What Makes Something Art?

Sorry, I don’t post on Creative Juicer anymore.

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This has been my most popular post on Creative Juicer by a landslide for over three years. For this series, I’ve revisited this topic and updated the post with new reflections.

Like porn, many people think they simply know it when they see it. Art has a feel to it, a certain weightiness or gravity that distinguishes it.

… right?


Often, when people put these kinds of boundaries on art, they are talking about high art — classic forms of art like painting or sculpture. But society  left those limits behind long ago, if they ever really existed to begin with.

There is so much incredible pop art that would be easy to dismiss under this stiff, traditional definition–Banksy, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Whedon, Tarantino. The list, of course, goes on and on and on.

To my observations, there are a few different elements to what we tend to call art. And then there is those things combined, which is where we enter into actual art.

Those elements art creativity, skill, entertainment, and meaning.

1. Creativity

All art is creative, but not all creativity is art.

Creativity is innate to all of us, and unique to each of us. It helps us find new answers to questions, problem-solve, discover and imagine. We use it to pick out our clothes each morning, cook dinner, make an impromptu joke in a conversation. Whether you realize it or not, creativity is part of who you are.

Often, when someone says they are not creative, what they really mean is that they are not an artist. I hate this. Everyone is creative. To shut yourself off from that is to miss out on the richness of your being. And sadly, the more one says something, the more one believes it.

2. Skill

Skills are specific abilities that are fostered with careful, diligent practice. This includes abilities like drawing, programming, playing a sport, writing, or public speaking. Creativity enables you to imagine a beautiful picture; the skill of painting allows you to bring it to life.

It’s easy to mistake skill for art. Skill can paint an exact replica of a beautiful setting that looks artistic. Skill can bring to life an incredible musical composition. But an ability to copy exactly is still merely skill.

Another reason for the confusion is that many art courses start with the skills required to create art. My college photography course spent a lot of time discussing framing and lines. But taking a well-framed shot of a spiraling staircase doesn’t make me an artist. It means I have mastered the basic skill that sets the foundation for art.

Don’t mistake my meaning here–skill is essential to art, as is the foundational knowledge of an art form we gain from practicing skills. But to make it art, we must add our own creativity and meaning to skill.

3. Engagement

I used to call this element “Entertainment,” but I don’t feel that’s accurate anymore. Entertainment is optional to art and not always appropriate. But art must engage–otherwise its meaning never gets out.

For example, last year a movie was released called American Sniper, depicting the true story of Chris Kyle, a record-setting sniper from the Iraq war, who struggled with and overcame PTSD, and then used his experience to help many other veterans cope with PTSD, only to eventually be murdered by a veteran he was trying to help.

Many slammed the film for using the man’s story for entertainment and profit. But after seeing the film–and how it touched two Veterans and their significant others in the same theater–I didn’t feel it was exploitative, and I did feel it forced a close look at the important issue of PTSD. It didn’t entertain as much as it engaged.

But that’s not to say that entertainment is bad, or even that it isn’t art. There’s a lot of great pop/genre art out there that’s excellent entertainment, while also containing meaning that I’d label as art. I’d put shows like Game of Thrones and Younger in this category, along with satires like Family Guy.

4. Meaning

Art has to have meaning. However, that onus falls largely on the viewer, not artist.

The stereotype of modern art may be the best example to represent this divide. For one person, a square filled with a single bold color is not art–in fact it seems amateurish. But another sees great skill in the textures and methods applied, and great meaning in the resulting brush strokes, or simplicity, or boldness, or what have you.

So is it art? This is where art gets subjective. For someone who finds meaning in the work, yes, this is art. For someone else, it’s not.

It makes defining art really messy, but hey, what’s wrong with that?

Which brings us back to where we started:


Art puts skills and creativity and engagement to work for the purpose of amassing meaning by exploring a theme, critiquing society, making a statement about human nature, or otherwise communicating an artist’s message.

Ultimately, the distinguishing element of art is intent of the artist.

The distinguishing element of art is also impact of the viewer.

Which brings us into some murky territory, since no one can know a creator’s intent unless they share it–and artists so often don’t. Also, even the artist cannot control what any individual takes away from a given work.

There’s great tension and significance in that gap in between the two. That gap is the work itself. The art is really more the gap than the physical work.

And just to make things more complicated? Just because something is art doesn’t make it good art. Many talk about art as if it were a status instead of a category, and I think a lot of confusion stems from that. An artist can say something has meaning, but it’s up to you to decide if that message has value.

At the heart of this question, is the fact that so often, art gets associated with a special status. Someone creates something, and it’s not just art, it’s Art. In our insecurity about our own creations, we feel this need to force labels to ensure we’re taken seriously. Or, when viewing others’ art, to show our own Artistic Status.

But none of these categories have any more or less value than the rest of them. You respond to what you respond to. I respond to what I respond to. Each of these is equal.

