Here are some of the favorite definitions of art, from antiquity to today.
Henry James in his short story The Middle Years:
We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.
Leo Tolstoy, in his essay “What Is Art?”:
Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity.
Art is a discovery and development of elementary principles of nature into beautiful forms suitable for human use.
Charles Eames, cited in the fantastic 100 Quotes by Charles Eames:
Art resides in the quality of doing; process is not magic.
Elbert Hubbard in a 1908 volume of Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Teachers:
Art is not a thing — it is a way.
Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.
Thomas Merton in No Man Is An Island:
Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.
André Gide in Poétique:
Art begins with resistance — at the point where resistance is overcome. No human masterpiece has ever been created without great labor.
Friedrich Nietzsche, made famous all over again by Ray Bradbury in Zen in the Art of Writing:
We have our Arts so we won’t die of Truth.
Michelangelo Pistoletto in Art’s Responsibility:
Above all, artists must not be only in art galleries or museums — they must be present in all possible activities. The artist must be the sponsor of thought in whatever endeavor people take on, at every level.
Federico Fellini in a December 1965 piece in The Atlantic
All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.
Art suffers the moment other people start paying for it.
The Greek philosopher Aristophanes, writing in the 4th century B.C.:
Let each man exercise the art he knows.