What is art?


To Plato, art was imitation of nature, but in the 19th century, photography took over that function, and in the 20th, abstract art overturned the whole notion that art was about representation. And although art meant skill early on, conceptual artists elevated ideas over execution. So what is art? Does it have to be beautiful? Expressive? Original? Uplifting? Intellectual? Here’s how some artists, critics, and others answered the question, "What is art?"

Art is the unceasing effort to compete with the beauty of flowers – and never succeeding.– Marc Chagall (1887–1985) Russian-French artist, remark, 1977

The craftsman knows what he wants to make before he makes it.…The making of a work of art…is a strange and risky business in which the maker never knows quite what he is making until he makes it.– R. G. Collingwood (1889–1943), English philosopher, The Principles of Art (1938)

Art is harmony.– Georges Seurat (1859–1891), French painter, letter to Maurice Beaubourg (1890)

To me the thing that art does for life is to clean it – to strip it to form.– Robert Frost (1874–1963), American poet, in Fire and Ice: The Art and Thoughts of Robert Frost, by Lawrence Thompson (1942)

We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.– Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Spanish painter living in France, quoted in Dore Ashton's Picasso on Art (1972) 

Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos.– Saul Bellow (1915–2005), American novelist, in George Plimpton, Writers at Work, third series (1967) 

All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster's autobiography.– Federico Fellini (1920–1993), Italian film director, in Atlantic Monthly, December 1965


Sources:; Art and Its Significance; Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms (2 ed.); Crofton, Dictionary of Art Quotations; La Cour, Artists in Quotation; Oxford Essential Quotations; Gabrielle Selz, Unstill Life.

Brad Commerford                      Supervisor - Arts/World
(908) 647-4800 x6848