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EDU 107 - Creative Arts for Young Children - Textbook

Chapter 12 | What is Art?

What Is Art?

  • Students will be able to discuss the purpose of art and the benefits in the early childhood classroom.

Why It Matters

Define “art” within the context of the ongoing discussion about its meaning (course level learning objective)


As a thought experiment, imagine what a society without art would be like? How would buildings look? Could any kind of visual communication exist at all? It’s a provocative question that quickly necessitates defining the boundaries of what does and does not constitute art. This mirrors the complexity of engaging in the ongoing definition of art.

Art is studied because “it is among the highest expressions of culture, embodying its ideals and aspirations, challenging its assumptions and beliefs, and creating new visions and possibilities for it to pursue” (Sayre, XVI). When we discuss contemporary art, we are typically referring to the practice of fine art, but prior to the Renaissance, art was defined within the realm of functional crafts, such as goldsmithing. The idea of autonomous art or art for art’s sake developed later, over many eras.

Studying art leads to a greater understanding of our own cultural values and of the society that produced it. When colonizing forces of Europeans encountered African wood sculptural nkisi figures, primarily in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo,  they considered them to be evidence of idolatry and witchcraft or opposition to the colonizing forces (Sayre 11–12). The figures were often pierced with nails as a symbolic gesture to initiate a desired goal, like protection from an enemy. The invading Europeans often destroyed the nkisi figures, which were sacred objects to the Congo people. We will return to this example at the end of the module.

Visit this link to see an example of a nkisi sculpture.

The material covered in this section will help you understand how we arrived at our contemporary understanding of art and how to begin engaging in the ongoing definition and discussion of art.

Module Learning Outcomes

  • Recognize and summarize changing perceptions and definitions of art throughout history.
  • Define aesthetics and some variables in how we perceive and assign value to art.
  • Describe and discuss some contemporary theories in the definition of art.

How to study for the Performance Assessment (PA)

The PAs for this module are answering short essay questions that are designed to test your understanding of the learning outcomes (listed above) for this module. Read through the two performance assessments for this module BEFORE you begin the module content. I suggest printing them out, or making notes of the keywords in each question. Then, as you read through the module content take notes on the subjects or anything that you find relevant to the PA questions. Be sure to document the page or place in the content where you found each note, in case you need to return to that content, or need to ask me a specific question citing module content. Once you are ready to complete the PAs, you will have these notes to help you answer the questions thoughtfully.

OK, let’s get started!

Work Cited

Sayre, Henry. A World of Art, Sixth edition. Boston: Prentice Hall, 2010. Print.

Art as a kind of communication and expression of culture

Recognize and summarize changing perceptions and definitions of art throughout history

Learning Activities

The learning activities for this section include:

  • Reading: Defining Art from the Medieval Period to Renaissance
  • Reading: Defining Art from the Academy to Avant-garde
  • Reading: Defining Art from Modernity to Globalization

Take time to review and reflect on each of these activities in order to improve your performance on the assessment for this section.

Purpose of Art

Purposes of Art

Explain the difference between non-motivated functions and motivated functions as purposes of art

Learning Activities

The learning activities for this section include:

  • Reading: Purpose of Art

Take time to review and reflect on this activity in order to improve your performance on the assessment for this section.

Purpose of Art

Art has had a great number of different functions throughout its history, making its purpose difficult to abstract or quantify to any single concept. This does not imply that the purpose of art is “vague” but that it has had many unique, different reasons for being created. Some of the functions of art are provided in the outline below. The different purposes of art may be grouped according to those that are non-motivated and those that are motivated (Lévi-Strauss).

Navajo rug with geometric patterns


A Navajo rug made circa 1880

Non-motivated Functions of Art

The non-motivated purposes of art are those that are integral to being human, transcend the individual, or do not fulfill a specific external purpose. In this sense, art, as creativity, is something humans must do by their very nature (i.e., no other species creates art), and is therefore beyond utility.

  1. Basic human instinct for harmony, balance, rhythm. Art at this level is not an action or an object, but an internal appreciation of balance and harmony (beauty), and therefore an aspect of being human beyond utility.

    Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature. Next, there is the instinct for ‘harmony’ and rhythm, meters being manifestly sections of rhythm. Persons, therefore, starting with this natural gift developed by degrees their special aptitudes, till their rude improvisations gave birth to Poetry. —Aristotle

  2. Experience of the mysterious. Art provides a way to experience one’s self in relation to the universe. This experience may often come unmotivated, as one appreciates art, music or poetry.

    The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. —Albert Einstein

  3. Expression of the imagination. Art provides a means to express the imagination in nongrammatic ways that are not tied to the formality of spoken or written language. Unlike words, which come in sequences and each of which have a definite meaning, art provides a range of forms, symbols and ideas with meanings that are malleable.

    Jupiter’s eagle [as an example of art] is not, like logical (aesthetic) attributes of an object, the concept of the sublimity and majesty of creation, but rather something else – something that gives the imagination an incentive to spread its flight over a whole host of kindred representations that provoke more thought than admits of expression in a concept determined by words. They furnish an aesthetic idea, which serves the above rational idea as a substitute for logical presentation, but with the proper function, however, of animating the mind by opening out for it a prospect into a field of kindred representations stretching beyond its ken.  —Immanuel Kant

  4. Ritualistic and symbolic functions. In many cultures, art is used in rituals, performances and dances as a decoration or symbol. While these often have no specific utilitarian (motivated) purpose, anthropologists know that they often serve a purpose at the level of meaning within a particular culture. This meaning is not furnished by any one individual, but is often the result of many generations of change, and of a cosmological relationship within the culture.

    Most scholars who deal with rock paintings or objects recovered from prehistoric contexts that cannot be explained in utilitarian terms and are thus categorized as decorative, ritual or symbolic, are aware of the trap posed by the term “art.”
    —Silva Tomaskova

Motivated Functions of Art

Motivated purposes of art refer to intentional, conscious actions on the part of the artists or creator. These may be to bring about political change, to comment on an aspect of society, to convey a specific emotion or mood, to address personal psychology, to illustrate another discipline, to (with commercial arts) to sell a product, or simply as a form of communication.

  1. Communication. Art, at its simplest, is a form of communication. As most forms of communication have an intent or goal directed toward another individual, this is a motivated purpose. Illustrative arts, such as scientific illustration, are a form of art as communication. Maps are another example. However, the content need not be scientific. Emotions, moods and feelings are also communicated through art.

    [Art is a set of] artifacts or images with symbolic meanings as a means of communication. —Steve Mithen

  2. Art as entertainment. Art may seek to bring about a particular emotion or mood, for the purpose of relaxing or entertaining the viewer. This is often the function of the art industries of Motion Pictures and Video Games.
  3. The Avante-Garde. Art for political change. One of the defining functions of early twentieth-century art has been to use visual images to bring about political change. Art movements that had this goal—Dadaism, Surrealism, Russian constructivism, and Abstract Expressionism, among others—are collectively referred to as the avante-garde arts.

    By contrast, the realistic attitude, inspired by positivism, from Saint Thomas Aquinas to Anatole France, clearly seems to me to be hostile to any intellectual or moral advancement. I loathe it, for it is made up of mediocrity, hate, and dull conceit. It is this attitude which today gives birth to these ridiculous books, these insulting plays. It constantly feeds on and derives strength from the newspapers and stultifies both science and art by assiduously flattering the lowest of tastes; clarity bordering on stupidity, a dog’s life. —André Breton (Surrealism)

  4. Art as a “free zone,” removed from the action of the social censure. Unlike the avant-garde movements, which wanted to erase cultural differences in order to produce new universal values, contemporary art has enhanced its tolerance towards cultural differences as well as its critical and liberating functions (social inquiry, activism, subversion, deconstruction…), becoming a more open place for research and experimentation.
  5. Art for social inquiry, subversion, and/or anarchy. While similar to art for political change, subversive or deconstructivist art may seek to question aspects of society without any specific political goal. In this case, the function of art may be simply to criticize some aspect of society.


