What is Art?

The Driftwood Scenario

During the process of building an identity as an artist, each must answer this question: "What is art?" Each answer will be different, because every artist holds unique perspectives and beliefs about the intersections of art and beauty. Every artist approaches their work from their own framework of personal preferences.

Consider this story, a well-known artist happens to be vacationing in the small community where you are curator of the local museum. One day you see her walking along the beach, and you tell her that your museum—although funds are low—would be greatly honored to be given one of her works. He pauses, smiles in an indecipherable way, and bends over to pick up a piece of driftwood that is lying on the beach. "Here," she says with a glint in her eye, "Take this. Call it Driftwood.”


What do you think?

1. Would you consider Driftwood art? Why or why not?

2. Would you put this object in your museum if you were the museum curator?

3. Does the act of creating a work of art or the act of coming up with an idea make something art?

Credit: Cindy Ingram, Art Class Curator

Aesthetic Theories: Approaches to Art

When is something considered a work of art?

The branch of philosophy that defines the various views or approaches to art is called aesthetics. While this branch of philosophy is formally classified with visual arts, we extend aesthetics to all art forms.

There are many ways to approach the question “What is art?”: one approach is not superior to another. Aesthetics theories are not forms of evaluation: they represent varying views of the nature and purposes of art. Everyone has their own take on what they define as beautiful, functional, pleasing, or interesting. Here are a few beliefs about art as clarified by Erickson and Katter (1977):

Self Portrait
What are your personal beliefs about art? What do you value?

Still Life Sketches
What are your personal beliefs about art? What do you value? Aesthetics applies to the art we make as well as the art we view.

What are aesthetic theories?

The following terms and definitions provide an overview of various aesthetic theories or approaches to defining art. These theories can be applied to any image, play, dance, song, poem or other work of art; they can be used separately or in combination, although combination is more common. Some theories apply more appropriately for particular works; some were more prevalent during different ages or in specific cultures.

Other theories, such as sociological and neo-rationalist, are not discussed here. New theories are being developed to help define recently proposed aspects of art and performance. The field of aesthetics is constantly evolving: how can we encourage students to let their "views" of art evolve too?


Art should look real or lifelike. It imitates, mimics, or copies something real. Quality is judged by faithfulness to the original. Early artworks were idealized; later works included more accurate or realistic depictions of nature or life.

Scenes from the play “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare at the Deutsches Theater Berlin, via Wikimedia Commons


Art should communicate strong feelings, ideas, moods, or emotions of the artist. It can be ugly if ugliness is expressed. Quality is based on the ability to arouse the greatest emotions. Art in abstraction can be expressive through symbolic representation.

Portrait of Martha Graham and Bertram Ross, in Visionary recital, 1961, via Wikimedia Commons


Quality of art is in its perfection of form. The formalist analyzes artistic elements and principles: for example, line, color, shape, balance, and unity. Quality requires coordination of all components. Subject matter and viewer associations are not relevant to evaluation.

Composition No. III with red, blue, yellow, and black, by Piet Mondrian, 1929, via Wikimedia Commons


According to feminists, art should be interpreted through a woman’s point of view. Judgement of quality is based on aspects of being a woman. This view reduces the distinction between art and craft. Gendered, demographic, and socio-economic contexts of an artwork should be considered.

Self-Portrait by Mary Cassatt, 1878, via Wikimedia Commons


Objects become art because they are exhibited, displayed, or promoted. An institute (gallery, museum, or publication) considers something art, therefore it is art. Quality is based on status or recognition of the institute. Remember the piece of driftwood at the beginning of the chapter?



Art is valued for its potential to give pleasure. This position is based on an individual’s valuing that pleasure is good and pain is bad. A statement of a work’s quality is based on the degree of pleasure received by the individual viewer or participant, not on how well-received the piece is by the masses. Such art usually presents an idealized view.

Charlie Chaplin, (1915) by P.D Jankens (Fred Chess), via Wikimedia Commons


Art should serve a social purpose. Art is an instrument to produce desired effects: thus, it should portray vivid and extensive experiences or purposes. Instrumentalist art often encourages viewers to believe a certain political, social, moral, or economic idea.

Maya Angelou reciting “On the Pulse of Morning,” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration,1993.

