What is Art?

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What is art? That’s a question I don’t hear debated much anymore, maybe because that’s a topic for the smoke-filled rooms of intellectuals…not us working professionals. However, I do find the question stimulating and often ask it of artists interviewed for this blog. It’s stimulating because in the modern and post-modern era, art has a considerably broader meaning than it did, say 200 years ago. Now just about anything is given the “art” moniker, back then, not so much.

I will, at some point, share with you some of more insightful responses to the question, made by contemporary artists.


Frank J. Reilly, A.N.A


But for now, let’s focus on comments made by Frank J.Reilly, A.N.A (1906-1967). Most of you are probably familiar with that name. Mr. Reilly was an American painter, illustrator, muralist, and teacher.

He was an instructor at the Art Students League in New York for 28 years. He was known to always wear a suit and tie while teaching and his classes were always jammed to the doors; it is said that, in all, he had more students than any art teacher in history. During his years of training, his drawing instructor was George Bridgeman, and his painting instructor was Frank Vincent Dumond. These men were trained by greats of the French Academy.

Notice how the students are dressed.

Notice how the students are dressed.

Check out those high-heals.

Check out those high-heals.


Reilly also served as apprentice to famed illustrator Dean Cornwell, his friend and neighbor. Reilly’s most noted for “developing a means of organizing the palette, based partially on the work of 19th century colorist Albert Munsell. Following Munsell’s view of separating color into hue, value, and chroma, Reilly organized the figure painting palette in this manner, creating nine values of neutral gray as a control, with corresponding values of red, orange, and flesh tone.

Reilly's figure-painting palette.

Reilly’s figure-painting palette.


His training, credentials, and accomplishments are amazing; therefore, considering the time in which he lived, I think his comments about art are significant.





“Art must contain a human experience and through the personality of an artist, skillfully communicate this experience in an understandable language to the greatest number of thinking people for the longest length of time.”





“Art is man’s responsibility to man. Since it is the recording of human experiences, man must then first experience before he can share with others. Its subject matter comes from man’s observation and imagination. Its moods and feelings come from man’s emotions. It is creative. It inspires and exalts. It preserves nature and Godly creations. Art is for the many, not the few. Art is the unity of both inner and visual beauty.”



“Art being a creative and emotional experience, expresses mood and feeling, but always through the eyes of a particular artist. It operates through a personality, which is a personal kind of thinking developed by skilled practice. It is related to the love, urge, and sustained interest of the artist to express himself and his times. It is good taste and selectiveness acquired through a background, an education and an environment, with insight to the heritage of the past and a plan for the future. It is the result of a skilled artist with something to say.”



“Art is human ingenuity, backed by skill of execution, acquired through knowledge, related thinking, and constant practice. Art’s techniques come from the execution of man’s skill and the development of craft. It includes the mastery of a medium of expression.

“Art while personally creative, and inventively skillful, must always be understandable. To be universally understood, it must be a language of visual expression. Its modes, manners and functions may change, but its natural visual factors never change, and its impact is strengthened by a thorough understanding of these factors. Art’s visual factors are: position, line, pattern, value and color. These factors when used in various manners can produce form, imagery, design and composition. Art is a branch of learning that appeals to the sensitive minds of men, and learning is knowledge gained by study.”



“Art like all human endeavor is what is right for the greatest number of people. If it pleases only one, it is an individual thing. When it appeals to many, it by its nature is a greater force.

“Art should be judged by its impact on sensitive thinking people. It has something for everyone, but as with all human endeavor, the more versed we are in its powers the more it has to offer. Art in its complete form builds confidence and commands the respect of thinking people.

“Art, true art, is not a passing whim. It is definitely related to public acceptance over a long period of time. ‘Art is long, life is short,’ to borrow a phrase.”



“Art is sincerity, faith in an ideal, discipline, excellence of execution, dignity of approach, a sense of good taste, and the wisdom to combine all art is respect for the past, because you are the future.

“Art is a livelihood to those whose efforts are functional. It is a haven of satisfaction, pleasure and relaxation to those who devote only part of their lives to it. Art (can be) a religion to those who devote their entire lives to it. Art, be it a religion, livelihood or haven, contributes at all times to our happiness, our progress and our culture.”


**Wikipedia and an old American Artist magazine were sources for this blog post.


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John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
To view his art and bio, please click HERE.