What Is Art? What is an Artist?

I have been thinking about the word “artist” and what it means to be one. Obviously it’s a person that creates art, so why do we have to still get into debates over whether a person is an artist or not? Why do some people still believe that only the chosen few should have the title of “artist” stamped to their forehead?

The confusion naturally leads to the word “art” which is probably where all the mix-up starts. If a person has his/her own definition of art narrowed down to include pretty paintings and realistic sculpture, they may not classify a lot of artists as “artists”.

It’s a bit like my dad’s definition of God (which he thinks does not exist).. it’s narrow minded. Just because there’s no white bearded man in the clouds looking over us with a judging eye doesn’t mean there is no God, it just means that God might be something else. God might be the wind or spirit or the breath we breathe or he might even be the bum on the street that we always look down on. Perhaps my dad’s God is skepticism or science.

I got a little sidetracked there, and there’s probably no connection at all with artists and my dad’s definition of God! But my point was that “artists” can be more than an old man in the clouds with a white beard, looking down upon us with a judging eye. Oh, wait, that was God I was talking about. OK, “artists” can be more than a depressed, single, broke male with mental issues, hiding in his studio for his entire life, never selling any work, and becoming famous only when he’s dead.

The struggling artist is such a negative myth to cling to and having a narrow view of what art is can be almost as silly as clinging to fictional interpretations of what an artist is. Last time I checked what art is in the dictionary, it told me that it was a subjective and hard to define word.

So I start with classifying everything I see as art and that way I don’t miss anything that could be interesting to me. Of course I put things into different categories of art, but everything I see goes into the art box. There’s people as works of art, silly art, nature’s art, easel art, weird art, word art, shock art, ugly art, toilet art, car art, rubbish art, realistic art, crazy art, money art, shit art, and so on. Everything is art, just different types of art.

It’s a great way to appreciate the things around us that we pass by everyday too. I can get just as excited over a shape in a bathroom tile as I can over a good painting. A pile of old shoes can interest me as much as a bronze Rodin sculpture.

I would rather include too much in my definition of art than not enough. I sometimes feel like I’m walking around in a giant art museum, which can be a little over-stimulating at times, but at least I never get bored.

My definition of an artist includes people like Damien Hirst, even if I don’t like some of his art. Just because you don’t like the work of an artist, or the fact that an artist uses assistants (remember that a lot of old masters used assistants), doesn’t mean the person is not an artist.

Update: Here’s a funny video asking What is Art?

About Dion

Australian artist and observer of things.. all kinds of things. I like a wide variety of art, from the weird and wonderful to the bold and beautiful.. and everything in between.


  1. I think it is definitely counter productive to associate or restrict artists by associating them with the ‘artist starving in a garret’ category. Nobody wants to be in this position.

    It’s not desirable to have recognition or earnings after you have died either (although your relatives might be quite cheery about the extra income!).

    I expect it is because once out of college there is no set career structure for an artist to follow (we’re not in Renaissance times you can’t just be employed for 20 years to paint a chapel any more), and that the arts are so competitive that the starving artist myth endures.

    The idea of authorship is a contentious one. For some if the artist uses assistants this is merely following in an old tradition, for others it indicates a lack of ability on the artist’s part to create their own work.

    Personally I think it depends what you are making, if you want to make a 50ft bronze you might need some help from a workshop and a few assistants- the idea will be no less your own for having a bit of help. If you want to do a few drawings I think you should do those yourself, unless of course you are happy to use someone else’s drawing style in your work..

    Having a an open mind about what art is allows you to consider different sets of ideas, whether you believe the art you see to be good, interesting or effective in its aims is of course another ball game!

  2. Hi, Dion
    You’re beginning to take this art lark far too seriously. You must have missed Trotters Independent Painters, the latest artists to hit the news in the UK. Pay them a visit at:
    Maybe they’ll answer your question. Maybe not….

  3. I think there is real danger in allowing EVERYTHING to BE art. If everything you see IS art, then why give anything the title of art. Art can and does take a number of often unexpected forms. It has become necessary for artists to seek out new means and media to reflect and react to the human condition.
    Art needs both a maker and an audience. without a maker we are merely recognizing the inherent aesthetic qualities of an object or event. Without an audience the things one makes are nothing more than therapy or self indulgence.

