Nebulous and Murky: The Definition of Art

When you ask Google to define art you get two definitions:

  1. The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
  2. The various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance.

But what is the problem with these definitions?  At first glance they seem pretty obvious.  Art is anything that requires creativity.  But here’s the issue.  How do we determine whether something is creative or not?  How do we determine if something has raw, emotional power?  For some people, action movies could be seen as art because they might identify with and feel for the characters.  Yet, in general society, action movies are not considered artistic.  So where’s the true line here?  Where does something cross over into “being art”?

The simple answer is that no one really knows.

Everybody seems to have their own specific definition of what art is to them.  I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.  The same thing goes for art.  Someone might look at an old Picasso painting and deem it a work of high art, whereas someone else might look at it and see nothing more than a raving lunatic’s imagination.  It’s all subjective, changing from person to person.

There is no one concrete definition for art.  A lot of people out there talk about art like there is one, but there isn’t.  We all define art for ourselves based on the things that impact us the most.  We start running into problems when people try to use their personal definition of art as a general standard.

If you’ve read my blog enough, you know that I usually don’t care about the debate of what is art and what isn’t, especially in the video game world.  It’s a pointless and pretentious endeavor that does little more than muddy up the waters.  I mean I can understand why people care about the debate so much.  If people accept a general ruling that something is classified as art, then said thing is given a much bigger lease to do what it wants.  That’s why there’s a number of people out there debating whether or not video games can be art, because if video games are classified as art then games like Grand Theft Auto wouldn’t be such a large target for the anti-video game crowd.

But while I understand it, I don’t endorse it.  We shouldn’t be striving for one, universal definition of art.  Because what would that accomplish?  Imagine if we actually agreed upon a definition.  We agreed that art was “this” or “that”.  Then, imagine you went to an art show.  Wandering among the different shades of colors, the different styles and perspectives, you find yourself drawn to one specific painting.  The hues of color wash over you, shifting you into a magical state of being.  You feel uplifted, enlightened by this painting.  You absolutely adore it.  It’s beautiful, soulful, and downright pleasing to the eyes.  But then you find out that it’s not art, because it doesn’t meet the definition perfectly.  How would that make you feel?  How would you react to the news that something that spoke to you so clearly wasn’t able to be art because of one little flaw or one missed criteria?

Art is not mathematical (although math can be artistic in nature).  There is no one formula for deciding what is and isn’t art.  And you know what?  There shouldn’t be.  Art has changed so much over the course of human history that even if we wanted to, we most likely couldn’t find a concrete definition for it.  We can say that it’s anything that has emotional power, but that is still subjective in nature.

For a good example on the subjectivity of art, let’s take a look at an indie video game called Thirty Flights of Loving.  This is a game that a lot of people would consider artistic.  They would say that it provides a great meta-examination of video game storytelling because it tells a minimalist tale with the bare basics of a plot and characters.  They discuss it endlessly, finding hidden meanings in every scene.

But me?  I found it boring, pretentious, and over far too quickly.

I really wanted to like this game, but I couldn’t.  For starters, the game is only ten minutes long.  There wasn’t enough time for me to connect with anything in the game.  All I really got out of it is that your character was some kind of secret agent or something on a mission that goes wrong somehow.  There are flashbacks to some kind of romantic involvement with a girl that take place throughout, but the whole thing feels so disjointed and bland that I couldn’t get into it.  There was no real characters in the game (no real voices either, it’s that fake kind of talking like in The Sims), no real depth to the plot, and before I could even put anything together, the game just ends.  There isn’t even any real gameplay to be had.  You essentially just walk around and stuff happens (which is fine if it’s done right).  In the end, I found myself profoundly disappointed.

The entire point of the game I guess was to strip out all the fluff you normally see in a story.  And on that point they succeeded very well.  The problem is that the fluff is what keeps us interested.  The characters, the setting, the exposition……all of it is there to keep us grounded in the narrative.  If you strip that out, all you find yourself left with is a sequence of vague events with no real context.

At least, that’s how I felt about the game.  You might think differently, and that’s the beauty of art.

Art is subjective.  Art cannot be defined.  Art resists being defined.  Art speaks to people in unique ways, providing someone with their own personal experience.  No one’s experience will be identical to the other.  They may have similarities, but no one will have the exact same one.  Art gets us to discuss things, to tackle issues we might not otherwise consider.  Art brings things to the forefront that we might wish to ignore.  Art tells us things about ourselves as a species.  It shifts our perspectives, even if  just for a moment.  And art can change us in the long run, for better or for worse.

We make art, and art makes us.


Another week, another post.  Thank you all for taking the time to read my ramblings.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a great week everyone.



One thought on “Nebulous and Murky: The Definition of Art

  1. Art is communication. It’s about evoking an emotional response in the audience (even if that’s only oneself).

    The definition of art is nebulous. Attempts to include subjective opinion make the definition murky. Don’t allow them. Video games are, of course, art (though not necessarily artsy-fartsy like Thirty Flights).

    Art is so many things, any simple definition will be lacking.

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