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27 Responses to the Question “What is Art?”

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To Plato, art was imitation of nature, but in the 19th century, photography took over that function, and in the 20th, abstract art overturned the whole notion that art was about representation. And although art meant skill early on, conceptual artists elevated ideas over execution. So what is art? Does it have to be beautiful? Expressive? Original? Uplifting? Intellectual? Here’s how 27 artists, critics, and others answered the question, "What is art?"

Art is…

…according to a dictionary:

1. [from the 1300s] Skill; its display, application, or expression… [from the 1600s] The expression or application of creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting, drawing, or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

-- Oxford English Dictionary Online

…imitation or creation?

2. [Socrates:] Which is the art of painting designed to be—an imitation of things as they are, or as they appear—of appearance or of reality?

[Glaucon:] Of appearance.

[Socrates:] Then the imitator…is a long way off the truth…

– Plato, (429–347 B.C.E.) Athenian philosopher, The Republic, Book X, translated by Benjamin Jowett

3. Art is the unceasing effort to compete with the beauty of flowers – and never succeeding.

Marc Chagall (1887–1985) Russian-French artist, remark, 1977

4. The imitator is a poor kind of creature. If the man who paints only the tree, or flower, or other surface he sees before him were an artist, the king of artists would be the photographer.

James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), American-born, British-based artist, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1890)

5. The craftsman knows what he wants to make before he makes it.…The making of a work of art…is a strange and risky business in which the maker never knows quite what he is making until he makes it.

R.G. Collingwood (1889–1943), English philosopher, The Principles of Art (1938)

6. Art is either a plagiarist or a revolutionary.

 – Paul Gauguin, (1848–1903), Peruvian-born French artist, quoted in Huneker, The Pathos of Distance (1913)

…creating beauty or harmony

7. Filling a space in a beautiful way. That's what art means to me.

– Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986), American painter, in Art News December 1977

8. Art is harmony.

Georges Seurat (1859–1891), French painter, letter to Maurice Beaubourg (1890)

…something that reveals the essential or hidden truth

9. To me the thing that art does for life is to clean it – to strip it to form.

Robert Frost (1874–1963), American poet, in Fire and Ice: The Art and Thoughts of Robert Frost, by Lawrence Thompson (1942)

10. Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.

Paul Klee (1879–1940), Swiss painter, The Inward Vision (1959)

11. We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.

– Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Spanish painter living in France, quoted in Dore Ashton's Picasso on Art (1972)

…thought expressed through form (or not)

12. To give a body and a perfect form to one’s thought, this—and only this—is to be an artist.

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), French painter, in Jacques-Louis David, by Anita Brooker (1980)

13. [In order to distinguish Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes from actual Brillo boxes, art can be defined as] embodied meaning.

Arthur C. Danto (1924–2013), American philosopher of art, What Art Is (2013)

14. Ideas alone can be works of art….All ideas need not be made physical.…A work of art may be understood as a conductor from the artist’s mind to the viewer’s. But it may never reach the viewer, or it may never leave the artist’s mind.

Sol LeWitt (1928–2007), American artist, "Sentences on Conceptual Art," in Art and Its Significance, edited by Stephen David Ross (1994)

…a source of calm in a chaotic world

15. What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.

– Henri Matisse (1869–1954), French artist, Notes of a Painter (1908)     

16. Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos.

Saul Bellow (1915–2005), American novelist, in George Plimpton, Writers at Work, third series (1967)

…political

17. I don’t think art is elite or mysterious. I don’t think anybody can separate art from politics. The intention to separate art from politics is itself a very political intention.

Ai Weiwei (1957-), Chinese artist, “Shame on Me,” in Der Spiegel, November 21, 2011.       

…self-expression or autobiography

18. What is art? Art grows out of grief and joy, but mainly grief. It is born of people’s lives.

Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Norwegian artist, in Edvard Munch: The Man and His Art, by Ragna Stang (1977)

 19. All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster's autobiography.

Federico Fellini (1920–1993), Italian film director, in Atlantic Monthly, December 1965

20. Airing one's dirty linen never makes for a masterpiece.

François Truffaut (1932–1984), French film director, Bed and Board (1972)

…communication of feelings

21. To evoke in oneself a feeling one has experienced, and…then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling—this is the activity of art.

– Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), Russian author, What is Art? (1890)

22. Art has to move you and design does not, unless it's a good design for a bus.

David Hockney (1937–) British artist, to The Guardian on October 26, 1988

…an addiction

23. Art is a habit-forming drug.

Marcel Duchamp, (1887–1968), French-born American artist, quoted in Richter, Dada: art and anti-art (1964)

…an attempt at immortality

24. Life is short, art is long, often quoted as ‘Ars longa, vita brevis’, after Seneca's rendering in De Brevitate Vitae sect.

Hippocrates (c.460–357 BC), Greek physician, Aphorisms sect. 1, para. 1 (translated by W. H. S. Jones)

25. Art is a revolt, a protest against extinction.

André Malraux (1901–1976), French novelist, essayist, and art critic, Les Voix du silence (1951)

…whatever is displayed in a museum or gallery

26. [In 1917, Marcel Duchamp, using the pseudonym R. Mutt, submitted a store-bought urinal, which he titled “Fountain,” to an art exhibition.] Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He chose it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under a new title and point of view (and) created a new thought for the object.

