What is Art ?

Defining and Describing Art as Experiential Learning – Something you can do

Before we even start to look at how we can make art as experiential learning, it would be good to define and describe what we mean by ‘Art’.

The United States Congress, in the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act, defined “the arts” as follows: ’The term ‘the arts’ includes, but is not limited to, music (instrumental and vocal), dance, drama, folk art, creative writing, architecture and allied fields, painting, sculpture, photography, graphic and craft arts, industrial design, costume and fashion design, motion pictures, television, radio, film, video, tape and sound recording, the arts related to the presentation, performance, execution, and exhibition of such major art forms, all those traditional arts practised by the diverse peoples of this country, and the study and application of the arts to the human environment.’

Defining art as a noun, a thing, an art object or product to be sold seems relatively straight forward. We can even name art movements, artists, art mediums. There is a great at Google Arts and Culture which does this but it focuses mostly on visual art and includes just few of the things described above. Art is diverse and subjective, so a clear definition will be difficult or definitions will be diverse and subjective. The Collins online dictionary gives a very lengthy and diverse collection of definitions. Here. And the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states ‘The definition of art is controversial in contemporary philosophy. Whether art can be defined has also been a matter of controversy. The philosophical usefulness of a definition of art has also been debated.’ Here.

Also, art Historian EH Gombrich said “There is no such thing as art. There are only artists” as the opening line of his 1950 book ‘The Story of Art’. Gombrich moves away from discussion from art as a a noun, to art as a verb. Art becomes a doing thing instead of the name of a thing, it becomes seen as process instead of a product. This moves us on from fixed thing to a thing in process, a doing thing. This is a key to the idea that art making as experiential learning.

Gombrich was an art historian and what we see today as art has been established through historical precedent. The artists, art mediums and art movements described on the Google site have both remained the same and changed over time. Oil painting is very old, but acrylic painting is more recent. Sculpture is ancient and net art modern. What we understand as art varies over time and also from person to person. The iconic image of a French urinal, ‘La Fontaine’ an artwork by Marcel Duchamp challenged the idea of what is art. Duchamp put the urinal in a gallery as a way to make the found or readymade object into art. The land art movement made art outdoors to challenge the assumption that art was a thing in a gallery. In both cases, some people will see a urinal or a (some land art t’ing) as art and some will not. 

So how does ‘Art’ as generally agreed as some thing made by artists and other people relate to the art made as experiential learning? Understanding art as a thing, as artform, medium and movement is useful but not essential. It gives some direction or boundaries to what we might make or emulate when we make art as experiential learning. We have to start somewhere. Jean Luc Godard the film director talks about emulating other artists ideas and say “It’s not where you take things from but where you takes things to.”


To make art as experiential learning you do not need to be an artist, but you can let ‘ rt’ inspire and guide you. We can all make art but we cannot all be artists. Children paint at the drop of a hat. Picasso said “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Making art as a way to learn as opposed to making art to exhibit and sell are two very different things. Art made by other people, art mediums, art movements, art making practice can and should inform art making as experiential learning. But describing and defining art as experiential learning, as doing, as a noun is I suggest, very different to defining ‘Art’ as viewing a thing, as a noun, the name of a medium or a movement or an artist. Can one define ‘art’ in the context of making art as experiential learning ? 

A number of people have written about the art making process in experiential terms, including John Dewey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In the arts therapies and arts education a lot has been written about art making as a means of inquiry and research, and in all cases the writer was also an artist, which gives a different perspective non-artists. This work is extensive, and a number of ideas, theories and practices from this body of work has informed my ideas about art as experiential learning and will be introduced on my site. But a definition should be short and concise. 

I had a go at defining art as experiential learning in as short and concise a way as possible. This is what I got to…

‘Art as experiential learning is a form of reflexive research leading to the making of artform, and used to explore and express personal experience, witnessed by the creator and other people through time and space.’

To me this described process, product, experiential learning and the role of viewing as well as doing and it included ‘Art’ as an historically establish form.

My model for working with art as experiential learning combining arts education and experiential learning goes thus. Intention, preparation, action, reflection, exposition. We start by stating our intention for the learning process, next we prepare by exploring art from established artist and artforms which may support our interests and intentions, then we put this exploration into action and make art. We reflect on the form and process that emerges and we show and share, what we made, and what we learned through making.  

From my personal and professional experience all of this is valuable but the key core thing is the action of making art. And in terms of clear and concise definitions this is the most difficult thing to define. A favourite artist of mine is Mark Rothko, and one day I found a Rothko quote which absolutely nailed the definition of making art as experiential learning.

a painting is not a picture of an experience it is an experience

What Rothko is saying is that the definition of art as experiential learning is the art.

