What is art: An Objective Definition vs. a Functional Definition

By Mikala SmithHumanities, Cycle 4, 2013



The question “What is art?” has been asked for generations, but it is important to consider art’s functionality rather than its definition. This paper explores scholarship on the issue of art.


The concept of art began an estimated 40,000 years ago. Evidenced by the simple cave drawings of Neanderthals to the contemporary works featured in a Guggenheim, it is safe to say that art is a central and integral part of the human experience. To that end, there is little wonder why civilization has tasked itself with the goal of defining art for almost as long as art itself has existed. The age-old question, “What is Art?” has been asked by generation after generation. However, rather than this question being simplified by the assumed millions who have posited their theories, art seems to have grown only ever more elusive; its complexities owed to the persistence of time and the interminable evolution of ideas on the matter that follow. With centuries of contemplation, and quite likely more to come, it does not appear that society has gotten any closer to achieving a consensus definition of art. And, so one begins to wonder if defining art objectively should continue to be of such chief importance.

Rather, one is inclined to suggest that perhaps art should be less about what it is definitively and more about what it is functionally. Since art has proven its importance by its enduring relevance throughout history we can assume that it must serve some useful occupation, or function, in civilization. In other words, art should be decided upon by whether or not it has an impact on a given society. We should look to the opinion of the collective majority in a society to determine what we consider as art. Ultimately, that is how renowned pieces such as the Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci or Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh became so popular—enough people in society were impacted by their works and because of this agreed to call it art. I propose that we can uncover the functional value of an art piece, thereby judging its qualification as such, by considering three points of inquiry: social message, originality and impact on art as a whole.

Before moving to discuss this notion of art as a function in society, one must first consider the scholarship concerning the definition of art. Imaginably, the opinions offered on this subject could occupy stacks of volumes. However, the constraints of this essay limit us to the consideration of just a few of those arguments.

To begin, many art critics agree with the aforementioned claim that the task of defining art objectively is a largely futile task— and perhaps even impossible. One such supporter of this notion is former Oxford University professor, John Carey. In his book, What Good are the arts?, Carey asserts that an objective definition of art simply does not exist. He explains in a quote that anything could constitute as art. The quote reads, “A work of art is anything that anyone has ever considered a work of art, though it may be a work of art only for that one person” (Winterson). In addition, Carey also believes that, “If enough of the right people keep saying that a thing is a work of art it becomes one, but that doesn’t mean it is one, because there are no absolute values, no objectivity, only the mind observing itself and what it makes” (Winterson).

One may agree with Carey in the opinion that trying to obtain an objective definition of art is impossible because of two reasons. The first is because art is an entirely subjective topic and as such allows for millions of definitions. The second reason is because there is no objective way to measure which of those opinions is accurate because art is always changing. While the argument of this paper does support the opinion of an unattainable objective definition of art, this does not mean that a functional definition cannot be achieved. In the second quote Carey explains that just because a large amount of people agree to label an art piece as art does not mean it is one. One can agree with the opinion that objectively, a majority opinion is not enough to define a work of art. But, this majority opinion should at least count for something because it is a reflection of a society’s reception to a given work. One can surmise that art is an evolutionary topic and as such should be judged by criteria equally as transitory. This is why how an art piece is received by the public, or how it functions, could be a useful way to judge a work of art.

Next, we will consider the argument made for art by the writer Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy seemed to be of the opinion that art is more about how useful it is to a society rather than any other characteristics a work may have. In Tolstoy’s essay, What Is Art, Tolstoy presents an argument for this definition. One quote that characterizes this opinion reads as follows: “Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity (Tolstoy).

It appears that Tolstoy defines art as the visual manifestation of a certain social milieu without much regard to the quality, or lack thereof, of its aesthetics. He seems to accredit the definition of art solely to its function in society. Specifically, he defines that function to include the progression towards well-being for humanity. One agrees with Tolstoy that an art piece is decided by the useful purpose it serves in the society it is born out of. All other factors, such as value seen in the aesthetics, should be seen as an incentive to the art piece instead of a necessary requirement. The message with in the piece is what makes a piece impactful. Since society is always changing, just as art is, considering how a piece functions during the time period it is relevant it seems to be the most accurate method to judge an art piece. If we try to pin down an objective definition, we would be in a constant state of revision to try to keep an objective definition up to date.

The two above mentioned definitions of art are just a small sampling of the many opinions about the definition of art. These opinions are prevalent in the world of art and helped to shape the thesis of this essay. As Carey points out, one can agree that an objective definition of art is impossible to define. After all, we all have our own personal definitions of art that are different from one another. However, instead of trying to achieve an objective definition, perhaps we can think about art functionally, as Tolstoy argued, and define it accordingly. This point of view covers a large expanse of art work. For example, this definition includes conventional art pieces like The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci to more abstract pieces such as Fountain by Marcel Duchamp. Also, considering art conventionally provides us with a definition that we created. Instead of looking to say, a panel of scholars, to create an objective definition, we, as a society, are the ones responsible for deciding what art is because it depends on our collective reception. The argument made in this paper aims to encourage that we look at art through a functional lens, as Tolstoy saw it, rather than an objective one, as Carey sees it. Tolstoy argued that the function of an art piece can be measured by considering how it adds to the progression of humanity. This essay hopes to expound on that definition by judging a piece of works function by entertaining three topics: social message, originality, and impact on art as a whole.

