There are tricky questions and then, there's this one question, which usually comes after convoluted discussions that have reached a dead end: "Yeah, but what is art, then?"
I've got to start by saying that the more I think about how to explain what art is, the more I realise that there isn't actually a single universal answer that we are all oblivious of but, instead, a lot of different answers that come with different philosophies, life experiences and historical contexts.
So let this serve as a disclaimer to you, the reader: if you're looking for an undisputed answer that you could use in a discussion you happen to be in, then this is not the place.
I'll go as far as saying that you won't find that answer anywhere. Go ahead and search for it, but I've done it plenty and quickly got disappointed. Here are some examples of terrible definitions:
“Something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings.” - https://www.merriam-webster.com
“The activity of painting, drawing, and making sculpture.” - dictionary.cambridge.org
A generous tool to understand art is knowing its history and corresponding context, so we'll start there. Understanding the concept of Zeitgeist is a great way to understand how context influences psychology and creation, which adds another layer to understanding art.
Also, in order to completely murder the "my nephew could do that" hair-curling argument, I'll talk about the art vs craft dichotomy. I'll then be able to dive into a brief history of Modern and Contemporary art, accompanied by an explanation of Relativism & Post-modernist thought.
There's really a lot more to it than what I'm about to show here: more cultures with different artistic movements, more historical context to be given, more art forms, more philosophy and definitely way more technical knowledge.
That being said, let's jump right into it.
A Very Brief History of Art
12,000 BC / Cave painting of Lascaux
Wether this is beautiful and impressive or not, it's 100% subjective and therefore, up to you. What you should retain is the following: these are some of the oldest preserved forms of expression that we know of and they teach us a whole lot about how humans lived in these times when writing wasn't a thing yet.
Artistically speaking, these could be expressions of simple daily life of a hunters' tribe, or expressions of a greater understanding of the existing relations within an ecosystem, being that this co-dependency could be seen as something to be thankful for or even worship worthy.
One could see this as a very pure expression of humanity in its state of greatest connection to nature.
fast-forward a few millenniums to 1,323 BC / Gold Mask of Tutankhamun
Egyptian art was pretty straightforward: the Pharaoh is a God and is connected to a whole family of Gods that are Anthropomorphic figures with heads of different local animal species. Plus when you die, there's a whole other world, so it's important to be prepared.
Pharaohs were buried amongst a whole lot of valuable things like gold, their favourite pets, precious stones, art and more. Death and Pharaohs were a big deal. Those huge structures called The Giza Pyramids happened to be tombs, just so you get the gist.
This Gold Mask is where the corpse of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun lays. It's an expression of the reverence that the Egyptian Society had for death and its mysteries.
Could it be the expression of worshipping the unknown itself? Or a celebration of life as a finite and precious thing? Could be both and more.
200 BC / Winged Victory of Samothrace, Louvre
The Hellenistic civilization is broadly known as one of great societal evolutions thanks mainly to a mentality that had self-improvement as a central pinnacle. That manifested itself in the creation of sciences, following the idea that the pursuit of knowledge is a valuable and necessary task.
Of course there's much more to it and this is over simplifying a very complex society, but the bottomline is that the human being was the center of attention in what is now Greece. To the point that their religion was basically a very solid soap opera of Gods - that were people with personalities and qualities, faults and plenty of drama - to whom one could relate to and learn from.
Their sculpture reflected their adoration of the human-being and its body: it was realistic, emotional and followed strict patterns of beauty - all men were athletes and all women were voluptuous. It tells stories and cautionary tales that one can relate to and project their own passions and insecurities.
1308 - 1311 / Maestà altarpiece, Siena Cathedral
With the fall of the Roman Empire, came what people consider the most convoluted period in Western History.
War, plague, the Catholic Church formed the melting pot that was the Middle Ages. The levels of education were pretty damn low and the few people with access to it were mainly the Clergy, so that means that most of the art that got preserved was religious.
This religious art was produced with the intention of communicating everything that common folk couldn't read, like passages of the bible and many of its own cautionary tales. In that sense, it's pretty much like illustrative art.
1513 / The Virgin and Child with St. Anne by Leonardo da Vinci
Skip a few years and, with the re-discovery of old ruins in Italy, the same classic and anthropocentric principles of the roman empire came back to life in the Renaissance period.
This, allied to the exponential technical advances of the time, resulted in art that aimed for a greater exploration of realism through the usage of perspective and real-life models.
Art became a bigger deal than ever - self-improvement was a thing - private investors appeared and started paying good money for a lot of art which, in its turn, would stop being exclusively religious, and/or so conservative.
I think one could say this is where artists could gradually express their true feelings about the subject of their art. It was still commissioned art, but through broader intelectual and technical knowledge, self-expression was possible by using the subtleties of composition, light and symbology (hence all those conspiracy theories and best-seller books).
1618 / The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus by Rubens
As richness reached new peaks in some countries in Europe as a direct result of the new trading routes created by the maritime discoveries, so did pleasure, which became the new thing in high society (aka the royal families and their entourage).
Art was a direct reflection of that extremely luxurious way of life: nothing was taken that seriously anymore - "let them eat cake", right? The shapes were voluptuous, the poses extremely dramatic and the color paletes were plain romantic, calm and happy.
You want to see hedonism in its richest and most luxurious form, look at Baroque art.
This particular painting portraits a Biblical episode in which these ladies - the daughters of Leucippus - would be raped by these gentlemen. But their faces could tell a very different story, a way lighter and fun one. Carpe diem, I guess.
Next, I'm actively skipping another artistic period called "neoclassicism" because aesthetically, it was pretty much the same as Renaissance's art, Hellenistic sculpture and Roman Empire's Architecture.
Its trigger was an angry response to the excess of the Baroque period - think French Revolution, the White House, all those philosophers from the end of the 1700's.
1827 / Death of Sardanapalus by Delacroix
As the industrial revolution had an impact on the big city life, there was a greater value given to the country side and to nature. People craved more so the stories of far away exotic places populated literature, and a bigger ability to travel fuelled immigration and the nostalgia of past history's glory.
Mountains, castles, kings, jungles, other races and cultures, other flavours and even drugs were the stuff of dreams.
This is the Romantic period and these themes populated literature, painting, sculpture and even architecture. The new buildings emulated old buildings and foreign cultures.
It was an emotional period that allowed for a bigger emphasis on the individual. This was the beginning of a philosophical shift from the search of the absolute truth, to a gradual understanding of its relativity. And this is where things get really interesting.
More on that, on the second part of this post, where I'll discuss the concept of Zeitgeist, Art vs. Craft, Modern and Contemporary art and some philosophic points of view on what art is.