What is Art?

What is the meaning of art? Beginning a conversation about visual art...

Attempt to define art.

What is art to you? 

Where does art fit into your life?  How have you experienced art?

What psychological, emotional, and aesthetic factors do you feel are involved in your appreciation of art?

What is the distinction between fine art and commercial art?
Fine art means that a skill is being used to express the artist’s creativity, or to engage the audience’s aesthetic sensibilities, or to draw the audience towards consideration of the finer things.

Often, if the skill is being used in a common or practical way, people will consider it a craft instead of art. Crafts and design are sometimes considered applied art. Applied arts refers to the application of design and aesthetics to objects of function and everyday use.

If the skill is being used in a commercial or industrial way, it will be considered Commercial art instead of art. Commercial art is a subsector of creative services, and refers to art created for commercial purposes, primarily advertising.

From Encarta World Dictionary:
fine art n
1. artistic work that is meant to be appreciated for its own sake, rather than to serve some useful function
2. a course of study designed to teach students practical artistic skills as well as the theory and history of art
3. any art form, for example, painting, sculpture, architecture, drawing, or engraving, that is considered to have purely aesthetic value (often used in the plural)
4. something that requires great skill, talent, or precision (informal)

com·mer·cial adj
1. relating to the buying and selling of goods or services
2. appropriate or sufficient for the purposes of trade
3. produced in bulk for industrial use and often unrefined
4. done with the primary aim of making money
5. supported by revenue from advertising

What are some of the purposes of art?
To express emotion
To evoke emotion
To incite questions
To inform
To entertain
To decorate...

How is art experienced?
Through senses?
Through prejudices?
Or is it something else?...

What do you think the criterion/standards should be for a work to be considered art?


Film: My Kid Could Paint That, Directed by Amir Bar-Lev, 2007
A film about 4-year-old painter, Marla Olmstead

Film director Amir Bar-Lev said: One theme I tried to get at in the film was malleable nature of meaning-- how one person can look at a painting and see the work of a genius , and another can look at the same canvas and see a mess.


Consider the film by answering the following questions from the San Francisco Film Society study guides:

How do you feel about Marla and her family at the end of the film?

Why do you think the film maker chose to end the film the way he did?

Why do you think people were drawn to Marla's work?

Marla's work was compared to the works of abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock.
Do you agree?  What are the similarities?
Abstract Expressionists" or "The New York School" were artists such as Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), Willem de Kooning (1904–1997), Franz Kline (1910–1962), Lee Krasner (1908–1984), Robert Motherwell (1915–1991), and  Clyfford Still (1904–1980).
There imagery was mainly abstract.
These artists broke away from "accepted conventions in both technique and subject matter." They made large scale works that "stood as reflections of their individual psyches.'"

Source: Abstract Expressionism | Thematic Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Jackson Pollock

Willem de Kooning

Franz Kline

Lee Krasner

Robert Motherwell

Clyfford Still

What is the definition of celebrity? What are some different ways people can achieve celebrity status?

The media (particularly the news media) could be considered another character in this film. What role did it play? (e.g. created desire for paintings, made Marla a celebrity, revived art debate, vilified parents)

Art Critic Michael Kimmelman says in the film "All art in some way is a lie... your documentary on some level is going to be a lie..." What does he mean?

Are these Mugshots art?

Mark Michaelson: Least Wanted

Arresting Faces by Katy June-Friesen


Andy Warhol: Most Wanted
Face Off by Chris Potter

"More than anything people just want stars..." stated Warhol. Was Warhol glorifying criminals in the above piece? Was he creating a platform on which to make them stars?

Andy Warhol

"It's very important to look at images and see where the real diverges from the artificial. We say a picture is worth a thousand words, but so much of a picture-- and the way it is framed-- is contrived..." How much and in what ways can an artist influence public opinion?

Should artists have a moral obligation to society when creating public works?

See the following debate:


Should artists have a moral obligation to their subjects when creating works?

Functions, Value and Roles in the Art World

The Meaning of Art
What purpose does art serve and Why do we create it?


