Why I don’t like ‘art’

Pardon the clickbait title. Of course, as most people do, I appreciate the artworld, but in my capacity as an archaeologist I tend to avoid using the term ‘art’ when discussing ancient material remains.

For some reason, referring to objects made and used by past peoples generally as ‘art’ makes me feel kind of uncomfortable. Perhaps it is because, at this point, I am not even certain about what ‘art’ means. Perhaps it is because I do not see the connection between the ancient art displayed in art museums and the ancient ‘art’ archaeologists recover from the field; although I do see that in many cases the ancient art of art museums is the same as the objects on display in archaeology museums.

Archaeologists and art historians most often share a common pool of material evidence which makes up our focus of study. In many cases, both groups of scholars rely on the same physical remains left by ancient peoples, whether pottery, sculptures, rock art, ornaments, or architecture, among others. Although research questions might differ, both art historians and archaeologists share an interest in the technological skills and materials needed to produce the objects we study, in the creativity and artistic freedom—or lack thereof—of the producer, in the object’s symbolic meaning within the cultural context in which it was produced, and in the purpose for which it was used, among other issues.

Both disciplines regularly infiltrate each other’s disciplinary boundaries—if those boundaries have ever existed in a discrete manner—in terms of theoretical frameworks and research methods. The artificial separation between the two fields gets blurred even further when art historians pursue what look to me like archaeological projects, and when archaeologists can be found pursuing their research within art history departments. Despite this overlap, terminology is probably the largest divider between art historians and archaeologists. Whereas art historians seem to have no concern with discussing ancient art-works, archaeologists often refer to the same objects as artifacts.

Art = Aesthetic Quality

As certain art historians have pointed out the term ‘art’ did not exist until the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe.[1] In other regions, the concept of ancient art did not exist until it was created by and for the art market, motivated by profit.[2] What was deemed to be art, ancient or contemporary, Western or non-Western, produced in a culture in which the concept of art existed or not, was ultimately what was deemed worthy of being collected, displayed, and bought/sold. These ‘artworks’ which in many cases were originally conceived and used as something other than art—for example, cooking pots or religious objects—came to be classified and appreciated as art for their aesthetic quality and their state of preservation, for being pretty or nice to look at, putting it bluntly.

Based on this understanding, a complete, decorated Wari (concentrated within roughly present-day Peru between 600 and 1000AD) ceramic bottle would be considered an artwork, whereas if that same bottle had not been well preserved, perhaps found in fragmentary conditions, chipped, or with its painted decoration eroded, it might not be considered as such. When archaeologists excavate ceramic fragments that cannot be restored to a complete vessel, those remains never enter the category of art, and are still relegated to the category of artifacts, to be exhibited in anthropology or natural history museums if any, and to be studied by archaeologists looking to understand perhaps the technique used in the production of such vessel or its contents. If, on the other hand, enough ceramic fragments have been preserved to reconstruct the vessel to its original form, and the resulting vessel happens to be visually appealing, the vessel is determined to meet the aesthetic criteria (based on beauty, condition of preservation, and completeness) to be considered an artwork.

Is this art?
Ceramic face-neck vessel, Wari, Espíritu Pampa, Ayacucho, Peru, 600-1000AD.
Ministerio de Cultura, EP 2010-7
© Marco Uniysonco Perez and Brian S. Bauer. In Javier Fonseca Santa Cruz and Brian S. Bauer, The Wari Enclave of Espíritu Pampa (Los Angeles: Cotsen University Press, 2020).
Is this art?
Title, author/culture, place, date
Ceramic, H. 39.4 × W. 25.4 × D. 21.6 cm
MET Museum, 1987.2
© MET Museum

Art = Iconicity

Figurative and naturalistic depictions within objects in which the observer is able to recognize familiar figures contributes to the classification of said object as art. The obsession with finding look alikes can be appreciated, for example, walking around Cuzco and hearing tourist guides showing their groups the hidden depictions of llamas, condors, pumas, and constellations in megalithic stone walls, city layouts, and the placement of sites. This discovery exercise is little different than finding shapes in the clouds. If you are looking for figures, you will find them; you can just mentally construct them yourself!

Non-figurative depictions which follow abstract modes of representations or are taken from nature as is with little to no modification, like the shell dolls seen below used by Aboriginal children in Australia, had been traditionally excluded from the artworld—what did they represent anyways?—until the advent of modern art and abstraction in the Western world. Nevertheless, not all items have yet been allowed this terminology and conceptual transformation, remaining confined to the world of archaeological/anthropological/ethnographic collections.

Is this art?
Shell dolls used by Aboriginal children to represent family members. Hemple Bay, Groote Eylandt, Northern Territory, Australia
© Australian Museum/Rebecca Fisher
Is this art?
“Doll,” Deir-el-Bahari, Luxor, Egypt.
Wood, H. 17cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 97.1102
© MFA

Art = value

Whether the value originates from the material used in its production, from the identity of the maker or the user, from the complexity of its production or decoration, from the object’s uniqueness, or from the location in which the object is stored or displayed, value elevates—or denies—an object to the category of art. And I use the term elevate here because there is a clear hierarchy between those objects referred to as artworks and those which are labeled artifacts or archaeological / anthropological / ethnographic items, with artworks being placed at the top and the rest being relegated to lower tiers. That which is given the status of art comes to be aesthetically and culturally valued, and economically valuable. It is worth noting the intrinsic relationship between labeling an object art and conceiving of an object as art, that which is conferred the status of art comes to be conceived of as art. The question of whether the opposite applies is not clear.

As stated by art historian Carolyn Dean, “calling something art tends to elevate the estimation held for that something. However, calling something art reveals nothing inherent in the object to which the term is applied; rather, it reveals how much the viewer values it.”[3] By referring to objects of the past as art, we are merely expressing our own appreciation of them, we are attributing these objects value. Nevertheless, in doing so, we erase the original purpose the object served, and the conception original makers and users had—and in many cases continue to have—of these objects.

When a bowl which might speak to ceramic production, diet or ritual practices of a particular group of people at a particular point in time is conferred the status of art, it loses its people value and is transformed into an object for visual contemplation and aesthetic appreciation. The bowl experiences a transformation to something else, neither better nor worse, but certainly different from its original meaning, perhaps more superficial, perhaps more symbolic.

Given what I conceive to be arbitrary, subjective, and artificial criteria used to label an object as art, I will continue referring to most objects by the purpose they serve, whether I consider them of aesthetic or artistic value or not. What are your thoughts?


More Information

[1] Shiner, Larry. The Invention of Art: A Cultural History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

[2] Errington, Shelly. “What Became Authentic Primitive Art?” Cultural Anthropology 9.2 (1994): 201-26.

[3] Dean, Carolyn. “The Trouble with (the Term) Art.” Art Journal, 65.2 (2006): 27.

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