15 Why It Matters

Define “art” within the context of the ongoing discussion about its meaning (course level learning objective)


As a thought experiment, imagine what a society without art would be like? How would buildings look? Could any kind of visual communication exist at all? It’s a provocative question that quickly necessitates defining the boundaries of what does and does not constitute art. This mirrors the complexity of engaging in the ongoing definition of art.

Art is studied because “it is among the highest expressions of culture, embodying its ideals and aspirations, challenging its assumptions and beliefs, and creating new visions and possibilities for it to pursue” (Sayre, XVI). When we discuss contemporary art, we are typically referring to the practice of fine art, but prior to the Renaissance, art was defined within the realm of functional crafts, such as goldsmithing. The idea of autonomous art or art for art’s sake developed later, over many eras.

Studying art leads to a greater understanding of our own cultural values and of the society that produced it. When colonizing forces of Europeans encountered African wood sculptural nkisi figures, primarily in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo,  they considered them to be evidence of idolatry and witchcraft or opposition to the colonizing forces (Sayre 11–12). The figures were often pierced with nails as a symbolic gesture to initiate a desired goal, like protection from an enemy. The invading Europeans often destroyed the nkisi figures, which were sacred objects to the Congo people. We will return to this example at the end of the module.

Visit this link to see an example of a nkisi sculpture.

The material covered in this section will help you understand how we arrived at our contemporary understanding of art and how to begin engaging in the ongoing definition and discussion of art.

Module Learning Outcomes

  • Recognize and summarize changing perceptions and definitions of art throughout history.
  • Define aesthetics and some variables in how we perceive and assign value to art.
  • Describe and discuss some contemporary theories in the definition of art.

How to study for the Performance Assessment (PA)

The PAs for this module are answering short essay questions that are designed to test your understanding of the learning outcomes (listed above) for this module. Read through the two performance assessments for this module BEFORE you begin the module content. I suggest printing them out, or making notes of the keywords in each question. Then, as you read through the module content take notes on the subjects or anything that you find relevant to the PA questions. Be sure to document the page or place in the content where you found each note, in case you need to return to that content, or need to ask me a specific question citing module content. Once you are ready to complete the PAs, you will have these notes to help you answer the questions thoughtfully.

OK, let’s get started!

Work Cited

Sayre, Henry. A World of Art, Sixth edition. Boston: Prentice Hall, 2010. Print.


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