What is Art?


A few months ago, I was cruising an online image board I frequent, I stumbled upon some Europeans sparking a lively debate about European culture. As they have for a few thousand years, they argued about trivial matters. When I finally decide to throw my hat into the ring and argue that, in fact, American culture is the best and no amount of discussion could top it, I was shot down by a French poster (the country in which you are posting from is clearly visible in this forum). He posted a picture of the green object (show on the right), and said that “Non, le America has no culture and no good art, hon hon hon!” Well, the French accent didn’t really happen, but our debate got me to thinking. How do we qualify art? No really. What is art? This is probably the most subjective question known to man. There is no qualifier, no internationally known standard. Art is only created and valued at what we make of it. A kindergartener’s finger-painting is art just the same as the Mona Lisa. But it’s obvious not everyone can be a Da Vinci or a Michelangelo.

Consider the above work. The statue on the right is obviously the Statue of Liberty. Designed by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, it was commissioned by the French in 1876 to celebrate America’s 100 years of independence. Brought over by a steam freighter, the piece initially had trouble getting funding, until the New York Times opened a fundraiser to help pay for assembly. Arriving in July of 1885, the piece was assembled in just four months! Today, the Statue of Liberty represents the American dream for imigrants arriving in Ellis Island. Although not many people arrive from boats, the symbolism behind one of America’s most important pieces is monumental.

On the right, however, we have a piece from American artist Paul McCarthy. Installed last year for Christmas, the giant green inflatable piece titled “Tree” was taken down only two days after installation. During these controversial two days, the artist was slapped by an unknown assailant, and the piece unceremoniously taken down by vandals. The title? “Tree”. And for those of you unaware, the piece resembles a sex toy. The big question I raise to you is, what’s the line? What can we consider fine art and what can we consider junk that exists to stir up controversy?

Paul McCarthy has had a surprisingly illustrious career as a sculptor and creator of live art. Most of his works, too graphic for my tastes, features controversial content, but not subjects. One of his most notable pieces is a live work featuring a man humping a tree, while another one, titled “Bossy Burger”, and is another live piece of a man with condiments splattered across his face and body.

The piece in question, “Tree” was actually intended as a joke. But residents of Paris took to the internet in droves to protest the large inflatable structure. Said one netizen: “Place Vendôme vandalised! Paris humiliated!”

So at the end of the day, who’s to say “Tree” isn’t of the same artistic caliber as the Statue of Liberty? Both were made by prominent artists, and both were on display for large audiences. Simply put, what is amazing to one person might not be so great to another, regardless of which you like more, in this case, Tree or the Statue of Liberty. What really is art, at the end of the day, if not in the eye of the beholder? We as a society make up the rules for what is too obscene, what is good art, and for that matter, what is art? For this, I ask you, my peers. Take a vote, I’d love to hear your opinions:


My questions for you:

  1. Elaborate on your opinion. Why is “Tree” art, or why isn’t it? If you answered “other”, tell us why!
  2. In an ever more progressive society, do you see it as offensive? How do you think this piece would have been viewed 100 years ago? How about 100 years in the future?
  3. What’s the line? Tasteful nudes have been a staple of a large portion of the art world since the dawn of man. How far can we go from “The Birth of Venus” to “Tree”?

Calvin Parng

For more reading, see the original article link below:



12 thoughts on “What is Art?

  1. Some of my family brother and sister lives in NY. I have seen the statue of liberty from a far but never up close. I have always thought of it as a work of art even when they used it in ghost busters lol. I do not see this work as offensive in any way. I believe that it is made to uplift and stand behind. The fact that the women is naked under the robe that she has makes no difference at all. I think it could be offensive if you were to think the wrong thoughts or if someone where thinking the wrong thoughts. But if you know its history and why it was bought to the US then you will understand why it is the way it is.

  2. To me, art is art. Defining it or creating a legacy for it is beyond me. The stuff Hugh Hefner crossed/blurred lines. I’m not calling that art either, but, his contention was that it was done in an artistic manner. I just move along on to other things that are more traditional.

    If looking at nudity in art is the basis for offense, again, the many forms of David or other models of sculpture would fall into that category. If it is the subject matter, again, I am reminded of others that can be deemed offensive by certain crowds. There is an archaeological site in Iraq and several churches and mosques there that are being destroyed, today, by ISIS as these places are viewed by ISIS as places of false gods and idolatry. So as result, many historic relics and cultural artifacts, ingeniously created with such artistic talent, most often, crafted by hand are being destroyed. Again, this is done as one group is taking offence of anthers religious artifacts.

    So, I guess, it is the artists intent that makes me curious. Is it the artists purpose to create something for the sake of getting a reaction? is it, merely, to offend the audience or to spite them? Then I must ask, why bother? The purpose in creating something is not only to create an object of art, but, to create purpose and wonder along the way in order to get to the meaning of it all in the first place.

    But, then, in the end, I’m often left wondering …

  3. Art is created by talented people who are good at color, visual space, and critical thought. Art gives people enjoyment, education, and entertainment, and inspires the imagination. Art is a book in which we can learn hue, contrast, geometry, ratios, history, society, and humanity.
    The “Tree” is not an art at all for me. First the shape is not a beautiful form. Second the color doesn’t match the buildings in the background. Third this “statue” doesn’t give my any ideas.
    If this piece was made by 100 years ago I would think this is garbage. 100 years later I don’t know because I wouldn’t exist then. Maybe it will be completely forgotten, or perhaps used as an example of something so minimalist, that it does not rise to the category of art.

