The Unanswerable Question


The question: “What is art?” has been asked around the world for decades, but as new artists continue to stretch the boundaries of art, it can become confusing as to what to accept as art.

Midnightblueowl via Wikimedia Commons

I recently read an article exploring how people interact with paintings in the Tate Britain. The writer observered people viewing nineteenth century paintings and compared their response to when they also viewed the works of Damien Hirst. The writer found that people would sit and look at nineteenth century paintings for hours, whereas people only spent minutes and sometimes seconds viewing Hirst’s work.

This again made me question what is art, what does it mean? So I decided to visit the Tate Britain to observe and question some of the public, to maybe gain insight into the world of art … is it merely subjective?

Now I probably come from a very biased position regarding art, for I love the works of the Pre-Raphaelites and other nineteenth century painters, and find I cannot relate to modern art and nor do I want to. But I tried to put my feelings aside and give modern art a chance. I spent about an hour in the areas which displayed modern art, inanimate objects precariously placed to give meaning, meaning I was struggling to find.

However, to my surprise, I felt free to give certain pieces whatever meaning I wanted to give them. There was a sense of freedom, and that I think that’s the point. Even if no meaning can be found in multicoloured sand neatly spilled on to the floor, the point is there is the freedom and possibility for any subjective meaning to be created and no one to tell you it’s wrong, that’s the beauty of art. Now maybe that means that art must have meaning? I’m not sure I can answer that question. But as humans we long to relate to art, and each other, and seem to have an obsession to give everything meaning.

Once gaining this new way of thinking, I then went into what really is my favourite room at the Tate Britain. The Pre-Raphaelites’ work transports me into a new world, and I think that also is part of art; transportation of the mind. It takes you away from the hassle and bustle, in this case away from the busy crowds of tourists snapping away at famous artwork.

Now of course the meaning in nineteenth century paintings are a lot more obvious to most people than in abstract art, so I decided to ask a few people their thoughts on these masterpieces. Many actually dismissed them and gave answers I would expect to receive about modern art, one man commented saying, “they’re okay, I just don’t see what the fuss is about, and why people would pay so much for it”. This surprised me as this is exactly what I would say regarding Damien Hirst’s work.

In terms of the length of time spent watching the art, I be must honest and say that I found many more people in the rooms displaying older pieces than in the newer galleries, but overall the people that did view the abstract paintings stayed and viewed them for about the same time. It seems that, as attitudes to art grow and become more diverse, people may become more accepting of different and at times of difficult art.

Now you’re probably asking yourself, what does all this matter? Well I’m not saying it should matter at all, you either enjoy art or you don’t. But for those that do, I feel we can sometimes become comfortable with what we know and dismiss anything different, I myself am guilty of this.

I don’t think I can truly answer the question over “what is art”. But I can state that I think art is 100% subjective and we should all try to remember this. It is a powerful medium to express emotion and illustrate moments in history. It can inspire and transport. It is the undefinable form of communication used by humans for thousands of years. I hope we can appreciate all art for what it is, but I’m not saying you have to like it!


About the author

Kerry Snode

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I am a Media Studies and Modern Liberal Arts graduate from the University of Winchester. I enjoy many aspects of culture old and new. You can always find me over on my blog talking all things geeky or you can find me on Evans Review writing about the enigmatic world of nineteenth century art. Please contact me if you have any queries or questions, I'd be happy to discuss things with you.

  • Dave ‘Danger’ Bosworth

    in its beating heart – what’s happening in the human world. So if the world’s screwy – then the art will be. then, you get some aliens along (by which i mean complete freaks who paint masterpieces/shock everyone because they expose something nobody knew/wanted about. Cheers