To apply this method of considering a proposed piece of work functionally, we can consider the artist Tracey Emin. Tracey Emin is an abstract British artist widely known for her contentious work and art. She became popular in the mid-nineties after appearing on television intoxicated during an interview (bio.com). Soon afterwards, Emin was once again made the center of controversy after the debut of her famous piece titled, My Bed. Emin’s renowned piece features no more than a few loosely placed condom packets, vodka bottles, and other elements of trash scattered randomly around her own unmade bed. It seems to many that such an ordinary, inconsequential scene like Emin’s bed should hardly be considered art. After all, we all have our own unmade beds. Many felt that Emin’s piece was unoriginal, unsophisticated, and threatening to the talent of other artists. My Bed presented controversial topics such as drugs, sex, and alcohol in a way that had never been experimented with before. It was shocking to many to be confronted with so many contentious topics all in one piece, but it was entirely something else to have the life of the artist herself be the work of art. However, before we can begin to deliberate how My Bed defies art, we must first attempt to establish the criteria by which My Bed was judged by in the first place. This will allow us to understand the ways in which Emin challenges the notions posed by her critics.

Accordingly, the book Why Is That Art discusses many of the popular theories offered as a definition of art. Summarily, these definitions can be divided into three points. It appears that society, at large, expects a credible example of art to (1) exhibit a unique set of skills expressed by the artist, (2) marked aesthetic value present in the piece, and (3) evidence of deliberate design and effort by the creator (Barret, 1).

Returning to Emin, It appears that My Bed does not fulfill any of the aforementioned requirements described above to be considered as art. Certainly those who oppose her work would agree. For example, one such critic is journalist and art critic Richard Dorment. In one review written about Emin, a quote reads, “in Venice her work is being shown between two of the strongest artists in the Biennale… At last, we can see Emin alongside artists of real stature, and the comparison makes it obvious how slight her talent really is” (Dorment). Many felt threatened by Emin’s piece. If she could happen upon a work of art by sheer mistake, then what did this mean for other artists that had worked tirelessly on their own works?

In addition to this, many of her critics argue that Emin’s work lacks aesthetic appeal. As a point of reference, we might consider a comparable 3-D work of art. For instance, The Thinker, by Auguste Rodin, is a relatively well known and highly regarded sculpture that is often praised for its acute likeness to the human form, skill level, and symbolism. Contrastingly, some critics felt that My Bed lacks this type of sophistication which may be made especially evident by the various elements of drugs, alcohol, and sexual promiscuity surrounding her bed.

Finally, one last way My Bed seems to defy a conventional idea of art is that it was not produced by conscious design. Instead, it was a product of random creation. This is her most popular topic of scrutiny because it raises the question if Emin’s randomly, messy bed could be art, then can anything be art? It is precisely a question like this that returns us to our problem and the inspiration behind my research to begin with, what is art? Again, it appears that when it comes to defining art objectively we fail to reach a conclusion. This may remind us of Carey’s argument in which he proclaims that everything could in fact be considered art, because there is no objective definition to prove otherwise. So, rather than judging a piece’s qualification of art by a definitive description, we may find it more appropriate to judge a debated piece of art by how it functions in a given society. We can determine this function by considering the topics of social message, originality, and its impact on art as a whole.

The first topic of inquiry, social message, will stand to include what is intended to be communicated to the public by the artist. In the case of Tracey Emin, she was suffering from depression when her bed became the work of art that is debated to be today. Emin had just ended a meaningful relationship before she slipped into a depression while My Bed was being crafted, although unknowingly (bio.com). In addition to the loss of her relationship, her depression reminded her of other difficult times throughout her life. For example, throughout her childhood Emin’s family struggled financially. At the age of 13 she became a victim of rape, and a mere 5 years later Emin underwent an abortion procedure (bio.com). Needless to say, Emin’s had suffered tremendously though out her life. In an interview, Emin explained that after one day deciding to take an honest look at what had become of her surroundings, she realized that throughout her apartment, her bed most closely reflected her internal state of emotional squalor (bio.com). She interpreted this accurate visual manifestation of her grief to be art, and as such, believed the publicity it would garner could be seen as a symbol of empathy to those with similar emotional tribulations. Her unadulterated honesty about some rather embarrassing details of her life proved attractive and relatable to many people. For example, My Bed was featured on the cover of a popular British magazine, G2 (Sharp). The title of the issue read, “How this bed turned from work of art to modern icon in less than two weeks” (Sharp). Emin’s message about her personal experience with the public had made her an icon. While Emin did not begin with the intention of using her bed as art, we can see that she made up for it with significance of her social message. Certainly, her rapid popularity would attest to this notion.