The function depends on the context.
according to the text Living With Art, Getlein, is the personal and social circumstances surrounding the making, viewing and interpreting of a work of art; the varied connections of a work of art to the larger world of its time and place.

# 1 Personal functions-
• to share the artists’s point of view or experience
• to communicate thoughts
• for self-expression
• for personal therapy
• for self-gratification
• to give pleasure to the viewer
• to provide an aesthetic experience
• to entertain
• to have no meaning at all (art for art’s sake – see themes)

#2 Physical functions-
• to perform some service (often crafts and industrial design fall under this category such as ceramics, textiles, architecture, commercial products...)

#3 Social functions-
• for political purposes
• to debate
• to depict social conditions

• to document the world around us
• to promote social change
• for community purposes- public art (the murals)


According to the Institutional Theory of Art, "Painters make paintings, but it takes a representative of the art-world to make a work of art."
Who determines the value of art? Is it the artists, the public, or the art representatives?

Value= Money
Originals are more expensive(paintings, drawings)
Limited number of artworks i.e. editions are less expensive (prints)

Value= Influence
Art begets art. Value resides in how much influence art has over artists in future
generations-- lasting power.

Value= Personal Connection
Art is worth more when one can connect to it. The artwork allows us to feel with the artist or evokes emotion within ourselves.

Value= Drama
Artworks are valued more highly when we take an interest in the artists lives.
Examples: Van Gogh- cut his ear off

Artfully Insane
Lautrec- spent time in an asylum, alcoholic


Frieda Kahlo- lived much of her life in bed because of a terrible accident, she was a player in the mexican revolution

Bio and Images
Ana Mendieta- perfomance artist who took photos of her acts to preserve the ideas – questionable suicide

"25 years ago, on September 8, 1985, celebrated feminist body artist Ana Mendieta fell 34 floors to her death from the window of her Greenwich Village apartment. The only other person with her at the time was her husband of only eight months, prominent minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. Arrested and charged with second-degree murder, Andre's three-year legal struggle culminated in a trial by a judge rather than by a jury, a rarity in murder cases. Evidence was suppressed due to sloppy police and prosecutorial work, and ultimately, Andre was acquitted of all charges related to her death in 1988."

A Death in the Art World

Well known Artists often become “brand names."
Art and artists become a commodity and the name is what sells, i.e. Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso.

Roles in the Art World
The role of the Curator:
A curator of an exhibition is the person who is in charge of organizing it. The curator decides which artists and what works will be featured. He or she titles or names the exhibition and chooses the theme or subject of the exhibition. 
The role of the Art Collector:
An individual or institution who accumulates works of art. Great museum art collections grew out of private collections owned by royalty, aristocracy, and the wealthy.

The role of the Art Historian:
A person who is an authority on art history, studies it and writes about it.
The role of the Art Critic:
Art critics usually criticize and evaluate art in the framework of aesthetics often to provide a foundation for art appreciation.

The role of the Archivists:
An archivist preserves important objects and documents, including works of art, transcripts, photographs, and historic objects.

The role of the Artist:
An artist is a person whose work shows creative ability and skill in the fine arts, such as a painter, sculptor, printmaker...

The role of the Artist Assistant:
The artist's assistant gives aid to and assumes some of the responsibilities of the artist.

The role of the Art Therapist:
Art therapists use psychotherapy which incorporates the creation of visual art in order to understand and express one's feelings.

The role of the Art Educator:
The educator uses skill based instruction in various art disciplines.

The role of the Student:
One who studies the Fine Arts. 

The role of the Activist:
The activist expresses protest or a reaction to an events or situation through art.

The role of the Political/Social Commentator:
The commentator analyzes and reports social or political events.  He/She delivers a commentary or commentaries through art.

Art in Community

Tim Rollins and K.O.S.,
Animal Farm
The Art & Life of Tim Rollins & K.O.S.


Kids of Survival is an Emmy Award-winning feature-length documentary about three years of work and struggle inside the acclaimed South Bronx art/education group, Tim Rollins & K.O.S.

