In reviewing the exhibition catalog, Seen and Imagined: The World of Clifford Ross for Leonardo Reviews, I came upon this question (and many others) about not just what art is but the various aspects of it. The most prominent being What is abstraction? What is creativity? Is jazz art? You can read my review here to find out the biological explanation of many of these questions.
Anything can be art—if art is defined as the best that something can be. According to Merriam-Webster,* art is “skill acquired by experience, study, or observation <the art of making friends>”
Merriam-Webster also amplifies by discussing related words and what they represent, many of which have been passed off as art:
“Synonym Discussion of art art, skill, cunning, artifice, craft mean the faculty of executing well what one has devised. art implies a personal, unanalyzable creative power <the art of choosing the right word>. skill stresses technical knowledge and proficiency <the skill of a glassblower>. cunning suggests ingenuity and subtlety in devising, inventing, or executing <a mystery plotted with great cunning>. artifice suggests technical skill especially in imitating things in nature <believed realism in film could be achieved only by artifice>. craft may imply expertness in workmanship <the craft of a master goldsmith>.”
There are also very confusing philosophical discussions, from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy here, questioning the possibility of a definition, or the usefulness of one.
Simply, art is largely a case of ‘you know it when you see it’—but we all see differently as we have very unique and diverse life experiences. Then how about consensus? No problem, ‘consensus’ can be engineered by heavy promotion—see our advertising industry and political campaigns—not to mention efforts by some galleries and artists themselves.
But all’s not lost. The process of looking for a definition or a consensus is itself rewarding: your view today should be different from that last year. And mine has quite changed just from reading Seen and Imagined: The World of Clifford Ross.
* Merriam-Webster, founded 1843 in Springfield, Massachusetts as An American Dictionary of the English Language, is now owned by Encyclopædia Britannica.