    It IS important to keep an open mind and an ever evolving personal definition of art, but this is not the same is declaring everything art.

  4. Helly, personally, if I was buying a painting I would expect it to be painted by the artist. But this assistant thing seems to fade in importance with time. What if we found out that the face of the Mona Lisa was painted by an assistant of Leonardo’s.. Would it be any less of a painting?

    I’m not saying we should all have a team of asistants, but it’s nothing new for artists to have them.

    Ian, them pigs are kind of funny. I did see them. I was going to mention them on your site but I forgot about them.

    I think theyre terrible paintings, the pigs are cute, I hope theyre non toxic paints, but theyre still a type of art. I’m not talking about the kind of art that belongs in a museum, but there was an attempt by someone to create art.. so it’s art.

    The “artist” behind the piglets would be the farmer. And if his assistants get lazy or lose their touch, he can roast them.. literally.

    I dont think art is something precious that should be put in a box. That doesnt mean I would hang just anything on the wall, or that I like all art, just that I don’t care what people call art.

    If someone wants to call their can of coke art, I’m happy with that decision. I wouldnt buy their can of coke though, unless I was thirsty and the price was the same as in a shop.

  5. Those piggies are just tools to create art, so therefore it is art, cough! cough!

    I feel if something is created/used with the intent to be art then it is art, whether it was implemented by a the individual or orchestrated by the artist (with assistance from piggies, cats or humans) so be it.

    sez I the jafagal who needs assistants to clean studio, brushes and do the tedious hardware stuff on finished work, etc.

  6. I guess it just depends on what you prize the most, either:

    a) The ‘idea’, in which case it doesn’t matter how many assistants you have as long as the thing gets made (small nod to conceptualism here).


    b) Technical ability in which case you want the thing to be made by the person who had the idea.

    Obviously a&b can co-exist, but the people who put technical ability at the top of the list tend to get quite upset with art works which appear to prioritise the ‘idea’.

    I like both, I’m not choosing. : )

  7. Anonymous says:

    The existance of God as an analogy doesn’t work. Extricate yourself from your Judeo/Christian ideology and look at older religions that cannot concieve of a single god but many gods and goddesses.

    Even with all the worshipping of gods the supposed intervention of deities, there is no evidence – no breach of physics, no thumbprint, footprint etc. that proves that there is supernatural powers or presences in the universe. In fact the belief in a deity precludes logic and reason, which is why it is through FAITH (and indoctrination) that people believe in deities. It’s the cosmic equivalent of the emporer’s new clothes.
    Where your analogy succeeds is that both religion and the objectification of “art” are human constructs.

  8. I think that the definition of art is constantly changing therefore there cannot be one particular definition. I think it should be up to each individual to decide what they consider to be art.


  9. Anonymous says:

    i’m an arist and art is bollocks. create something and be happy with it.

    ‘So I start with classifying everything I see as art and that way I don’t miss anything that could be interesting to me’ – is called open mindedness, and nomenclature is a worthy skill. i do it too. no shame.

    i dig your blog.


  10. Anonymous says:

    Defining “art” in the 21st century is an onerous task because there is no way to standardize the concept. I have a grudging respect for Koons, Hirst and Warhol, but nothing but contempt for the so-called “Painter of Light”(tm).
    I tend to wince at found object art but can see how the urinal and a bicycle seat with handelbars an be considered art conceptually.
    It is that addition of conceptualism, starting in the late 19th century, that has taken the definition of art from design, skill and craft to reflexive constructs and ideas that may be ugly, beautiful, vulgar and naive – ironic or not. But art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder (and the buyer).

    An old Koan: Does an artist starving alone in a forest make a living?

  11. If everything can be art then everybody can be an artist. How right on is that? Or go a bit further… Everthing is art and everyone is an artist! even more right on. If i kick a football i become a footballer… just not a very good one. I pretend to be someone else for a moment and I become an actor but I’ll never get to play Hamlet. So we can all be right on and we all become footballers, actors and artists. Yet it is only in the field of fine art that judgements of talent are so vacant. A crap footballer will not get far and most dodgy actors remain unknown. I suppose the field of Music had Punk and Improvised Jazz but even that world soon moved on. Only the world of visual arts continues to pretend that any old tosh is art… almost to the point of insisting it be tosh and if not then condeming it as just pretty pictures. Lets try and be more judgemental and clearer about the meaning of words. A monkey can type a keyboard and produce a peice of insightful prose if only you the reader have the open mind to see it. Must close … need another bannana.