For over a decade, artist-educator Tim Rollins, working with Puerto Rican and Dominican teenagers in the Bronx, has made large-scale paintings now hanging in major museums and collections around the world.

In Kids of Survival, five teenage boys from the Bronx use their talents as modern artists to wage a crucial personal battle. Their day-to-day challenges and triumphs show how individual transformation is possible, and how a small-scale program can approach the mammoth task of inspiring at-risk kids to empower themselves through education and the development of innate talent.

Kids of Survival is about art as a survival tool, fully capturing the group’s process through the production of six major paintings. It stands in direct contradiction to the current view of many policy-makers, who consider the arts to be nothing but a luxury, and provides and eloquent example of the role of art as a means to positive social change.

Tim Rollins' roles: art educator, activist, political and social commentator
KOS' role: students, political and social commentators

Questions to consider:

What is the teacher trying to do with the kids?

What motivates him?

How does he motivate the kids?

Is he teaching them only about art or other things?

What does this do for them?

How does art bring them together?

What is it about art that holds their interest, brings them together and changes their lives?

What was the effect of the boy getting killed? Did it make their art more important or less?

What do you think of Tim Rollin's work?

Does he fulfill the core value of moral consciousness and service to others?

What does Tim Rollins get out of working with the kids?

Additional Articles and Sources:

Art Terminology

Use the following terminology to critically analyze works of art in terms of form and content, medium and style.

Terms From Living with Art, Mark Getlein unless otherwise noted

Describing Art:
Aesthetics- the branch of philosophy that studies art and the nature of beauty
Representational- art representing or presenting again the visible world in such a way that we recognize a likeness
Naturalistic- faithful to the visual experience, records how forms are revealed by light and shadow, how bodies reflect an inner structure of bone and muscle, how fabrics drape over bodies and objects, and how gravity makes weight felt
Abstract- forms of the visual world are purposely simplified, fragmented or otherwise distorted

Wassily Kandinsky, Harmony Squares With Concentric Rings, 1913
Stylized- describes representational art that conforms to a pre-set style or set of conventions for depicting the world

Nefertari Presenting the Offering, 1314-1200 B.C., Egyptian Art, Mural Painting, Valley of the Kings, Thebes, Egypt

Nonrepresentational- descriptive of art that does not represent or otherwise refer to the visible world outside itself

Piet Mondrian, Tableau No. 2/Composition No. VII, 1913

Style- style of a particular artist or school or movement; refers to characteristics or group of characteristics that we recognize as constant, recurring or coherent
Content- what a work of art is about
Composition- the organization of lines, shapes, colors, and other art elements in a work; more often applied to two-dimensional art- the broader term is design
Context- the personal and social circumstances surrounding the making, viewing and interpreting of a work of art; the varied connections of a work of art to the larger world of its time and place
Subject matter- the objects or events that the work depicts
Icon- In Byzantine and later Orthodox Christian art, an image of a holy person such as Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or a saint. Generally small in scale and painted in a highly stylized manner on a gold ground over a wooden support, icons are often themselves held to be sacred. From Microsoft Word (Encarta): a picture or symbol that is universally recognized to be representative of something
Andreas Ritzos, The Mother of God Enthroned, Patmos Monastery, 2nd half of 15th c.
Iconography-the traditional or conventional images or symbols associated with a subject and especially a religious or legendary subject 
(from http://mw1.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/iconography)

Visual Elements- Line, Shape, Mass, Light, Value, Color, Texture, and Space- the ingredients an artist has available in making any work of art.
Line- a path traced by a moving point
Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing 630, 1990 (left) and Wall Drawing 614, 1989 
Contour- the perceived edges of a three-dimensional form such as the human body
Contour lines- the lines we draw to record boundaries
Egon Schiele, Crouching Woman, 1917
Direction and movement- our eyes follow lines to see where they are going. Artists use this tendency to direct our eyes around an image and to suggest movement. Most of us have instinctive reactions to the direction of line, which are related to our experience of gravity. Flat horizontal lines seem placid, like the horizon line or a body in repose. Vertical lines like those of an upright body or a skyscraper jutting up from the ground may have an assertive quality; they defy gravity in their upward thrust. But the most dynamic lines are the diagonals, which almost always imply action.
M.C. Escher (1898-1972), Mobius Strip II, The Hague
Shape- a two-dimensional area having identifiable boundaries created by lines, color, a shift in texture, or value changes, or some combination of these
Wasily Kandinsky, Composition X, 1939 
Figure- the shape we detach and focus on
Ground- the surrounding visual information the figure stands out from, the background
Vase/Face Illusion
Positive Shapes- the shapes we perceive as figures
Negative Shapes- the shapes of the ground

