What is Art?

Sometime in the beginning of last year I got a mail asking me to answer some questions for an article a writer was doing on ‘Art‘. There was a long list of questions and I answered them as best I could. I then promptly forgot about the piece.

In the last few days, I found myself looking for that set of answers to see if anything had changed in my way of thinking in one year – from the first time I wrote about this topic and now.

It hasn’t!!

I wanted to share the piece with you all.  But please note- This is too complex a topic to be answered frivolously 🙂 And would require reams of paper or at the very least lots of cups of chai/whiskey to talk/argue about long into the night!! And is controversial in the many viewpoints that would define this topic. So I want to clarify that these are my views and how I see the topic. I have tried to be as upfront and honest as I can.

“What can be termed as art?”

If I speak generically and not technically, then anything that pleases the eye is art. It has an aesthetic that appeals to someone. But technically, I would think that art in any form requires a certain skill in that particular category, needs to be one of a kind or at least limited edition, and last but not the least needs to resonate with an inner emotion that almost compelled the artist to create it.

“What are the criteria based on which a layperson can gauge what’s art and what’s not?”

Art is different from a product that it need not have any tangible use other than to hang on a wall, be displayed somewhere just to give a sense of ‘something’ to the beholder. It must touch a chord. It need not have any great philosophical advice, but must touch an emotion for the person seeing and interacting with that piece. Functional art, is something that combines an aesthetic with a deeper meaning. It is different from a very good looking product. However, sometimes the aesthetic of a product, it’s product design is so compelling that, that fact alone, elevates it to a piece of art – where form and function combine with the creators skill and knowledge to create an almost one of a kind product, that is so good that it may never be rivaled again. Though in some cases, this ‘product design’ may then be mass produced!

“What one might consider art, another might consider to be ordinary or in some cases even trash. Please comment.”

Absolutely! this is where it gets tricky. If you look at the technical definition that I put forth earlier…art should qualify in the criteria mentioned.  Here I would like to put forth a bit of a tangential view… an amateur trying to paint or sculpt etc is still an artist trying to create something of profound value. It may not have reached a high enough level of refinement…but it’s potential is clearly visible to a layman. Contrast that with someone with no skill, no vision and nothing much to say, painting just because they have access to the tools and materials!!

Another point of interest lies in understanding what an artist may be trying to communicate.  Sometimes just plain splashes of paint on an otherwise blank canvas, are so compelling in the composition they make, or in the colours they juxtapose, that they become art. Other times it may just be the sheer intensity of what the artist was going through, and wished to communicate, that the piece takes on more meaning than just the obvious first glance visual appeal.

“Art is subjective, yes. However, there are lesser acknowledged art forms—printmaking, pottery, music, digital works, dance, etc—that the layman might not consider as art as a result of non-exposure. How do you bridge this gap of knowledge?”

By more education and awareness. And I personally feel that all of these art forms are still just the tools/mediums to express oneself. It is when one uses these effectively to communicate that one compelling idea or emotion of a given moment, that connects with it’s audience….that is when these become art. Otherwise doing random moves on a dance floor is as ‘un-arty’ as just throwing paint on a canvas because you can!!

“Today, people are no longer intimidated by the traditional meanings of art. They’ve become experiential and willing to give various art mediums a short. Please comment on this surge in interest in various forms.”

It’s not today…pop art rose out of just such a situation but it had a compelling enough thought behind it.  In fact Impressionism, Pointillism, Cubism, Abstract Art, etc were all experimental and a break from tradition when they first started. A thought that spoke of the times as it were. Today people are experimenting and trying out new things. This in itself is great. But does everything that this new lot create, become art? No.

Today there is a merging of art, craft, boredom, one-upmanship, Facebook and it’s ‘likes’.

Today it is possible to have your ‘work’ displayed to hundreds of people over the internet. Many say they like it because they are your ‘friends’ and not because you created a great piece of work. Due to this, often ‘questionable art’ becomes ‘good or excellent art’ because of the number of people who ‘liked’ it. The result is that mediocrity rules.  The silver lining here though is that those that are artists, will either learn, emerge, and come up with a new aesthetic – that is compelling enough or die trying :-). Artists and artisans of amazing skill will come forth. The others will pass on by as a fad.

“Does exclusivity play a big part in rendering a piece as an artwork?”

I think so. One of a kind or limited edition. Else that absolutely divine piece of product design that I mentioned earlier 🙂

 “According to you, can lesser-known art forms (like the ones mentioned above) become a part of one’s home decor? And how?”

Absolutely. Sometimes prints are more affordable, or pottery is so appealing that even if it is mass produced in a kiln, it touches the beholder with it’s aesthetic.

“Culturally, many indigenous works—abroad and in India—that represent a society or convey a strong story, are considered artistic representations. According to you, can these pieces be termed as artworks?”


“More and more homeowners are picking up quirky buys—carpets, brassware, masks, etc—from their travels. How would you recommend a homeowner spot the diamond from the rough and pick out an authentic piece?”

Anything you have in your home must speak to you. It must either fulfill a function or be so wonderful to look at, feel, or touch that it brings joy to the homeowner. Authenticity lies in that honest reaction.

“And lastly, can there ever be bad art?”
I don’t think there can be bad art….if it is bad…it is not art.

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