What is a Work of Art?

Research & Reflection

I have been questioning this more recently as I start to explore and create with different media. Is embroidery art? Or is it a craft? What is the difference, if any, between arts and crafts? Someone like Marcel Duchamp certainly challenged the distinction between art and objects!

I brainstormed a list of features that I believe art to have and then put these to the test with two famous pieces:

  • Originality – it is the result of a unique idea.
  • Uniqueness – it is a unique object, the only one of its kind.
  • It is made by an artist (the definition of an artist is also one that can be questioned).
  • It is not intended to be a functional object.
  • It is a thing of beauty (as defined by the standards of the period, as opposed to personal taste).
  • It is thought-provoking.
  • It is imaginative. 
  • It is emotionally expressive.
  • It has been made using ‘fine art’ materials and techniques.
  • It is shown in a gallery or museum as ‘art’ and is recognised by professionals in the field of art.

Leonardo da Vinci – Mona Lisa (1503)

Originality – Leonardo’s portrait introduced the original concept of ‘psychological portraiture’, suggesting the sitter’s inner thoughts and feelings rather than simply focusing on the external physical likeness.
Uniqueness – There is one unique Mona Lisa in the Louvre in Paris and it would be difficult to reproduce.
Artist – Leonardo was an apprentice artist in a workshop.
Non-functional – Leonardo’s was a commissioned portrait. Leonardo’s patron never received his work. Leonardo kept it with him his whole life, possibly because he realised its significance – or perhaps because it did not match the patron’s requirements.
Beauty – Leonardo’s sitter met the fashionable contemporary standards of beauty – her high shaved forehead, for example. His painting of her was a little too radical for the aesthetic standards of the time, however, as it rejected colour in favour of tone, and it took a while for the painting to be appreciated by the patron classes. 
Thought-provokingMona Lisa is so thought-provoking that new interpretations and revelations continue to this day.
Imaginative – Leonardo’s imagination developed a new format for portraiture – three-quarter view, half-length, seated with hands – as well as new painting techniques (sfumato and aerial perspective) in order to find a visual language for his new ideas on portraiture. 
Emotionally expressiveMona Lisa’s famously enigmatic smile continues to intrigue.
Fine art materialsMona Lisa is now regarded as a traditional oil painting though Leonardo used relatively new techniques for Florentines at the time. 
Shown as artMona Lisa is still in the Louvre.

Tracey Emin – My Bed (1998)

Originality – Emin had the original idea of using a still-life installation as a self-portrait.
Uniqueness – There is one unique My Bed installation (though it has to be recreated each time it is exhibited, and certain items will need replacing with time). It would be much easier to replicate My Bed in theory.
Artist – Tracey Emin is an art college-trained artist.
Leonardo’s was a commissioned portrait.
Non-functional – Emin’s bed was constructed as art to be exhibited rather than to be slept in, and was initially bought by Charles Saatchi.
Beauty – Emin’s work is not usually described as beautiful.
Thought-provokingMy Bed caused a national scandal in the popular press over the question ‘What is art?
Imaginative – Emin found a new visual language to comment on what it meant to be a young woman during the late 1990s in Britain.
Emotionally expressive – Emin’s bed is aimed directly at all our senses and makes an immediate emotional impact.
Fine art materials – Emin’s work is a carefully constructed assemblage of ready-made items to form an installation. Such techniques originated before the First World War and were well established within gallery spaces by the 1970s.
Shown as artMy Bed has been on display in Tate.

I do believe to fully appreciate a work of art, we need to know its place in history to gain an understanding of its cultural specificity and meaning. Today we tend to accept the institutional definition of art – that anything which is shown in a gallery as art is art which links back to what Grayson Perry says in his book Plating to the Gallery. It also brings into question works like Land Art that are never on display in galleries.

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