“That’s Not Art!”–And How I Realized It Doesn’t Matter

“That’s Not Art!”–And How I Realized It Doesn’t Matter

by Daric M. Gill

“monument” for V. Tatlin by Dan Flavin. 1969

What You’re Really Trying To Say

We like to think that when we say, “That’s Not Art!” we are stating something of personal or scholarly merit; As if to say, “I know what art is… and that isn’t it.” However, that’s rarely what we are actually trying to say. The aim of this article is to help artists, musicians, writers, and the like find a mutual navigation point from which a more constructive resolution can be formed. Read onward for more.

“That’s Not Art!”—  I clutched onto that belief longer than most artists. Then I realized it didn’t matter.

After 2 college degrees in art, years of experience as an art college educator, participating as a community educator, and existing as a professional artist in the real world– I’ve come to realize that this statement generally is nothing more than a grandiose overstatement of something far simpler:

“I don’t like it… AT ALL!” 


“Why is THIS famous (…and my art isn’t)?”

If you’re an art student reading this you’ll probably cite a number of readings defining ideas of beauty and art. Believe me, I’ve seen it all. And I’ve seen all of the counter-arguments (which is a point I’ll expand on later).  Yet, after the dust of all that semantic debate settles one can’t escape that there’s an overwhelming co-dependency between one’s position that something is NOT ART and that same person’s position to NOT LIKE it.


Undue Stress & The Wrong Question
Image source here
“No. 5, 1948”, Jackson Pollock. Image source here

There’s so much personal stress, anxiety, and angst that resides in this debate. If you don’t believe me, pay close attention next time this topic comes up. Watch as the tensions rise and the nostrils flare from the people debating the artness of something. It’s almost as if there’s a debate pertaining to beliefs and perspectives. Foreshadowing anyone? When this debate happens, step back a second and then ask your self some questions:

Will anything be immediately different if non-art becomes sanctioned as art; or vise versa? After you’ve announced that a Jackson Pollock piece is “something your kid could do”, will there be a rush of museum minions who hurry the piece out back and burn it? No, of course not. One can argue that something is art while another person can come along and argue the exact opposite. Whether it is or isn’t art is sort of a moot point, isn’t it? It’s in a gallery and presented as such.

Odds are, there’s plenty about that artwork you never cared to learn as a result of your knee-jerk reaction. Are there deeper symbolic or historic gestures that take investigating from your side? Or you think it’s too crafty and has no meaning at all? Or maybe the artist’s intentions were specifically to elicit that repulsed reaction, and you did exactly what the artist wanted. In any case, these questions are precisely what makes the investigative mind churn anything into or out of being “art”.

My suggestion is to think about what makes it good art or bad art rather than debating if it is art.

Like Vs. Appreciate

This is an excerpt from my article titled, “7 Tips For Approaching Artwork”:

“Believe it or not, whether you like a piece of art doesn’t really impact the ‘artness’ of it. It’s indeed OK if you don’t like something after you’ve considered why other people might. Learn how to appreciate aspects of the work even if (maybe especially if) you don’t actually like it as a whole.”

“I often put it this way: Let’s say you went to a world-class restaurant and ordered their most celebrated entrée. It just so happens they are most renowned for their caviar and you’ve never been a big fan of caviar. Is it less of a dish because you don’t like it–Even if the rest of the world says it’s fantastic?”

But It’s NOT Art!

I see the skilled devil’s advocate looking around and naming random items. Is this art? What about that? To the novice, you might have a point. In this argument, the notion of random thoughts or things being questioned into artdome seems rather fantastical. And maybe it is. None-the-less, the simple act of questioning the artness of something starts an intellectual engine running that could argue effectively the aesthetic merit, social/political statements presented, and/or compositional placement of said object.

Leaf collection
Leaf collection sitting on my workbench

More practically stated: My guess is that most people have picked up a leaf or something else they’ve found on the ground and marveled at its beauty. What they’ve done is unintentionally calculated in a vague way the aesthetic beauty in the mundane. They haven’t chosen to see the art in the object, but rather they’re viewing the object through the filter of the artistic mindset. That, my friends, is why debating ‘art’ is a duel of perspectives and beliefs. Perspectives and beliefs aren’t quantifiable equations or definitions. Love, beauty, religion, hate, politics, and … art. Their relative perspectives are intangible. The beliefs associated define the noun, not the other way around.