Tell me … do you agree with these categories? What do you think makes something art?

Sorry, I don’t post on Creative Juicer anymore.

If you like what you see & want more, join my author email list for updates on my writing, posts about sci-fi and fantasy pop culture, and other readerly fun by clicking here.

10 thoughts on “What Makes Something Art?

  1. I’ve read a lot of articles on this topic, but I think YOU really nailed this.

    I love this: Creativity enables you to imagine a beautiful picture; the skill of painting allows you to bring it to life.

    I think people underestimate the importance of developing their skills.

    • Agreed — we’re so used to that instant gratification these days. You get that spark of creativity and you want the results now. But the work to turn that inspiration into the best end possible, that work starts long before inspiration hits … and continues long after.

    • Funny…i see it the other way 🙂
      I think there’s a lot of people who consider themselves “real” artists, because they master a technique/skill to perfection. I see them on dA. But that’s really all they do…master thier skill. No stories, no point, no themes, no statement…no nothing – except the skill to make a drawing or painting that are almost 100 natural (don’t see the point/satisfaction spending months on something you could just have take a photo of in seconds). Many of those do the exact same thing over and over again…never changing thier concept – to challenge themselves on the creative side of thier “art”

  2. Like Denise says, you nailed it, Emily. And further, we simply must be able to say that something is art and another is not. Just as we must be able to say one thing is simply better than another. Skill certainly helps us differentiate. Did Bach compose with more skill than Madonna? He sure did and is his music better? It sure is.

  3. Emily, I’m so glad you reminded us that everyone is creative. I may be creative as a writer and artist. But I can’t begin to be creative as a chef, like my niece, or as a seamstress, like my sister. Nor can I sing like my other sister. If we see creativity as something that can be expressed in only one or two ways, how do we celebrate the woman who sits quietly in the sun and speaks a meditation that changes someone’s life. How do we honor the man who heals animals in his veterinary clinic? Hooray for the different creativity sparks in all of us!

    Wonderful post!

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  5. I’m curious; what if I use my skills to create something with intent, but don’t share it, is it art? What if no one hears the mediation spoken by the woman sitting quietly in the sun, in SuzanneG’s comment above?
    Is a component of art that it must be shared?

    • Ya know, that’s a really great question. It makes me think of Emily Dickinson, who of course famously hid all her poetry away in a box in her room, and never intended to share it. Did it only become art when it was found and shared? I know a lot of other authors write only for themselves too, and never share it with anyone else. My gut on this is that it’s art either way, but that art really is meant to be shared and it’s a shame when it’s not. However, I can see a good argument either way. What do you think?

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  7. Together with another girl, I was ‘the creative one’ in a group of aquintances.
    I’d regularly craft for people, draw them, write poetry, etcetera, they knew my art.
    And the other girl would usually show off her work, on her phone. It was often very colourful, smooth, and almost looked unrealisticly clean. No spots or crooked lines in the paper, anywhere and the shading looked sharp and neat.
    Everyone always told me that I should try to be ‘more like her’ because hér art was “actually professional” and that I was still learning techniques and trying to teach myself to add shadows or how to mix aquarellic pencilcolours.
    That day, the girl presented her work again and I passive-agressively asked her to draw me something, right there.
    She refused and I asked again. The group stood around her, she felt obligated to draw and when she did, we all saw a crooked line, in the shape of a ‘flower’ (5 round circles and a heart in the middle) with two ‘fat/round’ leaves.
    I asked her why she’d choose to draw that, over the amazing art she just showed us.
    She then nervously replied that the other art had been copied/transfered onto paper from other artists and that her thing was basically mixing media and photoshop.
    In photoshop, a sortof ‘sun’ would be placed in front of the drawing, and with two clicks, there’d be perfect shading on her drawing. No paintbrushes or pencils involved.
    And her paper “drawings” had been cut-outs from copymachine-prints and computer-edited pictures with filters.

    Now, I felt quite bad about this afterwards, because she looked very upset after this.
    And at the same time, I felt great. I’m still not sure how I feel, I guess
    I think as long as she’d have mentioned her materials (‘I’ve added the crayon background, but the picure is a print’) I would have agreed on her being a mixed-media-artist. Not a drawing-artist, but still an artist.
    The fact that she paraded around her half-half mixed media stuff as ‘look what I made’ was what tipped me over the edge, towards passive-agressive ‘draw something!’-behaviour.

    Then again, my at-the-time-boyfriend thought that explaining the used media was utter rubbish and felt it was ridiculous to have to ‘defend’ your art to the extend of mentoining when something was copied or printed or taken from someone else.
    And yet, that’s what I still do and have always done.
    I never claim to have created something, if I haven’t created it.
    If I copy more than (lets say) 30% of someone else’s art, I’ll at least mention I was inspired by other people’s art.

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