Is art defined by communication?

This post is continuing the line of thought I began in the Jack of all arts, crafts, wannabe entry.

Communication lies at the heart of the definition of art for a fair number of people. I included “communication” in my own living document thinking about the eternally elusive meaning of the word “art.” Herein I explore a series of preliminary thoughts about the relationship — or lack thereof — between art and communication.

At the most basic level, a person could argue that everything communicates. For instance, an undecorated ceramic bowl communicates a certain function — which can vary with context. If you add decoration to a bowl, such as the figures commonly found on Greek attic-ware (like this kylix),


the reality of a more complex and intentional communication presents itself. I’m assuming in my following thoughts a more intentional communication, not implied potential as in the undecorated vessel.

    * Craft, in and of itself, does not communicate — per my above clarification. (Is it art by itself?)

    * Decoration, such as Sullivan’s ornamentation on the Wainwright building, does not convey an intention to communicate (in my own estimation). (Is it art?)

    * Abstract artworks usually intend to communicate, even if the viewers can’t tell from the finished work. For instance, Pollock’s later and more famous works represented, he said, the chaos in the modern world.

    * Realistic works of art seem to be the most communicative, but in what way? Does a landscape or still life really speak to the modern viewer in more specific terms than abstract or purely conceptual works? I say “modern” viwer on account of most people’s ignorance of classical symbolism — indeed, perhaps any kind of visual symbolism — such as momento mori, where a skull in a still life was more than just a skull. (How much does the perception of the viewer play into the definition of art as it relates to communication? Is something not art if the viewer doesn’t comprehend some, most, all of the artist’s intended meaning?)

Note that in my living (i.e., subject to change) definition of art I also mention intentionality. Perhaps I need to combine the two terms, qualifying communication with the need to be intentional. The idea of intent as a part of the definition of art I first heard as a college student. At the time it seemed like a good one-liner to slap on the idea of fine art; in retrospect, I realize that for anyone seriously thinking about, engaging in and observing the arts it’s a gross oversimplification — even for those of us who realize pinning down a singular definition of art isn’t a realistic expectation.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

5 Responses to Is art defined by communication?

  1. Mo-Coffee says:

    I just gave the “working” definitions of art and craft on your earlier post- I should have saved them for here.

    I think I would have agreed with you about the “intention” arguement (which originates with Duchamp, I believe) being a “gross oversimplification” for most of my career, but for whatever reason I seem to be more willing to accept it now. Perhaps it has to do with my love of artists like Bruce Nauman, or maybe it’s something else.

    …and I would argue that craft does, indeed, communicate. It just doesn’t grandstand (well, usually).

    …and I would argue that great artwork does not have to “communicate” something beyond itself (although most Post-modernist would argue that it must). If art is about communicating, it is, at best, an arguement or an apologetic, and at worse, propaganda.

    I’ve always loved Tennyson’s quote about poetry (paraphrased): A poem doesn’t “mean,” a poem “is.” Amen. Should we not say the same about all the arts? Or, to restate, why should we demand that visual art “communicates” when we do not demand the same of music?

  2. TAE says:

    I’ve never personally been all that convinced that (intentional) communication is a necessary part of the definition, but the question is worth asking. It’s pointed out — by Schaeffer in Art and the Bible among other places IIRC — that certain stipulated decoration on the temple was abstract, or seemingly without meaning in the context. I believe Schaeffer mentions the chains on the pillars and the colors of the pomegranates on the priest’s robes as examples.

    I almost mentioned music in my post for the reason you point out, but I don’t really have any background (to my own chagrin) in that realm so held off, and the same with theater.

  3. Marylyn says:

    Just a thought: If a paranoid schizophrenic (aka “visionary”) saw the contours of a plain ceramic bowl, enjoyed its shine, felt its smoothness, and then heard it speak (as can happen with that sort of brain), would the bowl then be “art”?

  4. Mo-Coffee says:

    I think your comment gets illustrates a piece of my point… perhaps it has to do with defining “communication.” If the viewer “enjoyed its shine, felt its smoothness,” then it has already communicated. Anything else is brought by the viewer.
    Now, the validity of what the viewer brings and adds to the experience brings us to Duchamp, and the idea that the artist defines what art is (hence the “readymade” and other found object-based art.) I know this is a slippery slope, but I feel it is worth embracing. For example one of those “visionaries”- and I would definitely NOT confuse that term with paranoid schizophrenic- was Van Gogh. Or how bout Michelangelo’s comment that he was simply feeing the form from inside the rock? Would that not be akin to hearing the voice of the sculpture inside the material?

  5. Pingback: Art for art’s sake « The Aesthetic Elevator

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