Why Some Art Is Famous… And Yours Isn’t?

Why anyone is pole-vaulted into fame over someone else is a tricky philosophical debate. But, honestly, are we really talking about that? Probably not. This is most likely a sentiment-based out of comparison against the successes of others and questioning your self-worth. It’s important to continually measure your goals and growth, but there is a very important distinction between self-improvement and resentment of other’s success.

Fame is sometimes a result of privileged positioning (inclusion into the right circles and background). Other times, the current trend in the ‘high art’ world is just not in your style. Additionally, there are so many artists in the world. It’s becoming increasingly hard to see through the noise and pick out one particular person. There’s undeniably a myriad of reasons that people shoot into the starlight. In any case, the question you’re probably stating is more of a vent of frustration and should be treated with that honest appraisal. 

The Paradox Of Tradition

There’s a tagline on my local NPR station that goes something like this, “Composers Datebook. Reminding you that all music was once new”. This should be reiterated on behalf of artists too. All art was once new. Once questioned. Once sanctioned as non-art by the educated, the stoic, or the traditionalists.

Freethinkers and artists, this is my challenge: I’m not against the intellectual debate that art and non-art can’t do battle in the right context. Having said that, nothing is harmed if one agrees that the right person can view anything as full of art. Save the intellectual battle for the moments that require it. For all of the other moments, find the inner vocabulary and insight that describes your criteria for what makes good art & bad art. This can only lend credibility to your argument if/when the real debate comes about.

Maybe by then, it won’t even matter to you…

You can find more free articles like this on my Artist Resource page. My mission is to provide free and accessible tools for artists, educators, and enthusiasts. I encourage you to share and refer people here as often as you wish. Naturally, these articles take many hours to thoroughly research and write. If you’d like to support me as an artist and advocate, please consider donating whatever you can. Thank you!

3 thoughts on ““That’s Not Art!”–And How I Realized It Doesn’t Matter

  1. Excellently put again Daric! I believe it to be more valuable to find the “art” in the “non-art” as a matter of appreciating unintentional moments of artistry than to find the “non-art” in pieces of things presented as art–and in fact can’t help but notice these within the minutiae of daily life. A poignant cadence to an eloquent orator’s delivery, the writer who chose that specific word that so perfectly represents the thought that I’m certain no other word from a sea of words could have ever sufficed, why one table looks more inviting than another, why something tastes so good.

    Whatever the case–there’s that moment, that thing, of unexpected above-averageness that connotes some sort of artistry– of words, of design, of craftsmanship, or conventional art.

    For conventional art, I feel like the recipient is part of the evaluation. For those moments when I can’t connect to a piece, I assume I’ve missed the message. That may be because the artist didn’t convey it effectively, or maybe I don’t have the frame of reference to appreciate its nuances. In any case, I’m part of that equation, and if I was unnameable to the message, that says more about me than a given piece. We can both live comfortably in that world.

    Like anything creative– a song, a poem, a story, a work of art (or your fellow human beings!)– somebody will connect to it strongly while others (maybe even most) see nothing special or are downright alienated by it.


  2. I agree wholly. . . but after contemplating this idea myself for many years would pose the inquiry that doesn’t art come down to the word “make”? Some entity makes art, art doesn’t exist. Its the choice of the so called “artist” or quite possibly the “viewer” to choose what is art. And what then differentiates and “artist” from a “viewer”? As an artist wouldn’t I VIEW what I am capable of MAKING as “art”? In my mind the argument would thus become not “what is art?”, but “what is an artist?” By admiring the beauty of a leaf, does it make the tree an artist? Does it make me the artist if I put it on display for others to ponder the beauty? If I choose to put the the leaf on display I am displaying the CHOICE I made, since I obviously did not make the beauty that exists in leaf. At that point, everything comes down to choice and making a choice, isn’t necessarily making art, and making art, isn’t necessarily the right choice.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s