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What Is Art… Anyway?

Dennis J. Murphy

“When the creations of a genius collide with the

mind of a layman, and produce an empty sound,
there is little doubt as to which is at fault.”
Salvador Dali.

As a fine art gallery owner for the past seven years,

I have received and reviewed portfolios from
innumerable artists.

I have listened to art critics, watched and listened

to gallery visitors as they viewed wall art and
sculpture, read extensively about art and what the
artist may or may not be trying to voice through his
or her visual presentations.

As an artist, my hand and imagination have created

a myriad of works.

I have sculpted recognizable human forms from raw

clay, produced utilitarian pieces through ceramics,
taken oil paint, brushes, utensils, canvas and generated
colorful linear abstract forms, I have photographed
landscapes, still life and the female body and digitized
the images to create one of a kind digital art

But… wait a minute. What is art… anyway?

Abstract, art deco, art nouveau, chinoiserie, collage,

cubism, de stijl, digital, folk art, futurism, empire,
expressionism, fauvism, impressionism, luminism, minimalism,
minaturism, mixed media, modern, mosaic, naturalism, pop art,

rococo, romanticism, social realism, surrealism, symbolism…

and how many more “-isms” categorize art?

Artlex, the art dictionary for artists, collectors, students and

educators, says this in response to the question:

“Art, for numerous reasons, seems to be the most difficult

word to define without starting an endless argument!

Page two

Many definitions have been proposed. Art involves a degree

of human involvement - through manual skills or thought - as
with the word “artificial” which means something made by
humans instead of by nature.

Definitions vary in how they divide all that is artificial into what

is and isn't art.

The most common means is to rely upon the estimations of art

experts and institutions.”

Art is defined by Webster as “creation of beauty in literature,

painting, music, dancing”.

Ok, so what did Webster know? Not much about visual art…

There is that old saying - “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”;

and the saying attributed to defining pornography - “you know

it when you see it”.

Is visual art then defined as “art is in the eye of the beholder”

and “one knows art when one sees it”?

When a ruckus was raised a few years ago by an English artist

whose works involved the use of elephant dung in creating art,
some critics were high in their praise.

Some public officials were outraged.

Some members of the public were dumbfounded.

Was this art?

Can it be described other than by saying it is imitation

chasing reality?

Dennis j. murphy [c]

Page Three

Perhaps this is really an age-old question.

Aristotle in the third century BC noted that "art completes

what nature cannot bring to finish"

Can you imagine the earliest of cave dwellers marking the

walls with drawings depicting the animals they hunted killed
and eaten?

Did their fellow cave dwellers ask “Is this art?”

What about the tattoo “artists” who render images on human

skin, depicting “old glory” or a discreet flower in a not so
discreet part of the body. Is this art?

How about a monkey throwing oil paint on a canvas… and

creating an abstract image (a technique used by Jackson

Is this art?

What about the people who are using digitalization,

pixels to generate art?

According to a leading maker of software for image editing and

creation there are 5 million registered users of their system.

How many are creating “art”?

Is visual art then more than just painting?

Here is what the philosopher of art Richard Wollheim stated in

his 1987 book “Painting as an Art”:

"So there are house-painters, there are Sunday painters; there

are world-politicians who paint for distraction and distraught
businessmen who paint to relax.”

Dennis j. murphy [c]

Page Four

He continues, “There are... psychotic patients who enter art

therapy and madmen who set down their visions.

There are little children of three, four, five, six, in art class,
who produce work of explosive beauty and then there are the
innumerable painters... who once, probably, were artists, but
who now paint exclusively for money and the pleasure of

None of them are artists, though they all fall short of being so
to varying degrees, but they are all painters.

And then there are painters who are artists.

Where does the difference lie, and why?

What does the one lot do which the other lot doesn't?

When is painting an art, and why?”

Frank Zappa (1940-1993) put a practical spin on the definition

when he said “Art is making something out of nothing and
selling it”.

Is the real answer to the question “what is art”… simply the

soul of the artist reaching out to the soul of the viewer?

Yes… No… Maybe… Perhaps… Could be… Or hardly!

What is your answer?

Dennis j. murphy [c]