Is it easier and best to just avoid the word “art?”

Thoughts and conversations I’ve engaged in the past few years brought me to a point where I try and use the word art less and less. It’s a troublesome word. It carries a comical amount of baggage everywhere it goes. To every gallery, every studio, to every local culture and every family it brings steamer trunks full of varying vernaculars.

Instead of the word art I now employ words like craft (which is not, despite modern notions, in opposition to art), sculpture, painting, imagination, creative, etc. By no means is this glossary of more specific terms something I have worked out, but it is working at the moment.

Of course, the point is not so much to avoid the often inevitable conflicts that arise between artists, viewers, friends and family members when it comes to what is or isn’t art. Regular readers will attest to my interest in approaching these topics full-on, I think. The point is to change my, or our, vocabulary (and the assumptions behind our present art-related vocabularies) in such a way that we are better equipped to create and view the environments around us in all their craft. The natural environment, the city spaces, architectural spaces down to the details that are paintings, sculptures and the ceramic dishes we eat off of.

2 August 2009 storm

Part of the natural environment I observed last night.


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

2 Responses to Is it easier and best to just avoid the word “art?”

  1. Tim J. says:

    Once again, I’ve been meaning to comment on a question you have raised that deserves more thought than I can give it, at present.

    I’ll argue that, as hard as it is to define the word “art” in a precise way that will satisfy everyone, it is still a meaningful word, a word that people ordinarily associate with some real (though foggy) idea, and so it is useful.

    One could define art to mean simply “EVERYTHING people make”, but that is not the way most people understand or use it in common speech. A word that can mean anything is a meaningless word. Art, though, is understood to be different from engineering or design in that it is, in some way, gratuitous or unnecessary.

    If you want to build a house, you must engineer and design it, but you needn’t do so artfully. In fact, we have specialized in this soulless sort of construction in recent decades.

    While I’m at it, I will also weigh in on the side of “Religious Art” or “Christian Art” for basically the same reasons. It is possible to distinguish between art that is *explicitly* religious and art that is not, and so the term is still useful. It may be true that ALL art touches on religion in some way, but then, everything we do touches on religion in some way.

    There is a broad sense in which my faith influences my still life or landscape painting, but it would be a mistake, IMO, to insist that these are “religious” paintings in the same way that a painting of a saint or of a biblical scene would be.

    As long as meaningful distinctions can be made, these words have their place.

    • pcNielsen says:

      Indeed, I know I can’t ignore the word. It has it’s place; my beef is probably with it’s overuse, it’s employment in situations where there are a better descriptors.

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