Subject Material

What Is Art?

Published: 19.01.2010, Updated: 03.03.2017

What does "art" mean to you? Write down five things (words, names, ideas, etc.) that pop to your mind when you think of the word "art".

What Is Art?
3-D pavement drawing. Photo.Julian Beever 1  


3-D pavement drawing. Photo.Julian Beever 2 


3-D pavement drawing. Photo.Julian Beever 3 

Today there is a lot of disagreement about what can be called art, and what cannot. However, it has not always been this way.

Up to the Middle Ages, there was not even an answer to this question, because the idea of “art” did not yet exist. The idea of the “artist” was not born until after the Renaissance (14th to 16th centuries). Before that, painters and sculptors were seen as craftsmen or artisans, along with carpenters, basket weavers, potters, and the like. However, after the Renaissance, paintings and sculptures got a higher status because they were not just the result of skill or technique, but also inspiration; their creators, the painters and sculptors, had been inspired to make them. (Source: Adapted from What is Art? What is an Artist?)

More on art

The first art schools (academies) were founded in Italy in the 16th century. These academies laid down a set of rules for what art should and should not be. There were rules for colour, composition and the like. Generally speaking, the purpose of art was to create beauty or reveal a higher truth. Artists sought perfection. The ideal was the old, classical art of Greece and Rome. In the mid-1800s, new ideals gained ground. There was a fresh awareness that everything is relative. Suddenly, ugliness and chaos appeared in art. Furthermore, the materials art was created from – paint, canvas, stone, as well as newer materials - were appreciated in their own right. Instead of depicting the outer world, art started depicting itself.


The closer you get to our times, the more complex art becomes. That means that it has become more and more difficult to say “this is art, that is not art”. In the Renaissance, you could examine an object against a set of fixed rules to decide if it could be called “art”. With the complexity of the art being produced today, as well as the increasing overlapping of art forms, this is no longer the case. (Adapted from What is Art? What is an Artist?)

Trick the Eye

Julian Beever is a pavement artist. The 3-D effect of his astonishing chalk drawings is achieved by using a special technique called anamorphosis. This type of art is called “trompe-l’œil” (meaning “trick the eye” in French). Although the concept of trompe-l’œil is nothing new, Beever’s work is certainly unique. Beever says that:

"My art is for anybody, it's for people who wouldn't go into an art gallery. It's art for the people. […] Art shouldn't be locked away in galleries and libraries and books. Art should be for everybody and not just art boffins, historians and so-called experts."


Source: Pavement Picasso, downloaded 10.05.09, 11.10am)




Tasks and Activities


  1. Explain (restate) Beever’s quote in your own words.What is your view on visual art? Do you agree with Beever, or do you have a different opinion?
  2. “Art” is not only what you find in museums and galleries. Discuss whether the following types of visual expression can be called “art”. Where does the line go?
    • Advertising (print and television)
    • Street art (like Julian Beever’s pavement art in chalk)
    • Graffiti (like what you see on e.g. buildings, bridges and pedestrian underpasses)
    • Graphic design (like what you find on store logos, in magazines, on book covers, CD covers, or any type of wrappings, from milk cartons to shopping bags)
    • Posters
    • Others you can come up with?
  3. Find three examples of "street art" using an internet search engine. Discuss if it is art or not.
  4. Do the Art Quiz 1.


Find various definitions of the word 'art'. How are they similar? How do they differ? Why do you think they differ? Use online dictionaries and search engines in your research. Search for 'art definition'. With some search engines, like, you may write as follows: 'define: art'. This will give you a list of definitions.



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