What is Art and Who Defines It?

in art •  last year 

Since people first started making it, the debate has raged: what exactly is art and how do we define it?

The thing is I’m not sure you can define art. It’s subjective. I don’t think it is possible to quantify art any more than it is possible to quantify people.

That being said, one thing I do know about art is that it instills imagination and hope in the minds of those who make it and view it. We’ve all heard the saying “if you can dream it, you can do it”. Well, I believe that’s true. I think it is awfully hard to imagine a better future for yourself, or for your community, if you aren’t able to envision that future and creatively solve any obstacles in your way.

Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man's emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity. -- Leo Tolstoy

I agree with Tolstoy. Intrinsically, I have always been drawn to art and the creative community because of its power to unite people and build empathy amongst them. Something magical happens when you see people’s walls come down as they begin to create--a sort of ageless delight settling over them. If we could get more people to tap into the same font of creativity they possessed as children, the world would be a better place.

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” -- Pablo Picasso

I think about this quote from Picasso regularly as a creative person. Part of my job is to help communities who might not usually identify themselves as artists (for example I work in a prison) tap into their imagination and creative energies. As a theatre artist, the element of PLAY is a huge factor in helping me get adults out of their heads and into an artistic frame of mind.

I believe that art is the primary force in our culture that helps us to dream, and to connect with other dreamers.

I interact with art every day: I’m either making it, writing about it, or viewing it. And, because of the communities in which I work, I regularly see powerful expressions of creativity far beyond the walls of a traditional gallery or theatre space.

I have had the most transformative artistic experiences in the most unlikely of places. I say this because sometimes artistic excellence can be equated with those artists who are associated with traditional venues, producers, and opportunities. You can read my recent post on race and gender disparities in American theatre to get a better sense of how arts leaders and institutions have excluded nontraditional narratives for all too long from mainstream opportunities (this does not just apply to theatre casting, but also to grant recipients, residencies, and more).

Above all, artists must not be only in art galleries or museums—they must be present in all possible activities. The artist must be the sponsor of thought in whatever endeavor people take on, at every level. -- Michelangelo Pistoletto

Despite the struggle to decide what qualifies as art and who determines merit, the freedom within the creative field to innovate and push boundaries of forms that have been around for centuries still boggles my mind. I am incredibly blessed to work with artists of all disciplines and learn about what moves them to create.

From my experience, here are the 4 reasons I see art being made:

Art for pure expression

This is “art for art’s sake”. This art is a study in form, technique, and medium. The goal is to create something that expresses an idea, a feeling, or a story. While it may certainly tie to human or civic themes, that is not the primary goal. The primary purpose is to capture an aesthetic, or create something new.

Art for personal transformation/empowerment

This art is tuned to the individual artist. It is about identity, self-empowerment, and very likely therapeutic. This art can also transcend the individual experience, and begin to empower a community experiencing a similar issue. For example, an artist approaching mental health could transform not only their own experience, but also the experiences of members of their audience who engage with them through the performance event.

Art for social change

This art addresses inequity directly. Sometimes this art could look like professional artists making work in response to a civil or human rights issue. Sometimes this art could look like artists working directly within communities to activate individuals as artists in their own right. This art is likely at the intersection of art and activism (I like to call it artivism).

Art as business practice

This art is part of an artist’s brand identity and professional plan. A photographer needs to create prints to sell, a performer needs to have something to perform if they wish to sell tickets. At some point, there is an economic component to art-making, and for those making a living off of their creativity, it is impossible to forget this aspect.

“Creativity is contagious, pass it on.” -- Albert Einstein

Another of my favorite quotes that is SO TRUE. Art begets art begets art. While I don’t know if you can measure art, I do think you can see exponential growth from individuals and artist collectives when they freely collaborate and let go of any ego attached to the creative process.

Ultimately, the thing I love most about art is that is captures the essence of what it means to be human.

When I experience art I’m experiencing a window into someone else’s view of the world. I’m learning about other people, and by so doing, I’m also learning about myself. I have found that art and creativity are deeply holistic ways of getting to know yourself and the world around you; and I have often felt that my artistic practice is akin to a spiritual practice. Much like religion, this “faith” I have in art requires my utter commitment, dedication, and passion. While I gave up on the church a long time ago (sorry, Mom) I’ve only grown closer to my art.