  12. Art needs no justification and neither does the artist. But maybe I am just trying to justify my obsession.

  13. Art states a human condition which relates to the known and unknowns.The artist may guide you in this journey!

  14. Great post. You know when I was younger I thought a lot about “art” with the big “A”, and how important it was to get my mind around it. Now at 45 I find that art is just so wrapped around every little aspect of daily life that it has become like the air I breath.

    ” Art is neither a profession nor a hobby. Art is a way of being.” — Frederick Franck

    I do treat art as both profession and hobby … yet it is often when I am in the moment of some small “life thing” that art seems to come dancing into focus with the big “A” screaming at me.

  15. Well then, I’m right on at being an artist and happy in the fact that your view includes me. Do I delude myself in that I’m a fine art artist or even a great artist? I can’t be because I haven’t devoted the time and effort to the art but there I am, an artist none the less.

    As for assistants, are they artists too or just the craftsmen (non-gendered of course) who take direction from the artist with the vision? Once an assistant becomes the master does all of his body of work become art?

    The circular logic of the “Is it Art” question always intrigues me. I like Earl the Monkey’s idea of being what you are doing. If that’s the case I need to add a few items to my resume.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Art is the quality of communication.

  17. digitalsculptor says:

    I like kevin’s comment on how art needs a maker and an audience… a lot. It seems many people go insane and name everything art… this misconception, i think, polutes, the artworld since it portrays a vague and confusing definition and alienates many people.

    hellyuk also mentioned how it’s often a debate between skill and idea. There are many artists who paint pretty pictures, and although they’re ‘artists’ by definition, I see them only as good craftsman. I categorize photorealistic painters in this one. But you do need skill shown in your work or else why would anyone want to see it? What’s the difference of you making it or anyone random in the world. It’s almost as if skill is your justification of displaying your work as a piece of art, in which the idea or thought should be more important. Picasso for instance was a great painter, and then had a great idea and developed cubism. He’s a good example, maybe not the best, on combining both skill and creativity.

  18. It’s always to me interesting to me the debate of “what is art?” …why bother?…isn’t art about the experience rather than debating about it? Certainly if you win the argument against my idea it will have no effect on my definition of “art”…It may help me look at things in a different perspective…however,I will continue to think a lot and be amazed when I see fractal patterns all around me…if you don’t regard my definition as “art” why should it make any difference to me or you? For me, my first step to trying to see in a new way has always been to try to find the “art” where I don’t see it…the results have always taken me down a path I never would have known to go…

  19. Art is whatever you want it to be. People can create paintings and sculptures or whatever but in the end its up to you to decide if you like it or not.

  20. Lauren Anderson says:

    Art is something that naturally comes out of someone i.e. the artist. It can be anything from movement (dance) color (painting, drawing, etc) or hammers and rocks (sculpture). To each his own.

  21. People define art differently all over the world. Some may believe “Art” is found on painting, murals, drawings etcetera, while others would define it as the beauty of nature. How does anybody know the true meaning of the word art when everybody has a different description and perception of the word?

  22. I believe that art is something different to every person. Art is a creation, some may hold an underlying message while other pieces were just made to be beautiful. When I read this topic I thought of the Simpsons when Homer was trying to build a grill (this may be because I watched my dad and brother take 3 hours to set one up today) but anyway Homer made a total mess of the grill. After his failed attempt some art critics came and bought his “work of art” from him. This just shows that art is truly in the eye of the beholder.

  23. in the end is the catagorization of people and the works that they have done really that important. Or is it the impact that those people and their works have on the world that makes them artists and their lifes work art.

  24. Kelsey Jacobucci says:

    Like many other people who have commented on this article, I believe art is everything and everywhere. You will never be able to clasify art to a group of paintings or sculptures because it is so much more than that!

  25. matt knutson says:

    Anyone can be an artist if they are creating it for money or for pleasure. As long as the the creator of the of the work believes that it is art. I think that we should start hiring artists to paint the ceilings of churches, it would probably make more people want to go to church.

  26. To me, art is an expression of one’s feelings that another person can relate with through either or all of the 5 senses.

