A New (Old) Definition of the Word Art

Stop objectifying art and focus on the work instead.

For many years of my life, when I’d hear the word art, it evoked images of paintings lining the walls of marble-floored, white-columned buildings in which you had to be quiet to pay your reverence to the genius it contained. Sometimes my mind would conjure up images of something like Michelangelo’s David, or other unnamed and unknown sculptures. Every fantasy was full of buildings lined with this stuff that you just couldn’t touch.

Growing a little bit older, this fantasy evolved into something that — like the creators who suffered as lone geniuses — is reserved for the privileged few. I’d think of stuffy art auctions, of millionaires jet-setting around the world in their quarter-share airlines to exotic-sounding cities to build personal collections of musty smelling paintings — paintings created by people I’d never heard of — chocked full of inscrutable meaning, if there was any meaning to be divined after all. Only the true connoisseurs really knew.

Then it occurred to me that it’s possible art might not even hang on walls, but it may be bound between two pieces of cardboard.

Or even the work of an actor, especially of the stage, performing the millionth iteration of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Or maybe the music. After all, next to painters, musicians are the only other people that we so readily refer to as artists. So why not call the end product art?

Art is not just a thing.

All these contemporary definitions that we’ve created to describe art are true insofar as they describe the end product, the art thing, the art object. But what I’ve discovered over the years as I’ve constructed my own artistic practice is that, while these definitions are correct to the letter (artists do produce objects that could be labeled artworks), they fail to fully articulate the true meaning of the word art.

To understand the true meaning of the word art, we have to go in time about 6,600 years to a time when we find the roots firmly planted, somewhere between 4500 and 2500 BC. Today’s word “art” evolved from Proto-Indo-European language, meaning “to fit together.” Several thousand years more passed before we began using it almost exclusively to represent the object created by an artist. Prior to that, though, the word art was all about the work.

Think about that for a moment. If we simply consider the root meaning of the word art, there are extraordinary implications for what art is, and a whole world of possibility opens before us. No longer is art confined to describing the indiscernible stuff that hangs on the walls. It’s not simply about sculpture or writing or millionaires or French Museums. It’s all about the work, and when you think about it, we’re all doing the work.

From this simple definition — “to fit together” — we can see that everybody is engaged in the action of art. What art really represents is a creative process in which we try new things, experiment, and play to make something. Ultimately, it’s a process that’s accessible to each and every one of us, not just the privileged few or the lone geniuses. Creating a spreadsheet, writing a memo, or building a business are all require a creative process of fitting things together.

Real art is action.

When we begin to think of art in its root form, “to fit things together,” it shifts our focus from the end product to the process itself. This is liberating, because when we see a piece of art, we only see the finished piece, not the work that was required to realize the artist’s vision. By solely focusing on the finished product, we wrongfully assume that the process that created the artifact was easy or natural or without challenges. The reality is that the art object was the fruit of weeks, months, or even years of labor, a million little decisions along an iterative path that loops and whorls.

Likewise, we fail to see the interactions that led to its creation. No idea is birthed in a vacuum — it is the result of the recombination of fragments of other ideas. If we’re lucky, we collect enough of these pieces as we’re moving through life that we’re able to cobble them together into something beautiful. Each meeting, conversation, or interaction with somebody adds another fragment. Likewise, we leave behind fragments for others to use at their discretion. It’s our job to place them in the right order so that they tell a story.

I think one of the most important things that I’ve learned through my personal practice of art is that it’s not all glamorous. In fact, there’s very little glamour. It’s a lot of work to continually make things day after day and to come up with different ways to surprise people. Most days it’s just knowing what needs to be done and slogging through the work. Some days you are energized by the muses. But they are fickle. They don’t really keep a schedule and they go as quickly as they come. In the end, all that you have left is willingness to stick to the work.

So where does that leave us?

Art now becomes suddenly accessible. You don’t have to be a genius to create art. You don’t have to sacrifice your whole life to birth some great idea. It’s possible to create art in the simple actions that you take everyday.

With the right mindset, you can set about the work of art (to steal a phrase from Eric Booth), fitting things together, placing them in the right order until the final composition feels natural. It’s not the object, but the action. The action is ultimately what creates meaning. Without the action, we are only left with empty objects.

And when we get into the artist’s mindset and we practice our art, we find that we can improve our lives, and the lives of others, a little bit everyday. Everything we do within our life can be done with thought and great care, so as to create meaning in ourselves and for others.

And isn’t that a beautiful thought?