APSU Notes

Chapter 1: What is Art?

Learning Outcomes

After completing this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Name various historical arguments about the definition of art and who is an artist.
  • List arguments that distinguish between art and craft.
  • Evaluate claims about whether an object is or is not art from multiple points of view.
  • Inspect questions about who is considered an artist and the role of the viewer.
  • Predict varipus reasons why people have made and continue to make art.
  • Discover your intuitive understanding of art, and build a broader, more comprehensive view of the nature and definition of visual art, one which incorportates historically and culturally diverse art objects and answers conceptual challenges.

Historic Development of Visual Art Definitions


Definition: Imitation of the real world.

Mimesis was not a sufficient definition. Considered to be a Anicent Greek definition of art.

Communication of Feeling

Leo Tolstoy’s definition of art was based on the perception of the meaning of life, and art giving one the ability to experience the emotions of others.

Communication of Feeling is not a sufficient definition of art. There is no way to determine if feelings have been accurately communicated.

Significant Form

Clive Bell’s definition of art was based on the aesthetic pleasure a work of art’s form brought to the viewer. Form relating to the lines, shape, mass, and color of an object.

Aesthetics: A philosophy of the nature and meaning of beauty, as it pretains to art.

Disinterested contemplation: refers to a specific way of looking at art, an objective search for beauty and pleasure that ignores any personal or practical stake in the work.

Significant Form is not a sufficient definition of art because aesthetics pleasure exists only in the viewer.

Institutional Theory

American philosophers George Dickie and Arthur Danto promoted the Institutional Theory definition of art in the 1960s. Also known as the “Artworld” theory. This definition is most widely held today.

Definition: Art is a object or set of conditions that has been designated as art by a “person or persons acting behalf of the artworld”.

Institutional Theory is not a sufficient definition of art because about the art peice itself, it’s about the people who have the political power to define it.

Art and Science

Every human activity has both a science component (observation) and an art component (expression) to it. We must decide for ourselves what art is worthy of our attention.

Art and Science Diagram

Selective Perception: Filtering visual information to allow us to focus on the immediate tasks at hand.

Craft vs. Fine Art

Crafts are typically seen as intended for use in our daily lives and are functional objects. They follow a formula or set of rules. Fine Arts are free and open-ended explorations with no predetermined outcome. The results are often surprisingly original.

Craft: Follows a formula or set of rules.

Fine Art: Free and open-ended exploration.

Who is considered an artist?

  • Artist
    • A person with the talent and the skills to conceptualize and make creative works
    • Individuals who have the desire and ability to envision, design, and fabricate the images, objects, and structures we encounter everyday.
    • Create for self
  • Artisan or craftperson
    • Person who has skills and follows the rules of creating a functiona, practial object.
    • The people who hired them wanted, they did not create their own designs.
    • Create for others

Unknown Artisans

  • Vast majority of artisans and builders who worked in the ancient world are unknown
  • Diorite - A hard and rare stone used in statuary that allows cutting of fine lines.

The only record they left behind was their works of art. Who they worked for and what they created are the records of their lives and artistry. The use of diorite was important because they could accurately depict the leader within the required standards. Statues such as these were not signed by the artists, they were merely representations of what those who hired the artist wanted.

Clay and Ceramics

  • Ceramic - clay hardened by heat.
  • Large amphora: tall, two-handled jar with narrow neck.

The potters of the ancient world who worked with clay and produced ceramics were also largely unnamed. These were usually utilitarian objects used in daily life made by these unnamed potters. As the Ancient Greek society progressed pottery or ceramics grew to be seen as an art form. Potters would work within workshops under masters to produce the vessels that were needed by society. While some potters became sought after for their skill, the only signed vases were generally large vessels used for ceremonial purposes.

