Why Is It Art?

We’ve all asked that question before, haven’t we? My husband asks it often, fortunately not about anything I’ve painted — which probably deserves that question now and then — but about those puzzling works of art that seem to be little more than… well, let’s look at a few things that people have sometimes questioned.

First, I’ll be honest here. I’m not a fan of Mark Rothko, but, maybe you are. Is this art?

Rothko Yellow and Orange
Orange and Yellow by Mark Rothko 1956

I do love Jackson Pollock’s paintings, but my husband just shakes his head in bewilderment. So, what do you think? Is this art?

American Abstract in Oil by Jackson Pollock

And then, there’s Andy Warhol and his soup cans — among other things. It’s at least something we can identify, but is it art?



The question about what is or isn’t art is one that will never be answered. We can go on and on about our likes and dislikes, we can share our thoughts and our opinions, and we can even delve into philosophy in search of answers. Still, we’ll never come up with any good answer.

Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe instead of wondering if something is art or not, maybe we should just accept that it is and ask an even more important question.

Why is it art?

This is the title of a fun little video I came across while browsing around one recent afternoon. It’s short — only a few minutes — but it helped me understand art in a new way. While I’ll never love Mark Rothko’s works, I can at least look at it from a different perspective now. I can more fully appreciate what art means and how art becomes a form of personal expression.

After seeing this video, I know I won’t be quite so quick to shake my head and walk away from paintings I don’t think of as art. I’ll be willing to take a little time to learn about the artist, about the time, about the story behind what I’m seeing.



    1. I really enjoyed the video. It made me think of things I’d never considered before. Although I don’t like a lot of these more “modern” works, I can appreciate the creative expression behind them much more now.

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  1. A lot of modern and abstract art is speaking to the times, or other artistic traditions, trying to get across new ideas or challenge our assumptions. People getting mad about the painting in the video are actually (in a way) proving that it’s art: they’re having an emotional reaction. Maybe it’s not the one the artist intended, but that happens a lot. I think the high level dialogue that is sometimes going on with modern art, which is often meant to be very accessible to the viewer, leaves the unschooled observer in the dark. If you don’t know art history, what other artists have done and are doing, you can’t make sense of what this artist is up to. Rothko, for example, was trying to evoke emotion with color. The things he painted had meaning to him, and while they look simple, like “anyone could do that,” the point is that the work is much more intentional than it appears. But many things in life are like that — simple on the outside, complex inside/behind/underneath. It’s a good reminder that like books, we shouldn’t judge the value of the art by its cover. (Whether or not it’s worth 1.8 million dollars is another discussion entirely.)

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    1. Excellent points! I definitely agree that art or literature — or anything — that stirs the emotions and makes one THINK can be considered good, if not great. After seeing the video, I have a much greater appreciation for Mark Rothko and others of his ilk because I have more understanding of how they were using art as expression. Art history is fascinating. The more I learn, the better I can appreciate art works from all artists.

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  2. I’m a regular visitor to the Tate Modern in London and I have to say that I do think that well over half of what I see is an example of “The Emporer’s New Clothes”.

    I can’t help but smirk when I see the tourists taking pictures of a crappy mirror on the wall, just because it’s got a title plate next to it on the wall. When they go to the bathroom do they not realise that the mirrors in there are far more impressive?

    I like levels of abstraction but to my (perhaps uncultured) eye, there a lot of nonsense out there.

    One of my most liked Instagrams once was a rubbishy abstract I threw together as a joke, gave it a title and people loved it. Made me wonder what kind of a mug I am spending hundreds of hours on the non-abstract stuff.

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    1. It’s quite a topic, and we can discuss it forever with no one ever agreeing on much. As you’re probably already aware, I’m not a huge fan of modern art. While I love Pollack for his colors and designs — which, to me, show artistic elements such as rhythm, design, harmony, and balance — artists who put solid blocks of color on a canvas and purport it to be great art… well, no, I don’t get it. I understand it much better after seeing the video, and I do want to celebrate the freedom of expression, but I think some artists exploit that concept.

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  3. I always take abstracts to evoke an emotion whether from the artist or to the admirer. Sometimes its all about technique, or the juxtaposition of color or texture. I have a harder time understanding conceptual art.

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    1. Art can come in so many different forms — and, I agree, conceptual art can definitely challenge our understanding. Some of it is quite interesting. Other things leave me scratching my head and asking “Why?”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t much care for conceptual art being controversial for the sake of it as in the “artists” that did starving dog and the guy that posed cartel corpses or pieces of bodies and then photographed.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I have very mixed feelings. Some I love — like Jackson Pollack. Others I just don’t “get” — although the little video clip has certainly helped me understand the “abstract expression” movement a lot better.

      Liked by 1 person

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