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  • Writer's pictureBen De Winter

Uncovering the Meaning and Impact of Art: A Deep Dive into the Question "What is Art?"



The genesis of art traces back approximately 40,000 years. From the rudimentary cave sketches of our Neanderthal predecessors to the sophisticated masterpieces showcased in esteemed institutions like the Guggenheim, it is evident that art permeates through the core of human existence.


It's unsurprising, then, that humanity has long endeavored to unravel the essence of art, a pursuit dating nearly as far back as the inception of art itself. The pivotal query of "What is art?" has been a catalyst for thorough debates among historians, critics, philosophers, and various other thinkers over the centuries. Despite these extensive discussions, pinpointing a concise definition for art remains a challenging endeavor. Up till today, there has been no unanimously accepted definition for this complex and multifaceted subject.



Dictionary definition


We do have the option to provide some dictionary definitions of art:


art: the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects (Merriam-Webster).


art, noun: the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as a painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power (Oxford English Dictionary)


The Merriam-Webster definition prompts several additional queries. At what point does the application of skill and creative imagination qualify as 'conscious'? And, perhaps of even greater significance, when does an object attain the status of being 'aesthetic'?


The Oxford definition suggests that non-visual art wouldn’t be art. So, music is not art? And what if a piece is not appreciated by the viewer because of its beauty or emotional power, but solely because of the craftmanship? It wouldn’t be art?


The reality about art is its vast diversity, offering as many interpretations as there are people in the universe, resulting in as many definitions as there are individuals. Each of these definitions is influenced by the unique perspective and own personality of that person. The best dictionary definition I found on the subject ‘art’ maybe was the one given by Ambrose Bierce in his Devil’s Dictionary (1906):


art, noun: this word has no definition



Searching a Functional Description


It might be worth to consider art’s functionality, rather than simply relying on dictionary definitions. Over time, I've collected quotes about art from a diverse array of creative minds and influential figures who have imparted their wisdom throughout history. I’m going to share some of these with you hoping that we might gain some understanding of this nebulous idea called art.


“Omnis ars naturae imitatio est.” (All art is but imitation of nature.) 

– Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Letter 65. On The First Cause, 1st century AD.


Seneca’s definition of art may appear straightforward and constrained but encapsulates a crucial distinctive attribute of ‘art’. Art represents the natural world by imitating it. The artist, in its creative pursuits, aims to mirror the beauty and truths present in nature. This underscores the notion that art is influenced by the diverse forms and phenomena in the surrounding world. Art cannot exist without it. The significance of this concept lies in its establishment of a link between art and the natural world, highlighting the interdependence between human creativity and the environment.


Nonetheless, the perspectives of most thinkers extend beyond Seneca's viewpoint. Art accomplishes something that nature alone does not. Art begins from the surrounding world and extends it outward:


“Art completes what nature cannot bring to a finish. The artist gives us knowledge of nature’s unrealised ends.”

– Aristotle, Lectures, 350 BCE


“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” 

– Aristotle, De Poetica, 335 BCE


“Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.”

– Henry Ward Beecher, Proverbs from Plymouth, 1887


“If the artist has outer and inner eyes for nature, nature rewards him by giving him inspiration.” 

– Wassily Kandinsky, Autobiography, 1918


“Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”

– attributed to Bertold Brecht (1898-1956)


“Art does not reproduce the visible; it makes visible.”

– Paul Klee, Creative Credo, 1920


“Art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him.” 

– Chinua Achebe, The Truth of Fiction, 1990


Drawing from the quotes provided, it becomes evident that art transcends being a mere replica of the natural world, as Seneca suggests. Instead, it serves as a means of comprehending the entirety of the world—not solely the physical realm, which science endeavours to understand—but rather, the complete spectrum including the human world, encompassing society and spiritual encounters. The artwork serves as the conduit through which the artist can convey their perception of this world, including nature and everyday existence, to their audience.


This is where art distinguishes itself from mere documentation. While documentation presents a view of the world, art presents a world perspective infused with the personal emotional imprint of the artist. This implies that art is not just a product of technical skill but also a manifestation of passion and creative spirit. This can be substantiated by following quotes:


“Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.” 

– Leonardo da Vinci, early 16th century


“Une oeuvre d'art qui n'a pas commencé dans l'émotion n'est pas de l'art.” (A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art.) 

– attributed to Paul Cezanne (1839-1906)


“In art, the hand can never execute anything higher than the heart can imagine.” 

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Society and Solitude, 1870


“Art grows out of grief and joy, but mainly grief. It is born of people’s lives.”

– Edvard Munch, quoted in The Man and His Art by Ragna Stang, 1977.



Art acts as the artist's tool for communication with human society.


“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

– Edgar Degas (1834-1917)


“Art is the activity by which a person, having experienced an emotion, intentionally transmits it to others.”

Leo Tolstoy, What is Art? ,1898


“Art is the most effective mode of communications that exists.” 

– John Dewey, Art as Experience, 1934


“Ein Buch muß die Axt sein für das gefrorene Meer in uns.” (A book should serve as the axe for the frozen sea within us.)

Franz Kafka, Letter to Oskar Pollak, 1904


“Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot, others transform a yellow spot into the sun.” 

– Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)


“Art should be something that liberates your soul, provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further.” 

– Keith Haring (1958—1990)


“Art has to be something that makes you scratch your head.”

– Ed Ruscha, Ed Ruscha, 2003


“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”

– Cesar A. Cruz, later repeated by Banksy


Art provides a platform to articulate opinions, emotions, or to offer alternative perspectives on the world. In this manner, artists can fortify determination and motivate action. Their thinking differs from that of policymakers or academics, enabling them to stir individuals into action and make notable cultural and political impacts. This way art drives the development of a civilization.


Art endeavors to communicate with the world, yet the artist's message only resonates once it is encountered by a viewer. It is through this interaction that art attains its complete essence, for it is in the reception by others that art truly comes alive.


“The actual work of art is what the product does with and in experience.”

– John Dewey, Art as Experience, 1934


“Art is a completed pass. You don’t just throw it out in the world – someone has to catch it.”

– James Turrell, Harper’s Bazaar, 2013


“Art allows you to imbue the truth with a sort of magic, so it can infiltrate the psyches of more people, including those who don’t believe the same things as you.”

– Wangechi Mutu, 33 Artists in 3 Acts, 2014


You can read more about the way we experience art in one of my previous blog posts "Aesthetic Experiences: Why Do Some Artworks Speak to Us and Others Leave Us Cold?"




For centuries, art historians, critics, and thinkers have engaged in ongoing discourse surrounding the question, "What defines Art?" While no universally accepted dictionary entry exists, there are several traits that are typically connected with the subject:


Art is:

A world perspective infused with the personal emotional imprint and creative spirit of the artist.

A platform to communicate a (social) message with notable impact on society.

A driver for the development of civilization and the creation of a new world view.




What is your description of ‘art’? Please feel free to leave it in a comment.


Thank you for reading.

















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