Qian Xuan

  • Literati or scholar-painters: an elite class of intellectuals in early Chinese dynasties.
  • Qian Xuan was one of the first scholar-painters to unite painting and poetry

During the Yuan Dynasty we see a group of artist come about that were called literati or scholar-painters. These individuals were intellectuals that were to follow the Confucian ideal of a cultivated person. They were expected to write poetry and practice calligraphy, they also took an interest in painting. The work of the literati was not to be sold but given away in friendship or thanks. Unlike ancient artists and works from the ancient Mediterranean and Mesopotamia world, the identity of the artist was important to the literati. The literati signed their works with seals, usually in red. The seals were also added by scholars and collectors of the works. The added seals of who owned and researched a work continued to change the composition. The work of the literati often included an inscription or poem.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler

  • Whistler references Chinese seals with his red monogram, a stylized butterfuly based on his initials
  • Whistler believed in “Art for Art’s Sake”

By the 19th century some American and European artists start to push beyond what was considered the acceptable methods of art that were taught in the schools and exhibitions. Whistler believed artists must be allowed to freely follow their own creative voices and pursuits.

Labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral

  • Labyrinth at Chartes Cathederal is 42.3 feet in diameter
  • Relic: An object having belonged to or been part of a holy person’s body

There was obviously an audience in mind when these cave paintings and labyrinths were made, they were created with a specific idea in mind. What that idea was we can only make educated guesses about. It is believed that the labyrinth was used to circumambulate or walk in while in prayer or meditation. These prayers or meditations would lead the visitors on a path to visit a relic. The relic was an object having belonged to or been part of a holy person’s body.

John Haberle

  • trompe l’oeil - paintings that were so realistic they “fooled the eye”

In the late 19th century artist John Haberle became a master at a style of painting called trompe l’oeil. These paintings were so realistic that they “fooled the eye”. Haberle was known to have frequently depicted paper currency in his work. It was so realistic that he was warned by the U.S. Secret Service to stop painting paper currency.

Why do we make art?

  • Religious purposes (caves and the labyrinths)
  • Practical purposes (quilts and vases)
  • Decorative purposes (shell beads)

In the many different cultures and sub-cultures of humanity we can find a broad range of ideas about art and its place in daily living.


  • Mandala: Buddhist sand paintings

The sand paintings are temporary maps of the cosmos. They represent the individual’s relationship to the whole and different levels of human awareness.

Artists’ Job and Originality

Every person has lived a unique life so they know something about the world no one else does. It becomes the artists’ job to tell what they have learned either personally or as part of their community. The need to make art can be divided into two categories. The personal need to express ideas and feelings. The community’s need to assert common values. Originality is more highly valued in contemporary art then it was in the past.

The Personal Need to Create

  • Doodling - A very basic example of the delight in putting feelings into visual form.
  • Catharsis - A way of bringing hidden emotions to the surface so they can be recognized and understood more clearly.

Many works of art come from a personal decision to put a feeling, idea, or concept into visual form. This approach to art comes from the individual’s delight in the experience. Personal commentary is artwork that illustrates a personal viewpoint or experience.

Cathartic Works of Art

  • Cathartic work arise from perceptions of grief, good, evil, or injustice.

Communal Needs and Purposes

  • A convection is an agreed upon way of thinking, speaking, or acting in a social context.

Works of art can identify common values and experiences within a community and help to bring people together. Examples of art for communal needs are seen in public architecture, monuments, and murals. Many works of art for communal needs follow a convention. This is an agreed upon way of thinking, speaking, or acting in a social context. There is also a visual convention that points to what is important in a society. Architecture, especially public buildings, is an expression of community values. The use of older styles in architecture can be a reference to the values of previous cultures. U.S. government buildings are designed with Classical Greek and Roman columns to symbolize strength and the virtues and integrity from these ancient cultures that we as a society hope to achieve.

Monuments are a great way to show communal needs and values. They can remind citizens of the virtues they want within the community by building monuments of those who exhibited those qualities. Monuments are commonly placed on pedestals, columns, or inside of architecture to show their importance to the community.


Murals are paintings on walls that can also show communal needs and purposes. They can also show religious purposes. Because people were illiterate, images played an important role in educating them about religious history and doctrines.

Religious Icons

Another communal need that can be shown in art are icons. Religious icons are individuals who are thought to have special powers of healing or positive influence. These images are used as a guide to religious worship. Icons can be depicted in either painting or statues.

Secular Icons

Secular icons are non-religious figures who are though to have special powers or influences.


Lecture Video


Chapter One: What is Art? Quiz