Perhaps this is how I experience the divine on earth.

And with that, I’ll leave you with 3 questions:

  1. What do you think art is?
  2. What role do you see art playing in our world?
  3. What do you think makes a piece of art GREAT?

I’d love for you to share your thoughts in the comments! :)

(FYI, all images from Unsplash)

Check out more of my work:
I just went to prison for 5 months. Again. | 03
The State of the Art | Race and gender in American theatre.

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Another stellar, thought-provoking post. I've definitely struggled with certain types of art - mainly, non-form art like abstract and color studies. It's almost as if I had an art prejudice as if I had to understand it or it wasn't art... I've learned since then! Now, I take time to appreciate non-form art through the perspective of what it compels me to think, feel, and experience in the moment.

To answer your questions:

  1. My 'definition' of art has changed as I've matured. At first, art was talent. Then, art was production. Now, art is expression. Truly, anything can be art in my eyes, and if I see it as art, so it is. If another person does not see what I do as art, that is their perspective and it is theirs to own! Maybe this vagueness dilutes the meaning of art or the achievement of acclaimed artists, but since my opinion is so personal and fairly irrelevant to the industry as a whole, I should think it's okay. 😁

  2. Art is the universal language. While we don't always understand each other's intentions, dreams, emotions, and expectations, the clearest way I see those ambiguities can be communicated is through art.

  3. This is a tough question - as I see greatness in technique, in uniqueness/creativity (pushing boundaries or going somewhere few have before), and in affect (or effect?). How does the art affect me or you or an entire group of people? Many do not see Banksy's work as art because is it graffiti, a defamation of public property that Banksy has no right to defame. Yet, their artwork impacted a vast group of people with its critical themes, its brash display, and its sense of mystery. In my eyes, all of those and so much more equate to talent.

Oh, and by the way,

You've been featured in our latest curation: Ladies of Steemit, Volume 7 | Artist Selection

Keep up the great work! 💓


First of all, thank you for the feature you amazing woman you! <3

Secondly--I love these answers and I’m so glad the post got you thinking. I’ll admit I posed the question to myself last night and then stayed up until 3am writing because I was having so much fun thinking about it.

I think, like you, my definition of “art” has changed--or maybe I’ve just unlearned some of the prejudices I attached to art because of how things are messaged or valued in the world (i.e. as a child I would think that real art was what was found at the Met Museum, not necessarily in a community setting). Now, my definition is much broader--and richer! I see art as a conduit for social change, and see the ability of a piece to reach its audience authentically as a critical component of “greatness” (per your point in #3).

I also cannot agree enough with your statement that art is the universal language. Yes. When something creates a common, shared experience or reaction amongst an audience it automatically incites a feeling of kinship and connection. Art is a wonderful bridge to bring people together!

I could literally go on and on. :) But I won’t...just appreciate you and the comment.

Great read and thanks for sharing. I believe art is 100% subjective. As such I stopped caring if anybody else liked the art I like, and I stopped caring about the tastes of others. For me, my appreciation for an artist begins when I know they are doing something I can't (which doesn't take much to be honest.) But sometimes I see the equivalent of a stick figure and am expected to think it's cool. For me, if the artist has to explain what their art is, and I simply ain't feelin it, then I just keep it moving and go looking for the piece that does. Regardless of my opinion though, I generally love it all.

One of the highlights of my life thus far was getting to see Van Gogh originals in Amsterdam. Stunning.

Dali is my second favorite. I met a woman once who claimed to be one of his sketch models back in the day. His style is so wild.

A LOT of interpretation of art (and talent) seems to be tied with the story of the artist's life or personality. I thought Jackson Pollock was a way better artist before his signature style came to be, and Andy Warhol was essentially a screen printer making t-shirts on canvas (my opinion) whose personality allowed his art to become known.

But I also like Bob Ross so there you go....

The arguments can go on for days and days. Thanks for getting my mind going. Upvoted and following ya now. Aloha!


