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Art puzzles: what is art? Considering the nature of art.

Many questions arise when we investigate art objects. Is it art? How is it art? Why is it art? Such questions fall into the realm of aesthetics--the branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the nature of art. To question what is artistically valid or beautiful is to deal with aesthetics and aesthetic inquiry. Because these types of big questions require meditative contemplation and reasoned responses, aesthetics and aesthetic inquiry can lead to deeper thinking and better understanding in art.

Taking aesthetics or aesthetic inquiry into the art classroom provides rich opportunities for students of all ages to observe art objects and to thoughtfully communicate personal and global perspectives about art. One way to approach the complexities of aesthetic inquiry is to consider these big questions as art puzzles. When presented as puzzles, art questions become more accessible to students of all ages and experience levels.

It is important to keep in mind that a definition of art needs to be developed prior to asking whether an object is art. The following activity assists students with working out a personal or collaborative definition that can then be edited and elaborated.

What Is Art?

1. Introduce the lesson by asking students to brainstorm as a class what makes an object art. Provide prompts if necessary. Does it have to be created by a well-known artist? What about monetary value? Artistry? Originality? Intent? Age? Does being unique matter?

2. Next, place students in small collaborative groups. Assign one student to be a recorder for the group.

3. Provide "What Is Art?" handout. (Download from

4. Ask students to decide four characteristics that they think make an object art.

5. After the characteristics are determined, ask students to write the characteristics into sentence form.

6. Display a variety of images or actual objects and ask students to apply their definitions to each

7. Provide time for the groups to determine if their definitions need revision before sharing their responses.

8. Post revised definitions in the room and allow for revision throughout the school year.

Pam Stephens is associate professor of Art Education at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, and advisory board member for SchoolArts.
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Title Annotation:All Levels
Author:Stephens, Pam
Publication:School Arts
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2006
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