What Is Art?

What is Art?

A few months ago I was involved in a large Art Exhibition in Seattle. Looking closely at the huge selection of work in the show I started thinking again about Art, what it is and what it isn’t …and who gets to say.

In the show most of the visual “arts” were represented by fine examples of often expert craftsmanship. I saw fine woodwork, textiles, photography, painting, sculpture, and  assemblage. But I saw very little art.

Fine Art is not merely objects that are finely made. It’s more than that. But what is it?

New Image

(Old School) Journal Entry:

What Is Art?

Art is not propaganda.

Visual imagery is often used as propaganda whether it is painted, photographed, sculpted, or digitally created. By Collingwood’s standard (see previous post, Art vs Craft) propaganda fails in the same way as craft. In both, the maker knows exactly what he is going to make. He knows the message he is going to convey and how the viewer is to interpret what he makes. Neither allows for openness of expression. Neither allows for interpretation.

(Old school) Journal Entry:

Art vs Propaganda

What Is Art? (Art vs. Entertainment)


What Is Art? (Art vs. Reproduction)

Paper Blog Journal Entry February 2015
Paper Blog
Journal Entry February 2015

Check out Alan Bamberger’s excellent article concerning reproduction print sales.


What Is Art? (Art vs. Reproduction) Part Two

Paper Blog Journal Entry February 2015
Paper Blog
Journal Entry February 2015

What Is Art? (Bull’s Head, 1942)

Pablo Picasso’s 1942 sculpture, Tete de Taureau, or Bull’s Head, is certainly one of the most significant artworks of the last century. The familiarity of this extraordinary piece has done little to lessen its visual impact and almost mysterious, simple wonder.

Bull's Head

Picasso had introduced the art of assemblage decades before Bull’s Head but this is his “sparest” sculpture, just two elements, without elaboration or attempt to make clever the elegant form. It consists of a bicycle saddle and handlebars, found objects, transformed by the artist’s imagination. Much has been made of the piece’s relation to, for instance, Duchamp’s Readymades, but Bull’s Head is more than just a recontextualizing of an object to call it art. Picasso has transfigured the common objects until we see them in both of their forms simultaneously. Bull’s Head is not a statement or a concept. It is Art.

Picasso’s piece is also a perfect touchstone for the conversation What is Art? I have identified five components as a kind of measure for the assessment of visual art.

1. Art has Intentionality. A more recent addition to the ongoing discourse asserts that art becomes art merely with the artist’s intention to name it as such. The difference, then, between My Bed (an installation by artist Tracey Emin that recently sold at auction for $4 million dollars) and your unmade bed is that Emin intentioned it to be art.

2. Art has Vision. Artists see things differently and see things that we don’t see. Then they show us and make us see too.

3. Art is Original. An artist works with the shared vision of the people but offers an individual and unique vision.

4. Art is Aesthetically Pleasing. It subscribes to basic tenets of design, or it redefines those tenets. Whether it appears ‘beautiful’ or ‘repulsive’ it operates within an aesthetic framework and succeeds or fails there.

5. Art Exists within a Context of a Larger Oeuvre. Every artwork is, obviously, a singular expression with a singular presence, but it operates within the body of work of an artist and of the world. These provide a context for understanding and critical appraisal.

By these standards is Bull’s Head evaluated. It is Picasso’s astonishing vision that recognized in a scrap heap the stuff of art (and this in the 1940’s!). He later described the encounter:

“One day, in a pile of objects, all jumbled up together, I found an old bicycle seat right next to a rusty set of handlebars. In a flash, they joined together in my head. The idea of the Bull’s Head came to me before I had a chance to think. All I did was weld them together. If you were only to see the bull’s head and not the bicycle seat and handle bars that form it, the sculpture would lose some of its impact.”

Only Picasso’s originality and sense of playfulness could produce this when he did. Exhibiting the piece in the 1944 Salon d’Automne he “intentioned” the common materials into art. He did so within an incredible large and varied body of work, much of it concerning related themes. Since childhood, the bullfight, the myth of the Minotaur and thousands of similar images created by Picasso reflect on and validate this miraculous metamorphosis. Ultimately however, Bull’s Head succeeds because of its sublime designTexture and tone, contour and curve: the thing works. It sticks in our memory as a striking image not as an ingenious stunt.

In a continually changing and expanding culture, Picasso’s Bull’s Head meets the measure, defines the measure What Is Art?

** Note this article on Picasso’s Bull’s Head has drawn much attention to this site from all over the world, lately mostly from Australia. For a while it was Syria (!). If you are accessing this article from some far flung outpost or just a country other than the U.S. please consider leaving a comment or sending an email to tell me how you’ve come upon it and what your interest might be in this information. Thanks! tornillofineart@gmail.com

What Is Art, Then?

Final: What Is Art? (It’s Your Turn)

You are appointed the Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Not-Art. It is the biggest institution in the world. Indeed, it’s collection comprises everything in the world that is not art. Big building.


 From the items below, please choose which items to include in the


  • A photograph of a bull’s head
  • A photograph of Picasso’s Bull’s Head
  • A piece of driftwood that looks like a bull’s head
  • A bull’s head made from two pieces of driftwood, one that looks like a head and one that looks like horns
  • A copy of Picasso’s sculpture by an artist using another style of seat and handlebars
  • A super-realist painting of Picasso’s sculpture. It looks real, just like a photograph!
  • A sculpture of a bug, made from a tennis shoe on the wall with laces pointing upward like antennas. It kind of looks like an insect.
  • A sculpture similar to the one above but made with another type of shoe so it looks a lot less like a bug. Well, it doesn’t look like a bug at all.
  • A sculpture entitled Bug made from a shoe, pipe cleaners for legs, and radio antennas for…antennas, and a mouth made of a small ashtray. It looks uncannily like an insect.
  • A sculpture made from similar objects that looks like an insect kind of …not really. It looks like a kind of boat with oars and , I don’t know what the ashtray looks like. An ashtray on a shoe/boat. But it’s entitled Bug.
  • A bicycle with a real bull’s horn attached instead of handlebars), and a taxidermy bull’s head, (in place of a seat)
  • A plain bicycle with a placard reading: “Bicycle with bull’s head for a seat and horns for handlebars. Look again until you see it.”
  • A replica of Picasso’s Bull’s Head and floating in a tank of formaldehyde. Titled: Bull
  • or the same work entitled” Damien Hirst: Bull!
  • A ten foot tall highly polished stainless steel version of Picasso’s original piece, Concept: Jeff Koons…. Fabrication: Unknown Foundry

So, what is Art and what is Not-Art?

You’re the curator.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s