This touches on a lot of the key ideas I found in my reading of literature and my own arts practice. When I make art as experiential learning, which is more often than not outdoors, what I learn is personal, subjective, locally situated, multi-disciplinary, in that I learn about art making, myself and the place I make art. What I learn is often paradoxical and conflicted, it often emerges totally unbidden and inexplicably. Paul Carter an artist and researcher form Austrailia describes it ‘ depend on equivocation – the possibility that something might mean something else.’ Making art as experiential learning proceeds towards an uncertain outcome. It is adventure. The art is the experience.

In getting to this definition of art as experiential learning I come to a core belief about how art making as experiential learning is valuable. The art made gives us more than a direct representation of experience, the art is the experience. Describing the experience in words, defining experience, is difficult because the experience can speak for itself, but not in words. If the art is the experience, it too is not in words, but as an expression the art is closer to the experience than words. This is why I think art as experiential learning has something useful to offer when we seek to learn through and from experience. We need a different way to process the experience, and if the art is the experience we need to be able to understand art as a mode of expression. And the best way to do that is to make art. 

For me the making is the thing. Beyond definition, with art making, something comes into existence which did not previously exist. So an important part of art making as experiential learning is poiesis. But does that mean that making a sandwich is art ?

I looked for a long time for something that offered a definition or description of art beyond artform or aesthetics. In an article, called ‘The Crisis of “Art History”‘ Irving Lavin another art historian, describes art in terms of what it does, rather than what it is. To me this worked well with art as experiential learning because as such the emphasis is on doing, on making art. Lavin says art is intentional, self contained, efficient and unique and that everything made by people is art and assures each human creation its due. His full description is worth sharing in it’s full form even with masculine pronouns.

‘I conclude by repeating here the principles of a sort of professional credo of my own.  The credo consists of five tenets, I call them assumptions because 1 doubt whether in the long run any of them is demonstrably valid or invalid, underlying my conception of art history, which I defined as a “natural science of the spirit.”

Assumption 1: Anything manmade is a work of art, even the lowliest and most purely functional object. Man, indeed, might be defined as the art-making animal, and the fact that we choose to regard only some manmade things as works of art is a matter of conditioning. Our conventions in this respect are themselves, in a manner of speaking, works of art.

Assumption 2: Everything in a work of art was intended by its creator to be there. A work of art represents a series of choices and is therefore a totally deliberate thing, no matter how unpremeditated it may seem, and even when “accidents” are built into it deliberately. We can never be sure that the artist did not know what he was doing or that he wanted to do something other than what he did, even when he declares himself dissatisfied with his creation. 

Assumption 3: Every work of art is a self-contained whole. It includes within itself everything necessary for its own decipherment. Information gathered from outside the work may be useful, but it is not essential to the decipherment. On the other hand, outside information (which includes information from or about the artist himself) is essential if we want to explain how the work came to have its particular form and meaning.  

Assumption 4: Every work of art is an absolute statement. It conveys as much as possible with as little as possible. The work of art is one hundred percent efficient, and to paraphrase Leon Battista Alberti’s classic definition of Beauty, nothing could be added, taken away, or altered without changing its message. Alberti was referring simply to the relationship among the parts, whereas I mean to include the very substance of the work itself. 

Assumption 5: Every work of art is a unique statement. It says something that has never been said before and will never be said again, by the artist himself or anyone else. Copies or imitations, insofar as they are recognisable as such, are no exception, since no man can quite suppress his individuality, no matter how hard he may try. Conversely, no matter how original he is, the artist to some extent reflects the work of others, and it is purely a matter of convention that we tend to evaluate works of art by the degree of difference from their models. 

The chief virtue of these assumptions is that they help to assure each human creation its due. What it is due may be defined as the discovery of the reciprocity it embodies between expressive form and content.’

As a definition, this works well with all art, including art made as experiential learning. Art making may not always fully embody all these assumptions but I like to think of art making as an adventure. Each artwork acts like a flash or trail marker on the trail. Each shows where you have been on your journey of learning from experience. But occasionally you find a spot so sweet you want to stop and camp. These moments are the wonderful ones when what you made, your form and content, is fully intentional, self contained, efficient and unique and that everything you did assures your creation it’s due. You may not be an artist but you can make art.

In a Medium article here artist and designer Chris Slater says 

“Don’t think about art. Just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good to bad. While they are doing that, make more art.”

To me that is experiential learning. Just do it.

And as for that sandwich art art. It’s been done. See here.