What is art?

As a writer, artist, dancer and musician, it is safe to say that creativity is in my blood. Throughout my education I have stayed true to my passion, and have achieved GCSE’s and A levels in each of these areas. However, I can say with a level of confidence that my journey hasn’t always been a smooth one, especially with regards to art.

 As a child, I can remember drawing and doodling all the time, in fact, I’m pretty sure I could draw before I could write. I just loved it. Whether I drew animals, my family, a landscape – anything! I was always so proud showing people what I had done, and seeing the smiles it would bring to their faces. Granted, my pictures as a child weren’t masterpieces, but at that age, it was all about being colourful and capturing shapes, not shading with meticulous accuracy.

As I got older, my pictures (thankfully) got better and better and my world was opened to different styles and materials. I’ve never been one for old sayings, but practice really does make perfect(ish). I did, however, start to notice that as my age increased, so did the scrutiny of my artwork. I was no longer able to express myself as freely as I did as a child. Suddenly, I was given critique and was asked questions such as; “why is this like this”, “why is that, that colour”, “why did you use that shading there”, “why did you add that”? Soon, art was no longer my hobby that everyone just accepted; it became meaningful and needed to be backed up with silly stories about colour choice, the process I went through and my inspirations. This made it harder to create a piece that not only myself, but everyone else would love. Consequently, I started to restrict myself to what I thought people would like to see, not what I felt confident doing.

This certainly held true throughout my higher education where the creative process became even more regimented where I had to follow numerous guidelines to fit different expectations. I won’t lie; this did sap some of the enjoyment out of something I loved to do.

I always had one question in the back of my mind, if artwork is so personal and subjective, then how on earth can one person mark it? Surely it is just down to personal taste?

I believe that this view can be reflected in Art Galleries on both a national and international scale. When visiting a gallery, we often have high expectations of the artwork before we have even seen it. We hope to have a great experience, allowing us to be transformed by what we see. Are we approaching it in the wrong way? Do galleries and museums give us the right information to guide us on this ‘journey’?

Philosopher Alain de Botton claims that the therapeutic nature of art can, “re-balance our characters, recover calm, rediscover hope, expand our capacities for empathy and help us to learn to appreciate the everyday.

Although overcome by technology it is certain that the modern world still thinks of art as very important, something close to the meaning of life and an integral part of our culture. More often than not, (certainly on a personal level), our encounters with art do not always go as well as we may have hoped. We leave galleries underwhelmed, or even bewildered, wondering why the expected ‘transformational experience’ we had anticipated, did not occur.

Sometimes, we even blame ourselves if the experience didn’t touch us deeply and come to the assumption that the problem must have stemmed from a failure of our own knowledge or feeling.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century (at least), our relationship to art is said to have been weakened by a profound institutional reluctance to address the question of what art might be for. This is a question that has, quite unfairly, come to feel impatient, illegitimate and perhaps a little impudent.

I’d like to propose that art is a therapeutic medium that can guide, exhort, strengthen and console its viewers (or makers), helping them to become better versions of themselves. I also believe that art can sometimes be a simple process, and in some cases can be done for fun! Having a deep meaning or story behind a piece can sometimes ruin the beauty and simplicity it was intended to have. Just like music or literature, the visual arts have a role to play in keeping us (more or less) sane, restoring us to a measure of serenity in an often frenetic and unpredictable world.

Without necessarily meaning to, galleries seem to send us subtle cues about what the ‘right’ thing to do inside them is. This is chiefly communicated by the captions which accompany the art and which throw the emphasis on a particular set of concerns: the name of the artist, the school to which they belonged, the influences upon them, and the material of which the art object is made and their place within the museum’s internal cataloging system. In other words, the captions invite their readers to take their first steps in adopting some of the concerns of the curatorial and academic establishments that, behind the scenes, look after and interpret works in galleries.

So, the question once again emerges “what exactly is art”.  I’m not sure this question has a definitive answer. Just look at the images below, and try and fit each and every piece into the same category according to style, colours, content, characteristics, and so forth. It’s not as easy as it may initially seem.

Donald Judd, Untitiled, 1980.

Untitled 1980 by Donald Judd 1928-1994

Robert Delaunay, Endless Rhythm, 1934.

Endless Rhythm 1934 by Robert Delaunay 1885-1941

Alexander Calder, Mobile, 1932.

Mobile circa 1932 by Alexander Calder 1898-1976

Pablo Picasso, Nude Woman with Necklace, 1968.

Nude Woman with Necklace 1968 by Pablo Picasso 1881-1973
Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 1979.

Untitled 1979 by Jannis Kounellis born 1936
Lynda Benglis, Quartered Meteor, 1969.


Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, 1931.


Tjalf Sparnaay, Fried Egg, Undated.

Leonardo Da Vinci, Mona Lisa, 1503-1519.

Emma Jones (me), Untitled, 2012.


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