EPISODE 01.01 // What is Art?

In this very first podcast, we consider why the age-old question, "What is art?", is so important for us to ask when we try to understand the world around us.


“When you think of the word “art”, what exactly do you imagine?”

“Hello world! My name is Jon Seal, graphic designer and writer from Baton Rouge, LA, and I would like to welcome you to the very first episode of Art(ish) Theory, a podcast devoted to the intersection of art theory and the world around us.”

Since this is episode 1 of my very first podcast, it’s only fitting that I tell you a little about myself and how I came to doing an educational podcast.

Well, I am an artist! I studied at the University of Mississippi—Ole Miss, as we know it here in the South—with a focus on digital and print design with a minor in English, which has always been my first love. After working in the graphic design world for a few years, I went back to school for a English Lit degree with the intention of teaching high school (which clearly means I never wanted to pay back my student loans) but that didn’t really work out and in the end, I’m now back in the world of art as a brand designer. But I never really gave up that desire to teach.

And that’s brought me back here to this podcast.

So what can we expect out of this podcast and what are my expectations?

I’m intentionally organizing the episodes to be used as a resource for teachers and parents who don’t have access to art programs, but my goal for this podcast is to be accessible to anyone who might enjoy a discussion about art theory.

This first season (of hopefully more), I will be releasing one podcast each week for the next 10 or 12 weeks where will discuss a new element of art, but going beyond the academic into questions those outside of the field (and often times even those of us inside of the field) often have about these subjects.

Mostly, we’ll be taking examples from pop culture and maybe have some guests who can help us explore various ways art invades and permeates the life around us. And while we will often focus on the visual arts, my hope is to touch on all the fine arts in our discussions because the fine arts—visual as well as music, dance, theater, and literature—are always influencing each other. So to do art justice, we need to be expanding that definition from visual to the other fine arts as well.

And that’s because **art is everywhere**. People go through life without knowing the impact that art has on nearly everything manmade around them and the way it influences their behavior from how they buy their food to what color shirt they think looks best on them to how their local DMV is set up for what seems like personal torture. Everywhere we look, design decisions have been made—whether good or bad.

And this brings us to the eternal question, and the title of today’s episode… what is art?

Well, I’ve got a story for you that kind of helps explain what I mean by this. In the fall of 2004, I was a sophomore at the University of Mississippi and enrolled in a class called Art 201: The Introduction to the History of Art. It was a large lecture hall filled with people mostly just taking an elective. Very few of us were art students. And the projector suddenly showed a picture of a rock with what appeared to be a smiley face carved into it. And the professor asks this question: “Is this rock art?”

The room became silent. After a few seconds, the professor told us not to be shy… she told us to raise our hands and bribed us with extra credit if we gave an answer and explained why we thought the way that we did. Well, after a few students gave their half-thought opinions first, a few more got the nerve to give there answers, and before long, the room was divided. Half the students said that it *had* to be art because a human did it and it’s a smiley face. It’s an abstraction representation of a human head! So yeah, it’s art! Right? Well, some said there was no possible way it could be because it lacked technical skill. One guy said there was no way it could be art because “anyone could make that thing”. It was something he could do, and since he wasn’t an artist, it couldn’t be art. No one could agree.

So… is it art?

Before we answer that question, I want you to do something for me. I want you to use your imagination and picture three objects: a rock—not a smiley face rock, just a normal one; a shoe—preferably your own, but it doesn’t matter; and the Mona Lisa. And I know… not everyone is great at imagining, so if that’s you—or you just like doing things the hard way—feel free to use your phone or computer to look up images of these three things, just choose one of each though and stick with it. The point is to get a good, mental image of each item. Picture them as clearly as you can.

Ready? Alright. 

What kind of rock are you imagining? What color is it? What shape is it? Is it rough or smooth? How about the shoe? What color is the shoe? How big is it? What material is it made of? Now think of the Mona Lisa the best you can. It’s the most well known painting in the world, so you probably have a good idea in your mind of what she looks like. What’s the color of her skin? Can you picture the shape of her dress? Do you see the soft shadows defining her infamous smile?

Now… answer this last question: Which of these three objects is art?