Aloha! Are you in Hawai’i?!

Thanks for this comment, glad the post got you thinking! I really love what you say about not caring about the opinions of others and instead liking art based on your own reaction to it. I personally think that one element of “great art” is its ability to incite a reaction in the viewer--so if something does that for you I think that’s a wonderful thing! :)


Totally agree. No, on mainland. Many friends from there, go back and forth. Maui.

  ·  last year (edited)

This is SUCH a great post - so thought-provoking and considered. I loved your '4 reasons' and it's really interesting to me that my own artistic activities encompass each of them pretty much equally!

What do you think art is?

I experience human art as the co-creative process of a discrete, individual expression of Life, working together with All That Is - channelling, through their own particular filter, the Life that informs them. One might say that art is the visceral, embodied expression of Life exploring Itself, in the case of humanity by way of exploring and attempting to express and address the experience of being human. It's also my considered opinion that Nature is The Greatest Artist in the existence, matter creating new ideas, new patterns, new individuals, inspired and compelled by the great, unknowable, unfathomable Mystery.

What role do you see art playing in our world?

I'd like to think that art can help to save us as a species from ourselves - art, combined with love (and especially a love of nature). It is one of the great antidotes to the sickness under which the masses currently labour. Ultimately, in a world which did not labour under the restrictions placed upon it by the 'ruling elite', all of us would be absolutely free to express ourselves creatively, without fear of repercussion. I feel that art pushes us individually and collectively, towards this realisation. The realisation of our own enslavement and the way to free ourselves from it. All art carries this message, if we listen carefully enough. Being creative is a subversive act. It bucks against everything the control system would force upon the individual. When expressed without restraint, art sets the imagination, the heart, the soul of the participant free, even if it's only for the duration of the artistic endeavour.

What do you think makes a piece of art GREAT?

For me, GREAT art is the art of BEING ONESELF, the individual that one truly is, beyond and before the indoctrination we are subjected to by culture. the truly great artists for me are those who give society and its mores the middle finger, and sing their own unique song with all of their heart. Being brave enough to do that is actually an Art all of its own. Great art casts aside that which is divisive in favour of that which unites. Great art has an unmistakably life-serving resonance. Great art reaches into the heart and says, "THIS, you will hear, and feel, and see!", does it not?

With love,

Jay xxx


I cannot get over the following statement:

Being creative is a subversive act.

As a theatre-maker a lot of my work has been in Theatre of the Oppressed technique (which is often described as a rehearsal for the revolution). It was developed in Brazil when there was an oppressive political regime that stifled artists because they knew that creative thought was dangerous! Your comments above really resonate with me, as I’m thinking along these lines a lot!

And I love your definition of great art as the act of BEING ONESELF. I think that to truly be your own self, and express it openly without self-judgement, is a great gift! I could really go on and on here, but I love what you’ve shared and am so appreciative that you took the time to leave such a thoughtful comment!

For me, I think art is a way to translate the world around me from the mundane to the extraordinary. Maybe this aligns with your second point and I just see it through a different lens and, while I thought it might be worth mentioning, I think it speaks to a larger focus your writing addresses well here which is that it doesn't matter if you identify with these categories, or even identify with a category.

Art is your own, it lives inside of you, no one can take your reason or lack thereof away from you, and all reasons or non reasons are valid for pursuing expression.

My hope is that art continues to act as a medium through which we can grow more empathetic and mindful as a species - hopefully move us towards personal and individual growth just as much as the collective.

Great writeup here, @lilyraabe, always happy to see your works across my timeline and even happier to see you as part of the @thealliance family.

All the best!


Thanks so much for stopping be to leave this amazing comment. :) I love when you say that art “translates the mundane to the extraordinary”! I also think it can show model and mentor ways that the world could be. All of it really builds to more growth, empathy, and creativity. Also, this statement is everything:

Art is your own, it lives inside of you, no one can take your reason or lack thereof away from you, and all reasons or non reasons are valid for pursuing expression.

