Why is it Art or How did this Thing get on the Museum Wall?

Hal Turk's version

The question

Art is an imprecise concept and cannot be specifically defined. So how do we docents answer this question when it arises during our tours? Perhaps we can list some of the criteria of "Art" that will help us stimulate a discussion with the sometimes skeptical touring public and approximate an answer.

To docents

I asked this question of several SJMA docents. Docents could not give a precise answer. However the replies focused on the general concept of expression/communication. There are at least two components to a definition of art on which the docents agreed. They are:

  1. An idea skillfully reduced to a work of some sort
  2. A viewer's perception of the idea as communicated in the work.

To the Internet

A brief Internet search for an answer to this question revealed the several views listed below with references to their Internet locations i.e. URLs.

  1. An attempt to define Art. This may lead to the what and the why. Find this at http://web.cln.com/archives/charlotte/newsstand/c011098/art.htm
  2. A continuation of the above at http://web.cln.com/archives/charlotte/newsstand/c011798/art.htm
  3. Some interesting ideas about when it is and when it might not be. Look at: http://www.stefanavalos.com/writings/archives/whatisart.htm

To artists through the literature

Artists are a taciturn lot but several have expressed themselves in the literature. Robert Henri 1 stated "the artist is an astute observer who expresses an idea in a material form such as painting, sculpture, architecture or in new forms as they evolve." A modern evolution certainly would be video art and computer-generated art. Paul Cezanne 2 saw Art as "a personal perception, a vision for one's self which intelligence organizes into a Work." Cezanne implies in this article that breaking out of old formalism when the artist's intelligence requires such action is necessary.


Both ideas of art and art making seem to confirm the docent's view of art as an idea reduced by intelligence to a work that makes a personal impression on a viewer. The Artist's intelligence is shaped by his/her environment, cultural values, education and the art world as well as knowledge of materials used to make works. The viewer's ability to perceive the ideas behind the work is shaped by a much larger set of visual criteria which may even exclude ideas central to the artist's intelligence. Pop culture, TV, cinema, magazines, poor exposure to art history etc may narrow the scope of work that will interest many viewers.


How then are we to know "why is it art" when both the artist and the public may have quite different objectives in their approach to art? One thing that we as docents, the interface between these disparate groups, can do is try to help the museum going public arrive at a broader understanding and heightened perception of art. We can frame the discussion with those concepts that our training and experience have shown narrow the gap between Artist and observer. Such a list might include the following ideas:

  1. Was there an idea perceived from the work that stimulates a feeling or sensation in the viewer?
  2. There should be some aspect of the work such as purpose, place in history, novelty, style or iconography that creates a reaction. Dekooning - Woman and Bicycle
  3. The artist may abstract reality in a work so that the viewer must use his/her intuition and sensitivity to interact with the work.
  4. Is there a new expressive means, new formalism, that allows the viewer to see the World in a unique way?
  5. There may be social comment that enlightens, pleases or horrifies the viewer.
  6. Are there aspects of the work that show the subconscious at work in both the Artist and the viewer?
  7. There may be skills with materials used in the work that appeal to the viewer.
  8. Is there humor, nostalgia, pathos, anger or beauty expressed in the work?
  9. May not a mood created by the work help the viewer into a meditative state of mind in the Buddhist sense?

No answers have been presented to tell us why a work is art. However a list of fairly broad criteria has been presented to frame a discussion of the question. Good luck.


  1. Henri R., The Art Spirit, Harper and Row, 1984
  2. Chipp H., Theories of Modern Art, U. of California Press, 1968