    Spray-paint graffiti on a wall in Rome

    Graffiti art and other types of street art are graphics and images that are spray-painted or stenciled on publicly viewable walls, buildings, buses, trains, and bridges, usually without permission. Certain art forms, such as graffiti, may also be illegal when they break laws (in this case vandalism).

  6. Art for social causes. Art can be used to raise awareness for a large variety of causes. A number of art activities were aimed at raising awareness of autism, cancer, human trafficking, and a variety of other topics, such as ocean conservation, human rights in Darfur, murdered and missing Aboriginal women, elder abuse, and pollution. Trashion, using trash to make fashion, practiced by artists such as Marina DeBris is one example of using art to raise awareness about pollution.
  7. Art for psychological and healing purposes. Art is also used by art therapists, psychotherapists and clinical psychologists as art therapy. The Diagnostic Drawing Series, for example, is used to determine the personality and emotional functioning of a patient. The end product is not the principal goal in this case, but rather a process of healing, through creative acts, is sought. The resultant piece of artwork may also offer insight into the troubles experienced by the subject and may suggest suitable approaches to be used in more conventional forms of psychiatric therapy.
  8. Art for propaganda or commercialism. Art is often utilized as a form of propaganda, and thus can be used to subtly influence popular conceptions or mood. In a similar way, art that tries to sell a product also influences mood and emotion. In both cases, the purpose of art here is to subtly manipulate the viewer into a particular emotional or psychological response toward a particular idea or object.
  9. Art as a fitness indicator. It has been argued that the ability of the human brain by far exceeds what was needed for survival in the ancestral environment. One evolutionary psychology explanation for this is that the human brain and associated traits (such as artistic ability and creativity) are the human equivalent of the peacock’s tail. The purpose of the male peacock’s extravagant tail has been argued to be to attract females. According to this theory superior execution of art was evolutionarily important because it attracted mates.

The functions of art described above are not mutually exclusive, as many of them may overlap. For example, art for the purpose of entertainment may also seek to sell a product (i.e. a movie or video game).

Art, Aesthetics, and Beauty

Art, Aesthetics, and Beauty

Art and the Aesthetic Experience

Beauty is something we perceive and respond to. It may be a response of awe and amazement, wonder and joy, or something else. It might resemble a “peak experience” or an epiphany. It might happen while watching a sunset or taking in the view from a mountaintop—the list goes on. Here we are referring to a kind of experience, an aesthetic response that is a response to the thing’s representational qualities, whether it is man-made or natural (Silverman). The subfield of philosophy called aesthetics is devoted to the study and theory of this experience of the beautiful; in the field of psychology, aesthetics is studied in relation to the physiology and psychology of perception.

Aesthetic analysis is a careful investigation of the qualities which belong to objects and events that evoke an aesthetic response. The aesthetic response is the thoughts and feelings initiated because of the character of these qualities and the particular ways they are organized and experienced perceptually (Silverman).

The aesthetic experience that we get from the world at large is different than the art-based aesthetic experience. It is important to recognize that we are not saying that the natural wonder experience is bad or lesser than the art world experience; we are saying it is different. What is different is the constructed nature of the art experience. The art experience is a type of aesthetic experience that also includes aspects, content, and context of our humanness. When something is made by a human– we know that there is some level of commonality and/or communal experience.

Why aesthetics is only the beginning in analyzing an artwork

We are also aware that beyond sensory and formal properties, all artwork is informed by its specific time and place or the specific historical and cultural milieu it was created in (Silverman).  For this reason we analyze artwork through not only aesthetics, but also, historical and cultural contexts.

How we engage in aesthetic analysis

Often the feelings or thoughts evoked as a result of contemplating an artwork are initially based primarily upon what is actually seen in the work. The first aspects of the artwork we respond to are its sensory properties, its formal properties, and its technical properties (Silverman). Color is an example of a sensory property. Color is considered a kind of form and how form is arranged is a formal property. What medium (e.g., painting, animation, etc.) the artwork is made of is an example of a technical property. These will be discussed further in the next module. As Dr. Silverman, of California State University explains, the sequence of questions in an aesthetic analysis could be: what do we actually see? How is what is seen organized? And, what emotions and ideas are evoked as a result of what has been observed?