Richard Avedon, Juan Patricio Lobato, Carney, Rocky Ford, Colorado, August 23, 1980
Mass- a three-dimensional form that occupies a volume of space, often implying bulk, density and weight
Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach
Lucian Freud, Woman with an Arm Tattoo, 1996 
Geometric shapes and masses- approximate the regular, named shapes and volumes of geometry such as square, triangle, circle, cube, pyramid and sphere
Frank Stella, Tahkt-I-Sulayman Variation II, 1969
Organic shapes and masses- are irregular and evoke the living forms of nature
Yellena James, Allusion
Value- refers to the relative lightness or darkness (ex. red- value ranges from the palest pink to the darkest maroon)
Value Scale
Hatching- a technique for suggesting value in which areas of closely spaced parallel lines are laid down
Crosshatching- a technique for suggesting value in which sets of parallel lines are laid across a first set
Albrecht Durer, Self-portait, 1500
Stippling- a technique for suggesting value in which a pattern of closely spaced dots or small marks are used to create a sense of three-dimensionality on a flat surface
Jacques Bellange French (active 1600-1620), The Annunciation (Detail)
Color- a function of light; reflected light rays
Color wheel- taking the colors separated out by Newton’s prism- red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet > adding the transitional color (ex. red-violet, which does not exist in the rainbow) > arranging these colors in a circle
Itten Color Wheel
Primary colors- red, yellow and blue- (theoretically) they cannot be made by any mixture of colors
Secondary colors- orange, green and violet- each is made by combining two primary color
Tertiary colors- the product of a primary color and an adjacent secondary color (ex. mixing yellow and green yields yellow-green)
Complementary- colors directly opposite one another on the color wheel, such as, red and green, blue and orange, violet and yellow
Warm colors- colors on the red-orange side of the wheel.
Cool colors- colors on the blue-green side of the wheel
Palette- may refer to the wooden board on which artists traditionally set out their pigments, but it also refers to the range of pigments the artist selects, either for a particular painting or characteristically
Color properties- hue, value and intensity
Hue- the name of the color according to the categories of the color wheel
Tint- a color lighter than the hue’s normal value (pink is a tint of red)
Shade- a color darker than the hue’s normal value (maroon is a shade of red)
Intensity- also called chroma or saturation- refers to the relative purity of a color
Color harmonies- the selective use of two or more colors in a single composition 
Color schemes: monochromatic, analogous, complementary, split complementary, triadic, tetradic
Monochrome/ Monochromatic- “mono”=one. A color scheme using only one hue in a range of different values.
Analogous-Colors closely related and adjacent on the color wheel. Variations of one color family by the addition of neighboring colors on the wheel (ex. Yellow, yellow-orange, orange).
Complementary- a color scheme incorporating opposite hues on the color wheel. They accentuate each other in juxtaposition and neutralize each other when mixed.
Split Complementary- a color and the two colors on either side of its complement.
Color Triad- three colors spaced equally apart on the color wheel forming a triangle (your chosen triad colors will always have three other colors between them on the color wheel).
Piet Mondrian, Composition No. 10, 1939-1942

Color Tetrad- Four colors selected to create harmony. Either: four equally spaced hues that are two sets of complements or four hues that are two sets of split complements (for example: select a complementary pair and instead of using them, use their neighbors).