  27. There is a reason why art is viewed differently. All art is is the expression of one’s self. Art is too abstract of a thing to have a single definition to abide by.

  28. In the end, Art is whatever we say it is. It’s hard to have an objective definition when the main idea behind art is something that makes you think.

  29. I think a lot of the debates on the definition of art is a result of fear and dislike. Like the baby squirrel, the narrow minded critics of art are afraid of anything that is different than them or their likings. I believe this issue doesn’t only apply to art, but many other situations in the world. However ultimately, the terms “art” and “artist” are very ambiguous and controversial.

  30. Art to me means intentional expression. It can be expression of emotion or just a thought. It can be any form of expression, a word, picture, melody, movement, a sentence and many more.

    Art is a difficult thing to name and be specific about but at the same time, it can’t be too broad because not everything is art. So I guess what I am saying is that it is discretionary, however who has the power to call something art is now the question.

  31. art. how ever your percieve it, however you look at it, how ever it makes you feel… it makes you think. You may think it is beautiful. you may think it is ugly. But it makes you think. It gets in your head. Art is how you see life.

  32. Art is definitely about having an open mind and what you consider art to be.
    To one person, a cowboy hat full of oil could be art work and ot another person it could just be a cowboy hat full of oil; it has no meaning to them. And just because it has no artistic meaning to them doesn’t mean they’re wrong or close minded. Much like beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder.

    Art is whatever you think is beautiful and inspires you

  33. I definately agree with the phrase;”It is in the eye of the beholder.” Cause if it wasn’t then people wouldn’t be able to show their interests and things that they may have in common when associating to, or admiring art.

  34. I believe most things are a form of art weather it be a painting, somebody dancing, or even a person snowboarding down a hill. You ca not just look at paintings or sculptures when you talk about art. Art is around you everywhere, art is an impossible word to define because it does aply to almost everything you can think of.

  35. I agree that yes art is a somewhat an expression of one’s self image and feelings at the time, and can therefore be a little bit difficult to understand the true meaning of art.

  36. i feel as though snowboarding is not art unless you try to make it art. although art can be effortless i believe it should have an intention of being art.

  37. After a career as a mechanical engineer and management consultant, I decided fifteen years ago to “become” an artist. Of course, I always was one and I believe we all are artists to one degree or another. I do, however, remember the reluctance early on in calling myself an artist because I seemed to have no credential to make such a claim. I suppose my ego was afraid of people rolling their eyes at me. Or maybe I was afraid of their probing to see if I was legitimate or not.

    Looking back, I now see how silly these feelings were. In a world that likes to label and compartmentalize, we tend to feel awkward, pretentious, or even offended by the apparent misappropriation of any kind of name or label. Back in my engineering days, I can recall being quite offended by janitors referring to themselves as “sanitation engineers.”

    My point is that language and labels are merely an abstract representation of reality. Such abstractions avail themselves to various interpretations and, therefore, inconsistencies.

    With this in mind, we artists are better served by not getting hung up on the notion of what is art or who is an artist because in the end, it is up to the abstract representation of the persons using the lexicon in his own way and another interpreting in his own way.

  38. Art is an avenue to our consciousness.By exploring and developing our capacities to be artists, we become more fascinated and fascinating as people as our consciousness exspands.If we are honest in our endevours,we may stimulate others through our work to exsplore, develope, and exspand their consciousness as well.

  39. The Great Zambini says:

    Art is a form of expression. I believe the comment about art being the beauty of communication is one of the best ways art has been described. Art arose out of communication with others and trying to understand each other. It inspires and allows cultures to flourish in new ways.

  40. I don’t think it’s fair to view everything as art. If you do that then no wonder the dictionary definition of art was so vague. Also, if art can be viewed as anything then you most certainly can’t define someone as an artist. With that reasoning you would have to say almost everyone is an artist. So I believe art is defined by someone who specializes in creating actual pictures and sculptures and thats about it.

  41. I agree that not EVERYTHING should be classified as art, but I don’t think it’s necessarily limited to pictures and sculptures. Photographers are definately artists. There is a certain technique used in the work they produce. I also classify clothing designers and makeup artists as, well, artists. But, I don’t think that there is art in everything that we see in our everyday lives. That is giving too much credit to people who don’t try to create something beautiful.

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