Works Cited

Silverman, Ronald. Learning About Art: A Multicultural Approach. California State University, 2001. Web. 24, June 2008.


Perception and Value

Define aesthetics and some variables in how we assign value to art

Learning Activities

The learning activities for this section include:

  • Reading: Art and the Aesthetic Experience
  • Reading: Value Judgment

Take time to review and reflect on this activity in order to improve your performance on the assessment for this section.

Value Judgment

Value Judgment

How We Assign Value to Art

The word art is often used to apply judgments of value, as in expressions like “that meal was a work of art” (implying that the cook is an artist) or “the art of deception” (the advanced, praiseworthy skill of deceiving). It is this use of the word as a measure of high value that gives the term its flavor of subjectivity.

Does It Have to Be Visually Pleasing or Not?

Making judgments of value requires a basis for criticism. At the simplest level, deciding whether an object or experience is be considered art is a matter of finding it to be either attractive or repulsive. Though perception is always colored by experience, and is necessarily subjective, it is commonly understood that what is not somehow visually pleasing cannot be art. However, “good” art is not always or even regularly visually pleasing to a majority of viewers. In other words, an artist’s prime motivation need not be the pursuit of a pleasing arrangement of form. Also, art often depicts terrible images made for social, moral, or thought-provoking reasons.

A group of terrified civilians face a firing squad of soldiers; several bloody dead comrades lie at the civilians' feet.


Francisco de Goya, El Tres de Mayo. Image is in the public domain.


For example, the painting pictured above, by Francisco Goya, depicts the Spanish shootings on the third of May, 1808. It is a graphic depiction of a firing squad executing several pleading civilians. Yet at the same time, the horrific imagery demonstrates Goya’s keen artistic ability in composition and execution, and it produces fitting social and political outrage. Thus, the debate continues as to what mode of aesthetic satisfaction, if any, is required to define “art.” The revision of what is popularly conceived of as being visually pleasing allows for a re-invigoration of and a new appreciation for the standards of art itself.

Art is often intended to appeal to and connect with human emotion. It can arouse aesthetic or moral feelings, and can be understood as a way of communicating these feelings. Art may be considered an exploration of the human condition or what it is to be human.

Factors Involved in the Judgment of Art

Seeing a rainbow often inspires an emotional reaction like delight or joy. Visceral responses such as disgust show that sensory detection is reflexively connected to facial expressions and to behaviors like the gag reflex. Yet disgust can often be a learned or cultural response, too; as Darwin pointed out, seeing a smear of soup in a man’s beard is disgusting even though neither soup nor beards are themselves disgusting.

Artistic judgments may be linked to emotions or, like emotions, partially embodied in our physical reactions. Seeing a sublime view of a landscape may give us a reaction of awe, which might manifest physically as increased heart rate or widened eyes. These unconscious reactions may partly control, or at least reinforce, our judgment in the first place that the landscape is sublime.

Likewise, artistic judgments may be culturally conditioned to some extent. Victorians in Britain often saw African sculpture as ugly, but just a few decades later, those same audiences saw those sculptures as being beautiful. Evaluations of beauty may well be linked to desirability, perhaps even to sexual desirability. Thus, judgments of art can become linked to judgments of economic, political, or moral value. In a contemporary context, one might judge a Lamborghini to be beautiful partly because it is desirable as a status symbol, or we might judge it to be repulsive partly because it signifies for us over-consumption and offends our political or moral values.

Judging the value of an artwork is often partly intellectual and interpretative. It is what a thing means or symbolizes for us that is often what we are judging. Assigning value to artwork is often a complex negotiation of our senses, emotions, intellectual opinions, will, desires, culture, preferences, values, subconscious behavior, conscious decision, training, instinct, sociological institutions, and other factors. Watch the video below to hear discussion on these factors in value judgement.


Watch this video on the artwork titled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst. Consider the complexity of the interpretative experience of art and how value is assigned to an artwork.

