What defines art?

When does art really become art? When does a paint splatter go from being a fifth grade art project to a million-dollar masterpiece hanging in the Museum of Modern art (MoMA)? And should it really be hanging in the MoMA if it looks just like a ten year old’s doodle?

In the New York Times article, “art; Is It art Is It Good? And Who Says So?” several members of art Forum magazine tried to explain what makes something art. 

Thomas McEvilley, professor of art history at Rice University, said that he could tell a modern piece was art because it was in a museum or gallery space (but that if it had been elsewhere he would have thought it was laundry), and that a work is art because it has been designated as being so. 

Historically, this has been a fairly straightforward way of defining what is and is not art. However, historically, much of society’s view of art has also been very narrow, very male and very white. What constitutes a work of art cannot be exclusively defined by a small group of powerful individuals (even if that group is the College Board).  

So if we decide that having a group of influential individuals, such as the historical Society of Independent artists, is an ill method of defining art, then what are we left with? Can any work that evokes emotion be considered art? And by that definition, is my personal favorite work, “Watercolor Scribbles on Mug” (Schwarzbach 2009), art because it evokes nostalgic feelings? 

William Rubin, a former MoMa director of painting and sculpture, says that there is not a clear definition of art which can apply to all works.

“There’s a consensus as to what is art in most periods, but it’s not made by the man on the street,” Rubin said. “It is formed by those deeply concerned with the substance of art. This is not elitist, because anyone may participate. Basically, the larger public makes a subjective determination: I know art when I see it.” 

Other critics and artists have argued that art’s defining characteristic is the ability to incite intellectual discussion or share an experience in the world. Other curators have said art requires gaining something in loss, such as how impressionist art lost photorealism but portrayed humanity and light in a new way. 

So what makes art art? I’ve discussed several different professional opinions, and my own opinion is highly influenced by those of teachers, peers, my own experience in the art world and the work I’ve been exposed to. I agree with Rubin in that art is for everyone and the court of public opinion is a factor that makes art art, with each individual determining which pieces they like or don’t like. But only time will tell which pieces will have a profound impact on the artistic cannon and human history.

 In the meantime, we all can choose a definition of art which works for us, whether that means looking to art critics and museums for help or searching through graffiti parks and small galleries. It is important to find pieces that speak to us, make us feel strongly and lead to discussions. But it is just as important to make sure that we’re looking for art in places we normally wouldn’t, so that all work is given an opportunity to affect the history of art, not just pieces by already well-known white men.