What Is Art, Anyway?

Last week, Jim and I spent a nice afternoon at the Art Institute of Chicago. I always enjoy strolling through the galleries and getting up close and personal with some of the most famous works of art in the world. I’m not the type of person to stand in front of a painting and analyze it in a conversation with someone else, but I do have my own agenda.

What I do when I come across a piece of art I really love:
1. I look at it from afar first, and then I slowly walk closer until I’m only about a foot away.

2. If the painting has one of those little wires around it (meant to keep people from getting too close) I take care to make sure my feet don’t go under the wire and then I lean in from the waist until the painting would be considered “in my face”. I look very, very closely at the brush strokes and the use of color. This fascinates me. Sometimes I think about the artist actually making those brush strokes, wondering where he or she worked, how long the painting took to create, and how many “mistakes” are under all of those brush strokes, corrected with fresh color.

3. Stepping back again, I look at the frame. I don’t think the majority of museum-goers pay attention to the frames, but I do. The frames were matched with (or created for!) their paintings for very specific reasons, and I enjoy looking at the frames as extensions of the artwork inside.

Anyway, I had to visit two of my very favorite paintings ever, since they call the Art Institute home. One is “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat.


You are probably already familiar with it because it’s a very famous work of art in general, but it was also featured in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. In that iconic movie, Ferris’ best friend Cameron basically steals my technique for admiring art and checks out some brush strokes up close and personal-like. Okay, sort of.

Another favorite of mine is “American Gothic” by Grant Wood.

American Gothic

When I was looking at this one I started wondering why I like it so much. It’s not “my style” at all. I would never hang something similar in my house. I finally settled on “it provides me some kind of comfort”, but then I realized something deeper:


Totally true statement. I can’t believe it took me so long to figure it out, but better late (I guess) than never.

As we walked around I found myself occasionally thinking, “I could create something just as good or better than that” (ahem, mostly in the modern art and photography sections and don’t try and tell me that you’ve never thought that at a museum). Why is this art? That thought made me realize that painters and photographers and sculptors, just like writers and other kinds of creators, are often in the right place at the right time, or know the right people. I mean, Van Gogh was a master but all of his creations weren’t gems. This is a lesson for all of us: there are so many talented people in the world and just because all of them aren’t well-known or “successful” by society’s definition doesn’t mean they aren’t gifted in their field.

And what is art, anyway? I’m not looking up the definition for this post because I don’t want to be literal, but what is it? The best I could come up with in my brain is that art can be any creation that provokes an emotion—any emotion—in someone, and if a room full of building materials scattered artfully (to look like they’re scattered haphazardly) makes me angry because it’s taking up a huge gallery and I don’t understand how the artist built a career doing stuff like that, then that’s still art by my definition, and who am I to judge? Thinking of it that way, I became less angry and more accepting when I came across pieces of artwork that I felt could have come from anywhere or could have been created by anyone.

In the end I think that art is supposed to make us think about our own life experiences while peeking into someone else’s, and that’s whether you’re just looking up close at brush strokes, reminiscing about a board game you played as a kid, or spontaneously getting a little interactive, like this:

Liz at MoMa 2012

(2012: This sculpture at MoMA reminded Liz of her ancestors.)

That was a lot of thinking for a two-and-a-half hour visit to one of the world’s best art museums. I call that a successful afternoon!

So what do you think? What is art? Is your definition similar to mine?


  • Shannon

    I’m going to try your technique next time. I always fly through too fast, while my daughter spends forever on one piece. I love what you said about famous artists having their share of flops and the layers of mistakes beneath the final coat. I hadn’t thought of that and it actually is quite helpful for my own frame of thought.

  • Mags

    First of all, that picture of Liz is HYSTERICAL. Love it!

    I know that painting from a high school art class. We were learning about different artists, and this slide came up and the teacher said, “Seurat the dot-that’s how you remember this guy” because he uses little dots to make his art. I always remembered that fondly.

    I had to stop looking at art closely like you do because I actually forget where I am, and end up touching the paint. I got in trouble a couple of times for doing it. I don’t MEAN to touch them. It just…happens.

    • Melisa Wells

      LOL I know: it’s one of my favorite pictures. I wish I had video too!

      I have come thisclose to touching those paintings. It’s so hard not to!!

  • Grandma W

    Sounds like a good one.
    I think the frames mean a lot because you used to do framing. I also think you can make or break the looks of the picture with a frame.
    Love Grandma W

  • Samantha

    One of my 2014 goals is to get back to the Art Institute. I always pass by when I’m heading from place to place, but I’d love to make it an actual destination again. Love your insight and plan to scope out your favorites (including this stellar one that Liz liked) 😉

    MWAH! xoxoxo

    • Melisa Wells

      Well, the sculpture that Liz posed with is actually at MoMA in NYC, so you’ll have to tag along with me next time I head out east if you want to see that one. And the sculpture too. Heh.

  • Colleen

    I think you’ve got it — art is supposed to make you FEEL something. And like you, I often get angry at those works that are a big red square with a blue swipe across the left-hand corner. I’m always left thinking, “Well that’s lame. BUT WHAT DOES IT MEAN?!?” Maybe it means nothing. On purpose. To make you feel frustrated and in the end sometimes realizing art is just…art for art’s sake. ?!? Did I lose you? I think I lost myself. 🙂