The Ongoing Definition of Art

Describe and discuss some contemporary theories in the definition of art.

Learning Activities

The learning activities for this section include:

  • Reading: Defining Art

Take time to review and reflect on this activity in order to improve your performance on the assessment for this section.

Defining Art

Defining Art

We have explored how the definition art has changed throughout history and the many complex factors that can be at play in assigning value to art. Despite this difficulty, ongoing discussion around the definition of art continues to evolve within our often complex, globally engaged society.

Some Contemporary Theories Defining Art

Many have argued that it is a mistake to even try to define art or beauty, that they have no essence, and so can have no definition.



Campbell’s Tomato Juice Box, 1964, Andy Warhol, Synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on wood, 10 inches x 19 inches x 9 1/2 inches (25.4 x 48.3 x 24.1 cm), Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2007 Andy Warhol Foundation / Fair Use

Andy Warhol exhibited wooden sculptures of Brillo Boxes as art.

One contemporary approach is to say that “art” is basically a sociological category that whatever art schools and museums, and artists get away with is considered art regardless of formal definitions. This institutional theory of art has been championed by George Dickie. Most people did not consider a store-bought urinal or a sculptural depiction of a Brillo Box to be art until Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol (respectively) placed them in the context of art (e.g., the art gallery), which then provided the association of these objects with the values that define art.

Proceduralists often suggest that it is the process by which a work of art is created or viewed that makes it, art, not any inherent feature of an object, or how well received it is by the institutions of the art world after its introduction to society at large. For John Dewey, for instance, if the writer intended a piece to be a poem, it is one whether other poets acknowledge it or not. Whereas if exactly the same set of words was written by a journalist, intending them as shorthand notes to help him write a longer article later, these would not be a poem.

Leo Tolstoy, on the other hand, claims that what makes something art or not is how it is experienced by its audience (audience or viewer context), not by the intention of its creator.

Functionalists, like Monroe Beardsley argue that whether a piece counts as art depends on what function it plays in a particular context. For instance, the same Greek vase may play a non-artistic function in one context (carrying wine), and an artistic function in another context (helping us to appreciate the beauty of the human figure).

Contemporary Disputes about the Definition of Art

Philosopher David Novitz has argued that disagreements about the definition of art are rarely the heart of the problem, rather that “the passionate concerns and interests that humans vest in their social life” are “so much a part of all classificatory disputes about art” (Novitz, 1996). According to Novitz, classificatory disputes are more often disputes about our values and where we are trying to go with our society than they are about art. For example, when the Daily Mail criticized Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin’s work by arguing “For 1,000 years art has been one of our great civilising forces. Today, pickled sheep and soiled beds threaten to make barbarians of us all” they are not advancing a definition or theory about art, but questioning the value of Hirst’s and Emin’s work. On the other hand, Thierry de Duve argues that disputes about the definition of art are a necessary consequence of Marcel Duchamp’s presentation of a readymade as a work of art.

Controversy around Conceptual Art

The work of the French artist Marcel Duchamp from the 1910s and 1920s paved the way for the conceptual artists, providing them with examples of prototypically conceptual works (the readymades, for instance) that defied previous categorizations of art. Conceptual art emerged as a movement during the 1960s. The first wave of the “conceptual art” movement extended from approximately 1967 to 1978. Early “concept” artists like Henry Flynt, Robert Morris, and Ray Johnson influenced the later, widely accepted movement of conceptual artists like Dan Graham, Hans Haacke, and Douglas Huebler.

More recently, the “Young British Artists” (YBAs), led by Damien Hirst, came to prominence in the 1990s and their work is seen as conceptual, even though it relies very heavily on the art object to make its impact. The term is used in relation to them on the basis that the object is not the artwork, or is often a found object, which has not needed artistic skill in its production. Tracey Emin is seen as a leading YBA and a conceptual artist, even though she has denied that she is, and has emphasized her personal emotional expression.

