24 CET, Appah Joseph said:

    For me, I believe that the definition of art is difficult but like Kenneth Lansing in his article “Why need a definition of art” said it is important to get an acceptable definition this concept. Art is a human phenomenon and has been in existence his creation or humans emergence on the world scene.

  12. On March 23, 2009, 22:44 CET, John Womack said:

    Here is my take on how “art” might be described: http://thedancingtrail.blogspot.com/2006/12/art-or-craft.html

    Also, while philosophical discussions usually begin with a definition of the subject, as Socrates indicated the really important words can’t be defined. He had his protagonists work with characteristics of the subject. This can work as long as we stick to questions and eschew answers.

  13. On November 4, 2009, 19:46 CET, George Susini said:

    Art is one of very few things in life that simply cannot be defined. It is what it is.

  14. On June 11, 2012, 15:43 CEST, Victoria said:

    Art is special not only does it help your brain but it expresses your individuality that words can’t explain.