Cadence Seeger

What is Art?

Art is an expression of thought conveyed through a physical, sensory, or performative medium. This includes, but is not limited to, visual art, music, literature, performance art, video art and games, jewelry, and fashion. Historically, as soon as people attempt to place restrictive definitions on what art is or is not, new art will emerge to intentionally combat that restriction. Art is meant to be an expression of self, ideas, cultures, and thoughts. Expression and imagination have no definitive boundaries, so it would follow that a single textual sentence or a law could not possibly set the box in which all art resides.

However, what distinguishes a park bench from a Minimalistic cube? What’s the difference between the flatware behind glass in the Smithsonian and that which lives in your kitchen drawers? Art must either be produced or repurposed with the intent of the object representing something beyond itself. This can be simplified to: “Art is an entity in which aesthetics outweigh its function.”

Aesthetics can be designs or patterns included for a visual impact. This includes surface decorations and the physical form of an art piece. Morris’ Untitled is a short, symmetric, reflective cube that doesn’t even have the standing to be given a proper title. Yet it was crafted intentionally, as art, along the beliefs and guidelines set forth by the 1960’s movement Minimalism. This cube can be used as a seat, so it does have a tangible function, but it was created with an intentional form (a cube), decoration (the reflective walls), and with the intention of being a statement, rather than a utilitarian object. This cube was not created to be sat upon, but rather to sit in a museum and make audiences question the tactile nature of artmaking and the forms art is allowed to take. These are all purposeful aesthetic decisions, which clearly delineates even an untitled cube as art, as aesthetics triumph over function.

Aesthetics can also be representative of a culture or a group of people. The aesthetics of an art piece date it to the specific time, community, and location in which it was created. Let’s say the Smithsonian flatware is from the 1800’s. It is therefore made from the specific material available in the time and location in which it was forged. The designs on the handles and the shape of the individual utensils are culturally influenced, and they would have been recognizably in or out of fashion by the people for whom the flatware was made. While not originally designed to be art, even everyday objects can be elevated to an artistic standard by becoming representative of a time and place that has since passed. The art was therefore not originally created with aesthetics over function, but rather inherited the aesthetics necessary to be constituted as art by becoming culturally emblematic and remnant of a particular time, place, or culture.

Now let’s talk about the toilet in the room. In 1917, Dadaist Marcel Duchamp placed a urinal with a sloppy black painted signature reading “R. Mutt 1917” on a pedestal in the middle of an art show and called it “Fountain.” This was one of the first cases of found-object art, and sparked outrage and led to one of the quintessential societal “But is it art?” debates. Following the logic set up above, are the aesthetics of this urinal more important than its function? I’d say yes. By recontextualizing the urinal and adding in a signature, Duchamp has effectively made the aesthetics of the piece of higher import than its potential function. By placing a toilet in an art gallery, no one would enter the space with the intention of using the toilet, like they would for a bathroom. Audiences enter with the intention of viewing art. Even if there is a toilet on display, I’d herald a guess that no one is going to unzip their pants in the middle of the gallery and use the piece as its original function suggests. In this way, Duchamp completely recontextualized the urinal, taking away its core functionality and raising its aesthetic purpose. Like the silverware, this object was not initially created with aesthetics in mind but was raised to the place of art through the addition of the signature and through placing it in an artistic context.

Aesthetics can be a tricky word to pin down with a definition, but when looking at an object’s design, history, significance, and context, it becomes clear that “aesthetics” is the best lens through which to define the age-old question “What is Art?” Once an object’s pattern, visual impact, cultural relevance, historical significance, or contextualization outweighs the base functionality of the object, it is art. Just as a statue worn down and obscured by time and weather may eventually look like nothing more than a brick, and thus becomes reduced to nothing more than a brick, an object once created with only functionality in mind can transcend its base use to become a piece of artwork. Art expresses a meaning, history, expression, or thought beyond the physical space it occupies, and in this extension lies its aesthetics. In this conceptual space beyond the physical, an object enters the realm of “Now That’s Art!”