Representative to Non-Representative Art

Fans of representational art argue that art should reflect reality as closely as possible and that performance or visual product should be a literal depiction or representation of what the event, object, or emotion looks like in real life. Others argue that the quality of the work is judged primarily by its inherent ability to communicate the strongest feelings, and that a realistic depiction is unnecessary because artwork can be non-representational. Because of these varying aesthetic opinions, all artwork falls somewhere on the spectrum of representational to non-representational art.

Mother and Baby

Where does your personal preference lie on the scale of representative to non-representative art? How do you feel about abstraction and minimalist art? Is it beautiful? Interesting? Pointless? Purposeful? Watch the video below for great examples and descriptions of representation, minimalism, and abstraction in visual art.


How Artists Apply Forms of Abstraction

Abstraction is the method by which an artist moves their work from realistic or representational to minimalism or abstraction. Abstraction of a representational image can be done to varying degrees.

Depending on an artist’s intent, they may dutifully apply their studio training and understanding of the principles and elements of their art form to do one of two things:

Below are four of many strategies artists use to manipulate the principles and elements of their art form to abstract their work and make it less representational.


The recurrence of an action or event (color, movement, image, line, energy, texture, sound, gesture, etc) or basically doing something over and over.

Photo Credit: artprojectsforkids.org/how-to-draw-a-cupcake


The act of emphasizing a specific aspect or element of the idea, representation, or object. In language arts, this means describing something with hyperbole. In visual arts, an example of an exaggeration is an artist creating cartoon caricatures representing something as larger or smaller than it is in reality.


Artists place movement, lines, voices, or relating objects or elements upside down or in an opposite position, order, or arrangement.


Is to pull or twist out of shape, to change the form, and/or to create a false impression.

Facilitating Discussions on Aesthetics in the Classroom

Helping students identify their personal preferences, aesthetic sensibilities, and individual definitions of beauty teaches students to think and behave like an artist. Recognizing these personal facets gives them confidence in their original work and confidence to engage in discussion regarding works of art. Aesthetic awareness helps students recognize and accept their own subjective opinions while respecting similar or dissimilar viewpoints offered by others.

It is important for students not only to identify their own aesthetic inclinations but also to experience a variety of preferences offered by their peers, teachers, and professional artists as well. Students can enjoy shared understanding with those who appreciate a similar aesthetic to them and simultaneously benefit from respectful dialogue with those who see things differently. Exposure to contrasting opinions can help young minds expand the number of possibilities they can visualize in their mind for beauty and success, offering the opportunity for further exploration, experimentation, and impact through their creative and intellectual work in the future.

An aesthetics education can teach students constructive ways to offer feedback to their peers on creative projects or precise performance tasks such as spelling words or reciting math facts. Students who view their school curriculum and learning through the lens of aesthetics often begin to think more deeply about their surrounding world and are more apt to make relevant connections to their future goals, values, and personal beliefs.

The following questions are designed to act as conversation starters to help you explore aesthetics with your students in the classroom. Read below for more information on important behaviors to reinforce during these conversations.


Animals? Nature? Children? Laypersons? Crafts persons? Artists? Consider who gets to decide that an individual is an artist: peers, critics, individuals, museum goers, the public, or a museum curator?


The length of time required to create the work? The cost of materials? It requires great skill to produce? The creation of the artwork required extensive training, planning, and time? Does it have great historical value? Is the artwork’s aesthetic similar to well-known artworks? Is it beautiful?


Who gets to decide what is art? When an artist says it is? When an expert says it is? When a critic says it is? Does its price indicate its value? When was it sold? For how much? Does art have to be beautiful? Can it be ugly? What makes something ugly or beautiful?


Is art everywhere? On display in an art gallery, on a billboard, in a magazine? Is art found on television, in a book, or outside? Do mass-marketed works for purchase at retail outlets count as art?


Does the artwork communicate visually? Is it a record of people, places or events? Is the artist or artwork expressing ideas, thoughts, experiences, or feelings? Does the work stimulate thinking or reasoning? Is it designed to imitate or abstract real objects? Is the purpose of the artist or work to influence society or elicit change? As a participant, does the work stimulate your senses of sight or touch?

Behaviors for Discussions on Aesthetics

Discussions on aesthetics are full of opinions, subjective statements, and differing points of view. These discussions are great opportunities to practice civil discourse, engage in respectful dialogue, and build conversation and communication skills in the classroom. Whether reading a work of art created by a seasoned artist or facilitating opportunities for students to reflect and offer feedback on their work or the work of their peers, practicing the following behaviors helps create the right environment for productive discussion and deeper learning.



