3 Why It Matters

Defining “art”


As a thought experiment, imagine what a society without art would be like? How would buildings look? How would acceptable clothing or style of dress be defined? 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 other cultures. 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.

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.

OK, let’s get started!


Work Cited

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



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Introduction to Art Concepts Copyright © by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book