Originality is another criterion to consider a pieces’ functionality in society. Originality will explore which of the unique qualities behind Emin’s work that made it so popular and well received by the public. Emin’s idea to propose her own bed as art is the first of its kind. Prior to her exhibition of My Bed at the Tate Museum of Modern art in 1999, no one had proposed such a personal object, like a bed as art. As we just discussed, Emin’s piece challenged conventional notions of art. It took almost no skill to create My Bed, it contains arguably no aesthetic appeal, and it certainly did not take any deliberate effort to create on the part of Emin. However, despite these lacking qualities, Emin’s piece was so strange and unorthodox that it fascinated people. This fascination would be expressed through a poll in 1999, when one British newspaper asked the public if they would be brave enough to share their own beds in public as Emin had done (Sharp). Another way in which Emin’s work is original can best be described by a quote describing the piece from the Saatchi Gallery in London. The quote reads, “Her ability to integrate her work and personal life enables Emin to establish an intimacy with the viewer” (saatchi-gallery.co.uk). Emin found a way to make herself just as much the topic of art as her proposed piece. While we may recognize that Emin’s messy bed is long from unique, her originality is owed to her being the first to entertain the idea of her bed as work of art. Emin had seemingly developed a new style of art with My Bed. She had found a way to integrate her personal life into many of her pieces. Besides My Bed, Emin has done other autobiographical pieces such as her work titled, Everyone I have Ever Slept With which is a tent with the names of people from previous relationships sewn into a tent. One critic has come to describe Emin with the following quote: “her autobiographical style of work is all about exposing the kind of things about herself that most people would be too ashamed to reveal” (Davies).

Finally, we come to our last topic, the impact My Bed has on the subject of art as a whole. As previously discussed, we touched on the fact that My Bed was so controversial because it raised the question of whether all other seemingly trivial inanimate objects could classify as art as well. While we still may not have an answer to this question, we can see the value in how My Bed was instrumental in reinitiating conversations about the definition of art. In addition, there are multiple reviews criticizing the authenticity of Emin as an artist and her piece My Bed as art. For example, one such review was done by art critic, Craig Brown, in which he mocks Emin’s work in a satirical piece titled My Poop (saatchi-gallery.co.uk). This is just one example of many in the long list of critics that seek to disqualify My Bed as credible art. Certainly, if so many reviews were written in scrutiny of My Bed we can surmise that it has wielded considerable influence on the world of art. Encountering her piece has encouraged fellow artists, critics, and lay persons to continue to grapple with the concept of art. Moreover, if those in opposition are so convinced that My Bed is impostor art then it would seem appropriate for them to move on and cast it aside as such. Those who are confronted with the piece are forced to also ask themselves what art is and in effect perpetuate the age old conversation. The inevitable provocation of thought that ensues when one sees this piece proves its useful function in the world of art as a whole.

Upon reflecting on Emin’s My Bed we may find that in the closest definition to conventional art it does not meet the qualifications. But how can an artistically inspired piece with a well-received social message, originality, and impact in the world of art not qualify as art? Perhaps, if we aim to define art objectively, we will find that many other pieces with a useful function in society similar to the one exemplified by My Bed, those would also fail to fulfill the necessary components of a check list. For example, Jackson Pollock was a popular artist during the 50s that became famous for splattering canvases haphazardly with paint. Just as My Bed was scrutinized for its questionable social message, originality, and impact on the world of art many felt the same about works done by Pollock. While we could argue perpetually about whether a work done by Pollock classifies as art or not, we can be certain of one thing—how it functions in society, and whether that function is useful or not. As it turns out Pollock is a highly popular name in the world of art and his pieces are sold for millions of dollars. Another artist with a controversial work of art is aforementioned, Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp is a French artist that is famous for his black and white photo of a urinal and heralding the picture as art. This is yet another piece that fails to fit the conventional mode of a proposed objective definition of art. However when we look at how fountain affected society we may find that it proved to be impactful, and because of this should qualify as a work of art.

Defining the topic of art is a long debated argument that seems to have no real conclusion. But perhaps, this is because we have been going about this task in the wrong way. As art continues to modernize it begins to become more and more difficult to make the distinction between what is truly art and what is not. It seems the only way we can hope to achieve a definition of art, even if it not objective would be to consider how the society it is born out of receives it. If a proposed work of art has a social message, presents an original idea, and impacts the topic of art as a whole, then it should qualify as art. The function of a proposed work should be of principal consideration in its judgment as quality art, rather than how it fits into an unavoidably subjective mold of a potential definition. Art is always changing, and because of this, we should expect to judge it in a way that changes just as much.



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Dorment, Robert. “It’s High Time Emin Grew up.” The Telegraph. N.p., 7 June 2007. Web.

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“”Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’,” Deborah Cherry.Sharp.” Tracey Emin. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2013.

Davies, Ashley. “Tracey Emin.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 11 Oct. 2002. Web. 28 Mar. 2013.

“Jeanette Winterson.” Jeanette Winterson. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2013.

Tolstoy, Leo. What Is Art? New York: Bobbs-Merrill, Liberal Arts, 1960. Print.


Mikala Smith