I think art is the manifestation of unique creative expression in some form. It could be something as simple as the particular way someone talks with their particular lilt and enunciation and language that communicates in such a way as to open another to unforeseen possibilities. Building something or doing math can be art I think. The definition does not lie in a particular medium but rather in the singular expression of the creator. It feels Real. It is interesting and beautiful or at least sublime. It is what I think Plato was attempting to articulate when he mused on the Real and Forms and the Shadowland. In my language Plato was trying to express his Groove. I think what we are calling Art requires a way to communicate that Groove at some meaningful level to be art. The impulse to create and express I think is basic life force stuff. The ability to express and communicate ones particular groove to the point that it can be engaged by others and impacted is what for me is art. So perhaps the "art" part exists in the communication, the creative expression of one consciousness with another. This would be true even if something I've done from the depths of me communicates who I am to my ego. Peace friend.


Terrific point about how anything can be an “art” if the medium is applied creatively! It all comes down to intention, practice, and imaginative self-expression that leads us to better understanding the world and our place in it! Thank you so much for stopping by! :)

Wow! Fantastic post. I had to stop reading several times to think. I truly enjoy the Tolstoy quote. He struggled with the same 3 questions you have throughout his life and I think his answers changed as he grew. I know my answers now would differ considerably to when I was an adolescent and young adult.

What do you think art is? I think my answer is a bit simplistic, but I think it is a manifestation of our view on the world, at least what we see of it, expressed in a way that isn't traditional such as typical speech or writing. It then gives us a chance to stretch the boundaries of how we feel/understand things outside of language. It also allows our dreams to take form, which can be extremely difficult to do with the limitations of language.

What role do you see art playing in our world? Tough question. I think my answer to the first covers this partially, but there are certainly some limitations on how art can play a role today. Not impossible, but certainly limited.

What do you think makes a piece of art GREAT? Greatness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. I personally define "greatness" as providing value to the individual and to those affected by their actions. I think art works in this same way. Unfortunately, "value" is nearly as ambiguous as "great" or even "art".

Thanks again for the post and for making my brain work a little harder today. Looking forward to more posts from you.


Hey there! Thank you for this lovely and thoughtful reply! I don’t think that the definition of art as a “manifestation of our view of the world” is simplistic at all...I actually think that that would be the starting point of a rich and ongoing conversation (it could be its own post!). Ha.

And I am so with you that “value” is placed all over the place, with great subjectivity! So happy we were able to connect over this piece. :)


I discussed your post and linked it in my post on the poem, "In Flanders Field". I was writing about how the poem inspired the Red Poppies of Remembrance Day. Hope you don't mind me linking your post. ;)

I'm not sure I agree with how you broke down art. There are many motivations for art, to which you mentioned a few, but those are not what makes art into art.

Art is the manifestation of our brain's capabilities when applied to a medium.

For example, painting is the use of pattern recognition on various objects to simplify them and recreate them through the mixing of pigments on a canvas. Drawing is the same, only using the medium of graphite, or charcoal, or pen, etc. Sculpting is likewise trying to simplify the patterns of the world.

The problem is when what we are using our brain to recreate is not something easily grasped. For example, what if you tried to paint loneliness? What if you tried to create the melancholy felt by the entire human population of the world as it faces it's possible impending doom due to its own actions? What if you just let your mind run wild and paint whatever it wanted to?

Similar processes to these lead to very abstract art that perhaps cannot be easily understood. Especially when it's using a medium that perhaps is not very well recognized, and departs a bit too far from the norm for most people's comfort.

It's still art though. I think, perhaps, a lot more is art than we are willing to accept. If someone makes a movie for example, it might not always be high art, but it is often art, even when we don't want to accept it. It's the director's vision applied to the world.

I don't think the motivation matters. Someone can create a beautiful piece of art for art's sake, or for a commission. In 1000 years, will we even know? Or will it be just another piece of art in a museam that people wonder the story behind?

Brilliant piece, but I gotta say, I disagree with Tolstoy. I'm more with the metaphysicians.


I love this comment because it makes me think: I agree that the communion of people is the greatest force of art...however I also believe that the act of connecting people and building empathy is, in fact, mysteriously beautiful and perhaps a manifestation of the divine. Building community through creativity is powerful.