Purposes of Art

The arts play a significant role in our lives and impact us in myriad ways: the arts allow the expression of individual voices and represent the collective voice of a community. To foster discussion of the roles of art and examine its impact on daily life and society, we created the following list that describes many possible purposes for the creation and performance of art. We recognize that this list is not exhaustive.

Please note that an artist's aesthetic choices are influenced by their message, audience, and the purpose for their work of art. The work of an artist sometimes begins with a specific purpose and aesthetic preference, but the purpose and aesthetic preference can also evolve over time. A work of art could accomplish several purposes simultaneously, similar to the way a work of art may represent multiple aesthetic theories.


The arts can be used for deep learning in any content area. As individuals study works of art, create their own works of art, or discuss works of art with others, they are examining the world around them and discover the inner landscape that informs their relationship to our world. The arts can support student learning in math, science, English language arts, and social studies. Arts education encourages students to express their own ideas and to reflect on the ideas of others helping them understand themselves and others. The arts play a role in the development and progress of the whole child: physically, socially, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually.

Fine Art


The purpose of fine arts is to display the potential for excellence and accomplishment in an art form. Fine arts practitioners seek to develop, refine, and display elite and revolutionary skills and nuance within the creative, technical, and performance elements of their art form. Fine arts are creative works of art whose products are to be appreciated primarily or solely for their imaginative, aesthetic, and intellectual content or technical skill. Participation in fine arts can be transformative to the viewer or participant because of the exceptional level of expertise and preparation by the artist or performer.


Works of art created in the context of folk or traditional culture are often produced to unify communities, demonstrate hands-on cultural skills, traditions, or daily practice, and/or teach group values for everyday life. Folk art festivals display the long-treasured arts and crafts passed down through generations. The performance and display of these art forms preserves their purpose as a reminder of those who have gone before and the importance of carrying those values forward to the present. Folk Art


Artists create work to entertain an audience and/or cater to the trends in mass media. Entertainment arts may include cheerleaders performing at half-time during a sports event, pop singers playing sold-out stadiums, or commercial filmmakers collaborating with dancers and choreographers to sell the latest trends in back-to-school fashion. If the primary focus or function of the art work is to entertain the audience, it fits into this category. Entertainment


Ceremonial and ritual arts are produced to facilitate sacred, spiritual, secular, or religious ceremonies or rituals. Ceremonial art may be used as religious worship. Or, ceremonial art may mark the celebration of a life event and might include a ritual to observe a young person’s rite of passage into adulthood or a sacred event meant only for a small exclusive group to witness. Usually these art forms are designed to express specific cultural purposes and limit participation by members of the general population.


Recreational arts are activities done within an art form for enjoyment during leisure time, and may include community arts events that bring individuals and groups together to celebrate, share, mourn, and advocate for an issue together. Participants may perform in a community theatre, symphony concert, or attend a performance or exhibition just for fun. In the summertime an outdoor amphitheatre or park can host a variety of arts experiences for recreational purposes. Families watercoloring while camping, or creating and crafting decorations with friends during the holidays are all examples of recreational arts.


Art therapy is a way of facilitating mental health services through experiences in an art form. Therapeutic arts conducted by certified art therapists can help individuals explore social-emotional and mental health including stress, trauma, depression, anxiety, self-esteem and addiction management.

What is an artist?

An artist is a creator. An artist is an individual who creates a product, idea, concept, or design with a specific purpose in mind. The purpose could be pleasure, function, emotion, or communication. The purpose could be just to explore the possibilities!

An artist uses their imagination and experiments with alternatives. Artists persist through opposition and dream and fantasize about things. Artists can concentrate for long periods of time and work hard, although it feels easy when the artist is in flow.

Artists look at things more closely than other people do. They expand old ideas to create new ideas and share new perspectives. Artists can see things differently as they make unique connections between disparate concepts, principles, lived experiences, and ideas. As artists explore different ways of doing and thinking, they rearrange history, memory, experiences and ideas in new and interesting ways.

Artists take risks and value failure and mistakes as tools for growth. They feel the freedom to act and do something because it is interesting. Artists are vulnerable and exhibit their work. They respond to art, they feel it, think about it, and comment on it.

Artists shape materials. They form ideas into pictures, movements, sounds, and speech. They gather, combine, rearrange, and use a plethora of tools to fit their design. Artists use this transformative process to express feelings. They connect with others and share their stories. Artists collaborate with others and inspire others to engage in art. Artists change the world.

Questions to consider:

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