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The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy wrote a thought-provoking book with exactly the same title as your question: What Is Art? The entire text of the book is accessible on the internet, since the work is old enough to be in the public domain. In the first chapters Tolstoy summarizes everything previously written about the definition of art that he considers important. Then in chapter five he offers his own definition of art as follows in full:

     To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling--this is the activity of art.

     Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.

I offer you this answer to your question as the best definition of art that I have ever encountered.


Many people have disagreed with Tolstoy's definition of art as the transmission of feelings and with many of the other things he has to say in his book. He has frequently been ridiculed and misinterpreted and misquoted. But he has some very important thoughts on the subject, regardless of whether or not he is entirely correct.

One of the most interesting parts of Tolstoy's book is the section in which he discusses what he calls "counterfeit art." He charges that professionalism in art led to insincerity and commerialism. He identifies four methods of producing counterfeit art: borrowing, imitating, striking (creating effects), and interesting. We can see these methods clearly in much of our contemporary "art," especially in our popular music and movies. In fact, many movies utilize all four of these methods of producing an effect on the audience which is not artistic but creates some kind of an impression on people which they may mistake for a transmission of real feelings. One means of "interesting" an audience in a movie is to shoot the film in a new location, so that many movies are something like dramas and travelogues combined. As far as creating effects, we are all too familiar with the explosions, car chases, shootouts, and scenes in which cars or motorcycles crash out of high-rise parking structures and fly through the air. The movies are so full of such effects that any time we see an actor get in a car and turn the ignition switch, we half-expect to see the car explode and burst into flames.

Tolstoy thought that the most important element in art was sincerity. He would be unlikely to think very much of what is presented as art in our time.

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What is art? What makes art?

The answer to this question has changed a lot over history, so it depends on when it is being asked. To the ancient Greeks art was what captured anything that was considered "beautiful" about the human form or organic world. That is no longer the case today. Today art is anything that turns something abstract, like an emotion, which has no shape or color or form but is something felt, into a physical thing, like a painting, or anything that questions what art is. 

I had a professor in college who said that "it is the job of the philosopher to define what art is and it is the job of the artist to break that definition," meaning, art's job is to redefine what art is, so you could say that art is anything that redefines what art is in its historical moment. That could be as simple as painting something that has never been painted before, or as complex as something like Duchamp's Readymades, which forces us to ask, if a urinal is put in an art gallery, does that make it art? It's not this specific question but the fact that the object is forcing us to ask questions about art that makes the object art, because it is attempting to redefine what art is. 

The goal of postmodern art has always been to produce art that questions what art is, but art in previous periods had different goals, mainly to put into form abstract things like emotions. So today art can be anything that does either of those things. 

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