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Taking your first steps into higher education
Taking your first steps into higher education

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1.1 Defining art

A common response to contemporary art is to query whether artworks such as those included in this course are actually art at all. This view is evident in the following comments, posted in the ‘Have your say [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ’ (press ctrl and click on link to open in a new window) section of the BBC News website (2004) following a fire in a London art handlers’ warehouse in 2004, in which over 100 works were destroyed, including works by Tracey Emin (all three of the works you have looked at) and Damien Hirst (the piece I began with).

I can’t imagine how anyone can call a tent or a shed art. I can only assume it’s because they can’t paint, sculpt or turn a clay pot. This fire is no great loss to the art world.

(Gareth Dunn, Edinburgh)

I’ve got a few unmade beds for sale to interested bidders. In fact for the right price I’ll throw in the stroppy teenage occupant. He can reduce any tidy room to the state of Tracey’s bedroom if left to his own devices for a day or two.

(Karen Wood, Lincolnshire) (BBC News, 2004)

In Activity 1, you were asked to consider whether Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child (Divided) is art. If you decided that it is not art, then you are not alone in thinking in this way. When Hirst won the Turner Prize in 1999, the prominent art critic Brian Sewell was unimpressed, commenting:

I don’t think pickling something and putting it into a glass case makes it a work of art. It is no more interesting than a stuffed pike over a pub door.

(Sewell, 2005)

If you concluded that Mother and Child (Divided) is art, then again you are not alone. Hirst has many fans, one of whom acclaimed the work as having:

The integration of thought and feeling and the combination of complexity with visual and emotional power that is characteristic of major art.

(Molyneux, 1998, p. 1)

One reason for this difference in opinion is likely to be that, once again, the writers differ in what they think makes something art. It is interesting that the detractors tend to use quite ‘down-to-earth’ language, while the advocate (Molyneux) uses a more ‘academic’ language. The question ‘What is art?’ has been the subject of heated debate by art historians for many years and is notoriously difficult to answer. However, in the next activity, you will take on the challenge and attempt to answer the question yourself.

Activity 3  What is art?

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

Rank the seven statements below according to how closely the characteristics align with your definition of an artwork.

  • a.being displayed in galleries
  • b.being produced by a recognised artist
  • c.showing evidence of technical skill
  • d.expressing an emotion or a point of view
  • e.being the result of a creative process by an artist
  • f.being unique
  • g.being labelled as ‘art’ by the person who created it.

Based on this, try to write one sentence, in order to answer the question ‘What is art?’


Did you find this activity difficult? If so, you are in good company as there is no universally agreed answer to the question, ‘What is art?’ In fact, there are as many different definitions as there are people providing those definitions. Whatever order you placed the statements in may say something about the importance you attach to certain elements in an artistic work, but all have been asserted at one time. Despite this, the study of art goes on, in spite of any uncertainty – much as the sciences continue to engage learners despite changes in scientific understanding over time.

The Collins Paperback English Dictionary (1999) defines art as: ‘The creation of works of beauty or other special significance’ and ‘Human creativity as distinguished from nature’. How far does this reflect your own views? If you want to amend your own definition in the light of this, do so now.