Restricted Palette- artists limit themselves to a few pigments and their mixtures, tints, and shades
Camille Rose Garcia, Escape Velocity
Texture- refers to a surface quality; a perception of smooth or rough, flat or bumpy, fine or coarse
Camille Rose Garcia, Artic Cavern Hideaway
Actual texture- literally tactile- a quality we could experience through touch
Maurizio Savini, Chewing gum sculpture
Pattern- any decorative, repetitive motif or design
Strawberry Thief Chintz, Designed by William Morris (1834-1896) for Morris & Company, 1883
Space- a dynamic visual element that interacts with the lines and shapes and colors and textures of a work of art that give them definition
Picture plane-  An imaginary flat surface that is assumed to be identical to the surface of a painting. Forms in a painting meant to be perceived in deep three-dimensional space are said to be “behind” the picture plane. The picture plane is commonly associated with the foreground of a painting.
Linear perspective- based in the systematic application of two observations:
• forms seem to diminish in size as they recede from us
• parallel lines receding into the distance seem to converge, until they meet at a point (vanishing point) on the horizon line where they disappear
Arthur Leipzig, Brooklyn Bridge, 1946
Foreshortening- the visual phenomenon whereby an elongated object projecting toward or away from a viewer appears shorter than its actual length, as though compressed
Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Snyders, Prometheus Bound, 1611–12
Atmospheric perspective- developed during the Renaissance it is based on the observation that distant objects appear less distinct, paler, and bluer than nearby objects due to the way moisture in the intervening atmosphere scatters light
Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818
Emphasis, Balance, Rhythm, Contrast, Movement, Harmony or Unity, Pattern, Variety, Proportion, Repetition- the principles of art are the rules of art. These rules need to be considered when making a piece of art. Master artists use the ELEMENTS of art to effectively express the PRINCIPLES of art in their artwork.
Emphasis-to make one part of an artwork dominant over the other parts. It makes an element or object in a work stand out. To use emphasis in an artwork is to attract the viewer's eyes to a place of special importance in an artwork.
Focal point- when the emphasis is on a relatively small, clearly defined area
Subordination- certain areas of the composition are purposefully made less visually interesting, so that the areas of emphasis stand out
Francisco Goya, The Shootings of May Third, 1808
Balance- arranging elements so that no one part of a work overpowers, or seems heavier than any other part. Two different kinds of balance are symmetrical and asymmetrical. Symmetrical (or formal) balance is when both sides of an artwork, if split down the middle, appear to be the same (sometimes the symmetry is so perfect that the two sides of a composition are mirror images of one another).
Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait, 1940
El Sol y la Vida, 1947
Rhythm- indicating movement by the repetition of elements. Rhythm can make an artwork seem active.
Marcel Duchamp,"Nude Descending a Staircase (No2)", 1912 
Some different kinds of rhythm are:
* Regular rhythm - a repetition of elements that are evenly spaced.
Sol LeWitt, Open Geometric Structure 2-2,1-1, 1991
* Irregular rhythm - elements that are repeated but not exactly.
James Kelewae, Grafitti Art
* Progressive rhythm - as elements repeat, they increase or decrease in size.
Piet Mondrian, Ocean and Pier
Contrast- to show difference and diversity in an artwork by combining elements to create interest. Contrast is to provide an artwork with something interesting to break the repetitions.
Hans Hoffman, Indian Summer
Movement- creating the illusion of action or physical change in position. Leading viewers to sense action, OR, the path the viewer's eye follows throughout a artwork. Movement is used in art to give the feeling of action and to guide the viewer's eyes throughout the artwork.
Eugene Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830
Harmony or Unity- the quality of wholeness or oneness that is achieved through the effective use of the elements and principles of art. The arrangement of elements and principles to create a feeling of completeness.
Vincent van Gogh, "Starry Night", 1889
Conceptual- through a unity of ideas

Keith Arnatt
Variety- difference provides interest.
Hans Hofmann, "Rising Moon"
Proportion- refers to size relationships between parts of a whole, or between two or more items perceived as a unit.

Edward Hopper, Chop Suey, 1929
Scale- size in relation to standard or “normal” size (normal size is the size we expect something to be)

Ron Mueck, In Bed