Marcel Duchamp, Beatrice Wood, and Henri-Pierre Roché, The Blind Man, 2nd issue (May 1917)

27. If one general statement can be made about the art of our times, it is that one by one the old criteria of what a work of art ought to be have been discarded in favor of a dynamic approach in which everything is possible

Peter Selz (1919- ) German-born American art historian, Art in Our Times (1981)

Sources: en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Ai_Weiwei; Art and Its Significance; Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms (2 ed.); Crofton, Dictionary of Art Quotations; La Cour, Artists in Quotation; Oxford Essential Quotations; Gabrielle Selz, Unstill Life.

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Cephalopod Fossil Sketch in Australia Can Be Seen From Space

Australia is home to some of the most singular creatures alive today, but a new piece of outdoor art pays homage to an organism that last inhabited the continent 65 million years ago. As the Townsville Bulletin reports, an etching of a prehistoric ammonite has appeared in a barren field in Queensland.

Ammonites are the ancestors of the cephalopods that currently populate the world’s oceans. They had sharp beaks, dexterous tentacles, and spiraling shells that could grow more than 3 feet in diameter. The inland sea where the ammonites once thrived has since dried up, leaving only fossils as evidence of their existence. The newly plowed dirt mural acts as a larger-than-life reminder of the ancient animals.

To make a drawing big enough to be seen from space, mathematician David Kennedy plotted the image into a path consisting of more than 600 “way points.” Then, using a former War World II airfield as his canvas, the property’s owner Rob Ievers plowed the massive 1230-foot-by-820-foot artwork into the ground with his tractor.

The project was funded by Soil Science Australia, an organization that uses soil art to raise awareness of the importance of farming. The sketch doubles as a paleotourist attraction for the local area, which is home to Australia's "dinosaur trail" of museums and other fossil-related attractions. But to see the craftsmanship in all its glory, visitors will need to find a way to view it from above.

[h/t Townsville Bulletin]

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8 Things You Might Not Know About the Louvre
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It might be the most iconic art museum in the world. Located in Paris, the Louvre (officially the Musée du Louvre) has admitted thousands of cultural artifacts and millions of admirers since opening its doors in 1793. A guided tour is always best, but if you can’t make it to the Right Bank of the Seine, check out these eight facts about the landmark’s past, present, and future.

1. IT WAS CONCEIVED AS A CASTLE FORTRESS.

Before French King Philip II left for the Crusades in 1190, he ordered the fortification of the Seine area along the western border of Paris against any antagonists. Crowning the structure was a castle that featured a moat and defensive towers; it also housed a prison for undesirables. Over time, other construction urbanized the area, reducing the need for a combat-ready tower. In the 1500s, King Francis I built his residence on the same site. An art lover, Francis’s home and its collection of pieces hinted at what the Louvre would eventually become. In 1793, part of the Louvre became a public museum.

2. IT BECAME AN ARTIST RETREAT.

Before art was on open display for public consumption, the Louvre invited artists to stay and work on site and treat the building like a creative retreat. In 1608, Henri IV began offering artists both studio and living space in the Louvre. They could sculpt, paint, and generally do as they wished—but by the 18th century, the surplus of distinguished squatters had left the property a bit of a mess, and their residency was eventually phased out.

3. NAPOLEON RENAMED IT AFTER HIMSELF.

Crowned emperor in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte wasn’t above a little self-glorification. Having spearheaded the transformation of the Louvre from a cultural hub to his own tributary, he had the name changed to the Musée Napoléon and hung the Mona Lisa in his bedroom. The banner lasted until his defeat in 1815.

4. AN ARTIST MADE ITS FAMED PYRAMID VANISH.

In a move right out of David Copperfield’s playbook, in 2016 French artist JR was able to execute an impressive optical illusion using the three-story glass pyramid that sits outside the front of the Louvre. The surface was pasted with black-and-white photographs of surrounding buildings, making it seem like the construct had disappeared entirely. The performance piece was left up for about a month.

5. THE MONA LISA WAS SWIPED FROM THEM.

Art heists in movies are typically pretty glamorous affairs, with gentlemen thieves and Swiss-watch planning. But when crooks lifted the Mona Lisa from its perch in the Louvre in 1911, it was a fairly indelicate operation. Three Italian handymen hid in the museum overnight, then removed the painting from the wall and bid a retreat out the door in full view of the public. One of them tried selling it over two years later, but a suspicious dealer phoned police. The ensuing media coverage is thought to be one of the reasons the painting has become one of the most famous in the world.

6. THEY ONCE CLOSED BECAUSE OF PICKPOCKETS.

In 2013, nearly half of the museum’s 450 employees refused to come to work because of a nagging pest on the premises: pickpockets. Employees said that the adolescent criminals—admission is free for those under 18—distracted and robbed American tourists and showed only disdain for Louvre workers who tried to intervene. Authorities agreed to increase security measures, and they returned to their posts.

7. THEY HAVE RESIDENT “COPYISTS.”

Few museums sanction forgeries of any type, but the Louvre recognizes the curious subculture of artists who enjoy trying to replicate famous works. Every day from 9:30 to 1:30, “copyists” are allowed to set up easels and study paintings while working on their own replicas. The appeal for the artists is to try to gain insight into the process behind masterpieces; the museum insists that the canvas size not be exactly the same, and that they’re not signed.

8. AN APP CAN HELP YOU FIND AN EXIT.

With more than 8 million visitors annually, the Louvre can often feel congested to tourists unfamiliar with its layout. In 2016, the museum began offering an app that guides users around, offering them a pre-planned tour or an exit strategy. Lost? Hang a left at the Picasso, then a right at the Michelangelo.

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