Wow, that is such a brilliant compromise. It's not even a compromise, I guess, but a genuine stance on its own. Wow. I'm so following you!


Thank you! It’s funny to me because after you posted this comment I’m realizing that I don’t exactly agree with Tolstoy either...thanks for making me think!


Lol, I guess he shouldn't have totally dismissed those other stances. He should have been more like you and find a way to find a common denominator in them; a way to link them as you astutely did. Cheers.

  ·  last year (edited)

I suppose I Art for all those 4 reasons switching and mixing every now and then hehe

The last one is the one that seems to define in my case my activity as designer and illustrator...while I do enjoy doing that most of the time it's always tied to the requirements of someone else, the client....so doesn't give the freedom I want when I create something for pure need to create something....which often is therapeutic to curb anxiety or derpression....

Hmmm well now that I think it, I rarely venture in the Artivism with a clear goal...except for expressing my own freedom and individuality...it is a message to the society but not for society.

About your question...hmmm
1.- I see art as a skill we have developed, it can manifest in many forms...you can trade it or use it to express something or nothing...

2.- Is what makes culture

3.- It has to transmit something, be it causing amazement for a high quality, a clever way to tell a story or message which gets bonus points if it that story or message actually makes you feel something deeper, I have to connect with it at some level...

If an Artwork has all of these elements, then I would declare it a Master piece.

Sorry for being so disorganized with my thoughts, I have to work more on that.

Great post! 🐋🐋🐋 some whales for you!


Thank you so much for reading and stopping by! I love that you define art as needed to “transmit” something...I think that is so important...work that is able to transit a message, or a value, or a feeling is truly remarkable.

Thank you @lilyraabe. I don't think Iam really an artist in the traditional sense but I am creative on different levels so I appreciate artists and what they create.

Appreciate you bringing this to light


Always appreciate you stopping by and supporting! :)

Nowadays gallerists define art, which I find wrong. Because with help of big guys like Gagosian it turns just into another machine of capitalism. I am strongly for an artist to decide what is art.


I like your thought that the individual artist themself gets to define what art “is”. :) Thanks for stopping by to read!

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We've been talking about this subject on Facebook all day so I thought it would be good to repost it on our thread.

Art is the belief in what it is.


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Awesome, glad it resonated with you today. :) Thanks for the support, it’s appreciated. Cheers!

Hi @lilyraabe,

Firstly; what an excellent post!

Secondly, to my thoughts in response to yours. :)

Art is a symptom of society; a language hidden within language: be it visual representation, or an installation, an experience; or something that is created.

Art is about what it means to function, and dysfunction. It defies classification, and can sometimes be serious, and sometimes be fun.

When I was studying my Masters, one of the guys in my group staged a fictional exhibition which was brilliant. He appropriated the State Gallery, with a headline show, documented simply on business cards.

Definitely art for arts sake, but also an excellent and thought provoking troll.

Art informs us; it's a broader; looser view of the world, and most importantly: it is the avant garde; literally.

It is prophetic and essential.

I look forward to reading more of your content.



I love these thoughts!! When I posted this article I honestly never expected so many people to respond so thoroughly and thoughtfully to the questions I posed. It’s been amazing to get to hear smart folks share their thoughts--like you have done here! The State Gallery project sounds really interesting and like it took the project into new experimental forms of “making” which I love. Thanks for the support and see you around!

Interesting and thought-provoking. I love art, the concept and I also love many works of art themselves. However, I've grown to loathe art in the modern sense of it. I feel a lot of it is put a top a pedestal, merely because it is art. Whereas other works of art, by unknown or unrecognized people, is dismissed as 'nice craftsmanship'.
Sadly there is a lot of pretentionists in the current art world.

Theoretically I adhere to the 'art can be anything' doctrine but in practice I notice that I lean much more towards seperating what I consider to be actual art from the 'pretentious' kind.


Your point that works of art by unknown or unrecognized people get dismissed as “nice craftsmanship” really rings true for me--I’ve definitely seen that attitude played out in real life. Thanks for stopping by to check out the post! :)