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Expanding the Definition of Art

by Chappell Ellison

Sep 28, 2012

A recent dustup over an article at Artforum shows that we still can't all agree on exactly what makes a piece of art.


Last week, the art world erupted in debate over art historian Claire Bishop's article in the latest issue of Artforum. Bishop wondered why, in a time we practically sleep next to our cell phones, we don't see more influences of technology in contemporary art. But then she goes on to say that she will not be discussing contemporary art that could be considered new media: "There is, of course, an entire sphere of 'new media' art, but this is a specialized field of its own." Bishop's dismissal of new media as a separate "sphere" is what really ruffled feathers. In one response, curator Honor Hoger insists that the traditional views of many artists and curators are why digital influences aren't apparent in popular art. These cultural gatekeepers don't consider new media artists part of their world. The arguments on both sides are complex, but the debate boils down to some enduring questions: what is art? And who gets to decide? Scottish artist George Wyllie once said,  "Art is like soup. There will be some vegetables you don't like but as long as you get some soup down you it doesn't matter." For many creatives, their success hinges on the public's ability to maintain a broad definition of art — what goes in the soup. While you shouldn't have to choke down art like it's a bad carrot, radical approaches to art are usually an acquired taste. They take time to be understood and find acceptance — otherwise, they wouldn't be radical. New media artists are enmeshed in this struggle right now. In fact, no one even knows what to call art that harnesses technology: digital art, new media, transmedia, computer art. It might take decades for their art to find a place. Until then, museums, critics and patrons must try to keep an open mind and accept that the definition of what art is will always be challenged. Regardless of their choice in medium, all artists are part of the same soup that, in time, can be appreciated and savored. How do you define art? 

Art Category

Chappell Ellison

Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.