What is Art? A Brief History of the Definition of Art

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Some people may look at a Jackson Pollock painting, like the one above, and wonder “Why is that considered art?” Modern art remains a mystery to those who believe that “art” should consist solely of paintings whose contents are recognizable – portraits, still lifes, or landscapes that mirror reality.

The true definition of what art is and what it isn’t has been constantly expanding and changing over time, growing ever broader as humanity progresses and advances on many levels – technologically, scientifically, morally, religiously, and spiritually. How does Pollock’s painting fit into the timeline of art?

The idea of creating “art for art’s sake” is a fairly new concept. The earliest sculptures and drawings created by prehistoric man were not considered “art” at the time of their creation; these images were used for ritual purposes relating to fertility and hunting – necessary elements for the survival of humankind. As early families coalesced into tribes and communities and eventually organized themselves into societies, objects were created for both mythological and religious reasons relating to ritual use and representation – from the tribal masks of African clans to the gilded Medieval paintings of pivotal Biblical scenes. As technology advanced and the middle class rose, Christianity and the aristocracy became less of a dominant presence in art-making as artists began to portray “regular people” as well as scenes from everyday life, in addition to depicting their views on socio-political happenings. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the definition of art was radically altered and expanded as artists explored daring subject matter and paved new paths for personal expression.

These days, the definition of art is as fluid as the one who ponders upon it. The term “art” now includes and embraces various forms of expression that once fell outside the commonly-held perception of what art is – from conceptual art to performance art and installation art. Although Pollock’s paintings might not be overtly or recognizably religious, his artistic output can be seen as an homage to the internal. His energetic paintings celebrate the process of art-making, each drip of paint recording a precise moment in time that can never be repeated.

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