What Makes Art, Art?


What makes something art

It seems that there are countless definitions, and nearly anything can be considered art. 

I took a painting and drawing course last summer, and as part of the program, I was introduced to a variety of visual artists. I met graphic artists, traditional painters, socio-political artists, as well as a performance artist whose work was very unusual. In one piece, she mounted a piano to a mountain and set the piano on fire. In another, she put furry animal costumes on scuba divers and made them swim. In a third piece, she put the same animal costumes on musicians and made them play their music while sitting on a moving ski chair lift. And in the final piece, she put an alien-like costume on herself and sang made-up words into a microphone, only to have the sounds come out of a paper-mache rock flying over her head.

At first, none of her work inspired or moved me other than made my jaw drop in shock. But what is fascinating to me now, is that, six months later, I am still thinking about those exhibitions and wondering what it was all about. What was she trying to express? Why did my teacher choose to introduce her to our class? What makes her art, art? 

Growing up in New York, I have witnessed many people dancing or singing on the streets (particularly in Times Square) and I would certainly categorize them as performing artists. But it never occurred to me that someone could perform visual art. 

I have always considered the definition of good visual art to be a piece that moves, inspires, or sparks wonder and curiosity. Something that sticks with me. Typically, it would be a photograph, a painting, a drawing, a piece of digital work, a sculpture, ceramics, a collage, mixed media, a metal carving, etc. I had never included performance visual art in that category. Though the exhibitions we learned about this past summer were certainly odd, does the fact that I am still contemplating what she was trying to express mean that it was a successful work of art? Or were her exhibits so shocking that my mind simply couldn’t erase the images and memories? Must art be something objectively beautiful? Or can art be defined as something that elicits a reaction — any reaction? 

At the end of the class I had the chance to interview the artist and I asked what inspired her to create these unusual works. Her response? She craved a unique opportunity to express herself. 

After thinking about her response, I realized that at its core, art is simply a story. It could be a story about the artist, or a story the artist wants to bring to the viewer’s attention. And even if beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the artist’s work does not resonate with us as viewers, we should remember to try to find the story. There is always a story behind a piece, and there is always something to learn.