Recent Examples of Conceptual Art

  • 1991: Charles Saatchi funds Damien Hirst and the next year in the Saatchi Gallery exhibits his The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a shark in formaldehyde in a vitrine.
  • 1993: Vanessa Beecroft holds her first performance in Milan, Italy, using young girls to act as a second audience to the display of her diary of food.
  • 1999: Tracey Emin is nominated for the Turner Prize. Part of her exhibit is My Bed, her dishevelled bed, surrounded by detritus such as condoms, blood-stained knickers, bottles and her bedroom slippers.
  • 2001: Martin Creed wins the Turner Prize for The Lights Going On and Off, an empty room where the lights go on and off.
  • 2002: Miltos Manetas confronts the Whitney Biennial with his
  • 2005: Simon Starling wins the Turner Prize for Shedboatshed, a wooden shed which he had turned into a boat, floated down the Rhine and turned back into a shed again.

The Stuckist group of artists, founded in 1999, proclaimed themselves “pro-contemporary figurative painting with ideas and anti-conceptual art, mainly because of its lack of concepts.” They also called it pretentious, “unremarkable and boring” and on July 25, 2002, in a demonstration, deposited a coffin outside the White Cube gallery, marked “The Death of Conceptual Art”. In 2003, the Stuckism International Gallery exhibited a preserved shark under the title A Dead Shark Isn’t Art, clearly referencing the Damien Hirst work

In 2002, Ivan Massow, the Chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts branded conceptual art “pretentious, self-indulgent, craftless” and in “danger of disappearing up its own arse …”. Massow was consequently forced to resign. At the end of the year, the Culture Minister, Kim Howells, an art school graduate, denounced the Turner Prize as “cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit”.

In October 2004, the Saatchi Gallery told the media that “painting continues to be the most relevant and vital way that artists choose to communicate.” Following this, Charles Saatchi began to sell prominent works from his YBA (Young British Artists) collection.

Disputes about New Media

Computer games date back as far as 1947, although they did not reach much of an audience until the 1970s. It would be difficult and odd to deny that computer and video games include many kinds of art (bearing in mind, of course, that the concept “art” itself is, as indicated, open to a variety of definitions). The graphics of a video game constitute digital art, graphic art, and probably video art; the original soundtrack of a video game clearly constitutes music. However it is a point of debate whether the video game as a whole should be considered a piece of art of some kind, perhaps a form of interactive art.

Film critic Roger Ebert, for example, has gone on record claiming that video games are not art, and for structural reasons will always be inferior to cinema, but then, he admits his lack of knowledge in the area when he affirmed that he “will never play a game when there is a good book to be read or a good movie to be watched.”. Video game designer Hideo Kojima has argued that playing a videogame is not art, but games do have artistic style and incorporate art. Video game designer Chris Crawford argues that video games are art. Esquire columnist Chuck Klosterman also argues that video games are art. Tadhg Kelly argues that play itself is not art and that fun is a constant required for all games so the art in games is the art of location and place rather than interaction.

Putting It Together

During earlier eras, the definition of art was aligned with craftsmanship and guilds, but as societies changed, so too, did the meaning and purpose of art. Over time, art evolved beyond practical and religious functions and became an autonomous expression of the artist’s creative process and of the surrounding culture.

Aesthetics is concerned with how we perceptually engage in the changing and complex concepts of beauty and the sublime (Ocvirk, 6).

Exploring the definition of art is an act of critical thinking. Critical thinking is creative thinking, and the critical-thinking process often requires a belief in the question, rather than an expectation of hard truths or answers.  Through active questioning, exploration, and trial and error, we uncover multiple valid perspectives.

Consider the example of the nkisi figures introduced at the beginning of this module. Recall how that misunderstanding of visual culture was representative of the larger confrontation and oppression of African societies by Europeans. Consider also, in the final example of video games, how the introduction of new media keeps alive the ongoing debate about what is art.

Works Cited

Ocvirk, Stinson, Wigg, Bone, Cayton. Art Fundamentals, Theory and Practice, 12 Edition. New York: McGraw Hill, 2013. Print.

Sayre, Henry. A World of Art, Sixth edition. Boston: Prentice Hall, 2010. Print.