The obvious answer, of course, is the Mona Lisa. But you’re smarter than that. You know I’m not letting you off that easy. So, is it the Mona Lisa and the shoe? Well, you’d be partly correct. In the right instance, you could make a good argument for it being art. It’s man made, it’s been designed by someone who probably has an art degree, there are decisions about color and materials that went into its production, and there were aesthetic considerations. You could maybe think it’s art. But what about the rock? Is it art? Well, in a very strict sense, no. It’s not. Nothing’s been done to it intentionally by a human, it’s created by nature, it’s not representing some abstract idea of emotion… but when I asked you to describe it to yourself, I did something interesting… I asked you to think of it using color, shape, and texture—three elements of design that every single art student in the world has had to learn and memorize as part of their studies. The elements of design are used by artists to create, discuss, and critique art of all kinds—from photo realistic portraits to splatter paints.

So, what about now? Is the rock art?

Well, that brings us back to my story about my first day of Art 201 and the photo of the smiling rock. After 5 or 10 minutes of lively discussion, the professor finally revealed the rock was a normal river rock, and the so called smiley face was just natural indentions where the water rushed over it and gave it the impression of being manipulated by someone. So no, in the technical sense it was not art… but she pointed out that by removing it from the stream, by taking a picture of it, by discussing it in terms of its significance… we blurred the lines and made the question nearly unanswerable.

And that’s not a particularly special story. Stories like this happen in art departments every semester in college campus around the world and online, but it begs the question… and the question is one that has a thousand answers.

So many of you are probably frustrated. And I get it… I hate non-answers with a passion. They bug me. I hate not knowing. But with art, that’s just often the case.

Art and not-art are a continuum—with art on one end and not art on the other. We know what art is when we see it—a Monet, the Sistine Chapel, a roman sculpture in a museum—and what it is not when we don’t see it—a piece of gravel on the side of the road, a twig falling from a tree—but like the rock with a face, there’s going to be a lot of tangible things that blur those lines. Is a movie poster art? It’s designed. Its purpose is to illicit emotion and convey an idea. The designers behind it are usually well trained, highly payed professionals with art degrees. Is it art? To the graphic designer, I guarantee it is just as much art to her as any of her paintings. How about a sports car? A human designed it. An artist drew each line in the mechanical drafts. Decisions were made about the shape of the seats, the color of the paint, the angle of the lights, the size of the tires… all of them with an express purpose of aesthetics. Is it art? Maybe. But how about a sedan? A mini-van? A greyhound bus? What about a stop sign? It was designed at some point. It conveys information beyond its aesthetics. Is it art? How about your kitchen faucet? Your refrigerator? Your toilet? What if you believe Nature or the Universe itself is a creative force? What if you believe in a Higher Power, a being who sits as the First Cause of all causes, a creator who made everything we see including the twig falling from a tree and the rock with a smiley face? Are these things things now art?

This is why the study of art is so fascinating. There is so much to the world of art theory that people overlook or undersell—even us artists. You see, art theory is a tool that anyone can use to discuss the objects they find important or beautiful. And you often know how to use these tools even if you don’t know their names. Art is so pervasive to how we see the world, that we can’t really get rid of it and most of us are naturally born with a desire to see the world through creative lenses, we just need to be given the opportunity to do so.

Thank you so much for listening to this very first podcast. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did and were also able to learn a thing or two. I actually had a number of things I wanted to talk about today that I had to cut for time, but that has all been given a home at our website, artishtheory.com It mostly had to do with facts and interesting bits about Marcel Duchamp and the anti-art movement of the 1920s. Lots of interesting things to discuss there, and those of you familiar with the dada-ists probably picked up on some of my nods to their movement. And if you didn’t, here’s a hint… it has to do with a famous urinal. So if you’d like to know what got cut, please visit our website, artishtheory.com There you can find not just the bits from the cutting room floor, but also more information about today’s topic as well as educational material for the home or classroom.

If you appreciate access to quality, free education, then consider supporting me at Patreon where you can pledge money on a per episode basis, for which I will reward you for your kindness in a number of fun, interesting ways. You can find me at patreon.com/artishtheory

Join us next time when we will begin diving head first into art theory, starting with my favorite topic and one most people are familiar with—Color Theory. Again, I’m Jon Seal, thank you for listening, and until then, stay creative!