Art and Wallpaper, Part 1: The Art Question

I have a hard time calling myself an artist. And I have a hard time calling what I create art. I write music. I perform music. (Sometimes, on occasion, I may paint a picture.) To me, it is not in the craftsman’s scope to decide what is or is not art. But that also leaves me—and anyone else who creates—in a tenuous position: leaving that decision up to others. For years I have grappled with these internal questions (as most musicians, painters, dancers, and so on do):

Is what I’m doing art, or at least artful?

Why would anyone else think this is art?

Does what I do make me an artist?

I think the first step to understanding what we do and its role in the greater world is to ask this question:

What is art?

As I was recently contemplating this question for myself I came across an interesting bit of writing by Leo Tolstoy. He wrote a large essay entitled What is Art?, and it is excerpted here. (I suggest you go read it once you’re finished here.) Tolstoy gives about as good of a definition as anyone could ask for:

In order correctly to define art, it is necessary, first of all, to cease to consider it as a means to pleasure and to consider it as one of the conditions of human life. Viewing it in this way we cannot fail to observe that art is one of the means of intercourse between man and man. (Emphasis mine)

He’s saying that art is a medium through which two people can become united by sharing a common mental state or set of feelings—the emotion of the artist and the audience should be singular. If a thing does not cause this connectedness then it is not really art, regardless of how beautiful or well-crafted it may be. Art is more than a thing; art is what happens when we create a bond with others through a thing (be it dance, painting, music, or something else entirely).

Art should not strictly be defined as “things that are beautiful.” First of all, the term beauty itself is mutable and lacking in any strength of clarity on its own. It is only a descriptor that we can use after the fact. Can art be beautiful? Yes, of course. But we must not confuse the two ideas.

Think about it. Wallpaper is beautiful (at least to you), but wallpaper is not art.


  1. J Fagan · · Reply

    Frank Zappa on “audio wallpaper” in 1980:

    “G.W. Rather then creating a mood, your music seems to demand that people listen and react.
    F.Z. It’s participatory. The music should interact with the person that’s listening to it. What I do isn’t designed to reinforce your lifestyle. It’s coming from a different place: it’s not product. Ultimately everything that gets released by a record company turns into product, but the intent of what I do is not product oriented. I’ve got something to say. I’ve got certain ways that I want to say it and I take great care of the preparation of the material. I see it through all the way to the mastering process.”

    1. Thanks for the comment. That is such a perfect example of what I’ll be talking about in this series. Too much of what people think of as music nowadays is really that audio wallpaper (I love that phrase, and I am going to use it from now on). We need to educate people – in a non-judgemental and non-patronizing way – that wallpaper is fine, but that musical art is worth listening to, understanding, and paying for!

  2. […] my previous article, we addressed the notion of what art is—it is a fundamental piece of the human condition that connects two or more people in a shared […]

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