  4. I have yet to see the statue of liberty but its something that is on my bucket list. Its a significant piece of American history. The statue of liberty represents independence. this is a extraordinary piece of art and for someone to think its inappropriate because she is naked underneath the robe is nonsense in my eyes. Its someone just hating on America and anything that has to do with us. Art to me is a way to express yourself in a different way. So people use art as therapy because they don’t know any other way to express them self properly. some of the best arts have been unique and strange but that’s why i believe that they were able to create such great pieces. their minds work differently and look at things in ways that others don’t.

  5. When I first looked at the photo on the left I was thinking oh I know exactly what that is. Then when I looked at the statue on the right it reminded me of a chess piece then I read it and thought oh well it’s a sex toy. I guess the French got mad because they thought America was trying to humiliate or insult them by putting a sex toy in the middle of what looks like a busy town. In a way the French had a reason to be mad because if they put a piece of art as to what they considered art in the middle of NYC and it was insulting to Americans everyone would be pissed off also. As to what art is exactly there is no one word to describe art or just one category to place art in. What I have noticed as the years have passed by I think art has expanded and will expand even more as to what is even considered art. I really think art is everything it’s just what you consider art, I think as more people start being more open minded there will be a lot more creative ideas that will be considered art. To answer question 2 I’m kind of iffy as to if its offensive or not personally I don’t think its offensive but it may offend a group of people it’s all in how you see it. I think if this piece were to be put in France a hundred years ago it might have started a war or there may have been protests because of a different type of tolerance back then. I think 100 years in the future well you never know art is always expanding and it seems like every day there is a different type of art. This type of art might be popular in the future you just never know there might be sex toy art in the future.

  6. I feel the piece “Tree” is not art. Even though it looks to me like a novelty item–an inflatable decoration displayed on the lawn during the holidays, it is the lack of authenticity with this work. Ryan raised a great point when he brought up artist’s intent. If the intention was simply to be provocative, then it is not authentic. It appears McCarthy had a different agenda intended for this piece, maybe some kind of social or political statement, but the description of his other work seems tasteless, in my opinion. However, if it is authentic in his self-expression, who am I to judge.

  7. I have seen the statue of liberty up close and it is simply amazing the view is fantastic. I went to New York a few summers ago it was simply amazing to see the amount of the detail that went into the statue of liberty. I feel that the tree we gave france doesn’t measure up to the piece of artwork that they gave to us. I feel that the amount of detail that goes into the statue of liberty is simply unreal. You have to see it up close to completely understand. There are stairs that are inside of it so you can go up to the top and see out. The statue of liberty is a must see.

  8. In my mind art is simply what you make of it. What art is to you may not be the same to others and it all lies within our personal opinions, beliefs, cultures, backgrounds, etc. I believe almost anything could be considered art, maybe something as large and monumental as the statue of liberty to something as explicit as a sex toy. I think of it like this, maybe not the object itself is considered “art”, but what about the time and effort put behind to personally make or manufacture the item. The blueprints and designs used to create objects that are or aren’t considered to be “art” IS art in my mind. Art follows a process whether it be simple or complex, and how it is interpreted always lands in the eye of the beholder.

  9. Personally, I don’t think “tree” is art because it doesn’t really move me. Though, it may be art to others I respect that. I don’t need to voice my opinion about it, I can keep my thoughts to myself. But the way I consider art, “art” is when a piece hold inside values and can speak to be spiritually or emotionally. Looking at the “tree” piece made me feel neither of the two and so, with that said I would not consider it are. Only a figure or shape in the center of a city.

  10. After being in front of the statue itself, the feeling and magnitude you get cant really be recreated by the inflatable “plug.” Wonderful how america gifts with such thought though

  11. The definition of art has always been a subject often debated and never resolved. My own personal belief, however, is that yes, both are considered art.
    The term ‘Art’ refers most basically as something created to fulfill a purpose. All things, therefore, can be considered Art if they’re viewed as such. The tree is Art because it fulfills a purpose. You don’t have to agree nor disagree with its purpose, message, or the artist to appreciate and accept the fact that it fulfills a goal, what the artist intended doesn’t come into it, what the audience gets from it doesn’t come into it. The creator of the work doesn’t have to intentionally create, nor does the audience have to intentionally assign meaning. Art is something that fulfills something. And, as vague, as that definition is, it is necessarily so. The logistical problems of sorting out the definition of Art to only mean one thing or another can have huge ramifications on free speech and press. As such, all things that fulfill a purpose must then be considered art.

  12. This is probably my favorite blog post and funniest one. Aside from all the jokes and poking fun i have two sides to this story. First off i wanna say yes in a sense this is art. Basically art is anything you think art is. Art doesnt have a boundary there are no rules when it comes to art. It can be anything you want it to be. Then again personally i dont think this is art because i feel as if its not creative. I mean cmon its a butt plug doesnt look like christmas tree to me. I also think this is sort of offensive because its a sex toy and it was given to france by the U.S and what France gave to us was something with much more detail, beauty, and effort. This definately crossed the line for me. Great presentation by the way!

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