What Is an Artwork?

Posted by Robert Lange on

What is the definition of artwork? It is (or is it?) a physical object that may have an aesthetic and/or conceptual value. An artwork could be a painting, a sculpture, a photograph, an installation, a drawing, a collage, graffiti, or even a poster or some stickers. In this article, we explore the way artwork was defined in the course of history and point out the faults in current definitions, so read on if you wish to find out more!

Artwork: Definition

However bizarre it might sound, defining what an artwork is poses quite a challenge. After all, how does pop art have anything in common with, for instance, Michelangelo’s sculptures? What do Banksy’s works share with Picasso’s cubic paintings? 

Even our definition of artwork from the introduction can only be treated as partially true – just look at it from the perspective of a musician, who undoubtedly is an artist. Yet, is a song a physical object? No, it’s not. Does writing a song down, with lyrics and chords, make it an artwork? Or perhaps recording it on a CD (after all, CDs are physical)? Is a musician posting their songs solely online no longer an artist since there’s no “physicality” involved, or maybe the fact that the song is saved on a hard drive makes them an artist anyway? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Another problem occurs in the realm of street art. A graffiti image made illegally fulfills the criteria of an artwork, at least according to our initial definition, but is it really art? For the owner of the building, it will be no more than just an act of vandalism.

Thirdly, there is the case of advertising. Are ads just products of the commercial, capitalist world, or can they be art too? Or perhaps, some advertisements are artworks due to their artistic value, while others aren’t – but in such cases, where do we draw the line? While most adverts are indeed simple and have one aim, there are some true masterpieces – it’s enough to say that there are multiple competitions around the world for the best advert of each year.

Finally, there’s the whole digital realm. After all, it’s not physical, so graphic designers should automatically be disqualified as artists according to our initial definition. But since we are well aware of the impact of graphic design, we would probably still treat their works as artworks. Yet, there’s one area in the digital world that we could argue about: AI-generated images.

definition of artwork

THE RIVER LISTENS - 11" x 15" acrylic ink on paper - Joshua Flint

Generative AI can create great images, but due to not being prepared by humans, many people disregard them as art. Yet, there’s always a human touch – the person behind the steering wheel who comes up with the prompts and guides the AI towards the destination. Doesn’t this mean that AI-generated images are also art? This is yet another debate that is covered by neither our initial nor other most common artwork definition.

Artwork Definitions in the Course of History

Though nowadays it is extremely difficult to define what artwork is, this always caused a bit of trouble, with the definition of art changing several times over the course of history. Let’s take a look at what it looked like in the past.

  • Ancient and classical periods – At this time, artworks were all about skilled craftsmanship.

  • Medieval ages – This was the period where artworks were defined by religious significance, and artists (still) were perceived as craftsmen, a link between the world and God. Thus, artists often did not sign their pieces.

  • Renaissance – This period somewhat freed art, as it was then that more individualistic pieces began to be perceived as artworks.

  • Baroque and Rococo – During this time, artworks gained one new defining feature – being elaborate and filled with ornaments.

  • 19th century – This time in the history of modern art brought realism and impressionism, which redefined artworks. No longer did they need to be ornamental and complex; simplicity and truth to reality have made their way in.

  • 20th century – The previous century came with the most changes. Pop art, street art, and abstract art (like cubism) once again reshaped the definition of artwork, letting in more down-to-earth pieces.

The Takeaway

The definition of artwork is constantly shifting due to new art movements entering the scene and the technological and social changes that reshape the way art is created and perceived. In many cases, whether something can or cannot be defined as an artwork is yet to be discussed, for instance, with AI-generated images or illegally placed street art. Thus, we shall not dare to come up with a definition, as which of our artists would probably see it differently. Instead, let us say that art is what you believe to be art, what sparks your emotions, drives your imagination, and appeals to your sense of aesthetics.

You may also read: Breaking Boundaries: Joshua Flint and Megan Aline Redefine Art in John Seed's 'More Disruption'

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