When someone asks “Why is this
art?,” they are asking a very complicated,
but important question. They may be wondering about the value of an artwork
or they might be responding to qualities in an artwork that they don’t
like or understand. The real question they may be asking is “What is
The two activities in this section can be used to launch a discussion about
the range of possible answers to this question. However, they are not intended
to point students to a final definition. In Western culture today, there is
not one single definition of art that everyone, even the experts, seems to
agree upon. The objectives are to help students understand and articulate their
own definitions of what makes something a work of art and to appreciate others’ points
The first activity is recommended for students in grades 6–8; the second
for grades 9–12. As you cover each key question, refer back
to this initial activity. Ask students to reflect on their first responses
and talk about ways that their thoughts and ideas may have changed.
Activity for grade 6–8: Art circle
In this activity, students categorize objects as a way to explore their own
ideas about what makes something a work of art.
A Hula Hoop or string to make a large, open circle on the
floor. A carefully selected range of objects (at least one per student) that
will be used to raise specific questions about the definition of art. Some
possibilities are included in the list below.
Natural objects or re-creations of natural objects:
a fresh flower
a photograph of a sunset
a colorful fall leaf
a painting of a natural object
Assorted items that may or may not be considered beautiful:
a colorful marble
a patterned scarf or tie
a dented, used household object
a chewed-on pencil
a piece of spoiled fruit
a drawing and/or painting of a pleasing subject
reproductions of figurative Greek or Renaissance sculptures
reproductions of famous paintings, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa
or Claude Monet’s Water Lilies
complex machine-made or mass-produced items, such as toys, tools, or decorative
well-made craft items, including quilts, pottery, knitted pieces, model cars
an illustrated book
an advertisement from a magazine
a greeting card
examples of “kitsch” objects that are vulgar, sentimental,
or in bad taste
Distribute one object to each student. Establish that the open circle on the
floor is the “art circle.” Ask students to place their object inside
the circle if they think the item is art. If they do not consider it to be art,
they can place it outside the circle.
Each student should state why s/he put the object inside or outside the circle.
After everyone has placed their object, invite students one at a time to move
any object into or out of the circle and explain why they are moving it.
Note to teachers: There are no right or wrong answers. The teacher’s role
is to create a respectful environment by paraphrasing each student’s
explanation for a particular placement and to keep track of their comments
on a flip chart
or marker board.
What if a student decides to place an item on the line between art and
not art? Don’t offer this as an option initially, but if it happens,
ask the student to state specifically why it is hard to decide about the
placement of that object.
Review the students’ reasons for placing particular items inside or outside
the circle. Use these to create a class response to the questions “What
is art?” and “What isn’t art?”
Activity for grades 9–12: What is art?
In this activity, students will reflect on their own personal definitions
of art, synthesize their classmates’ opinions, and create general
categories for responses to this question.
Distribute one index card to each student.
Personal Definition: Ask each student to write a brief answer to the
is art?” Encourage them to respond according to their own beliefs,
not what they think is a correct answer. These texts can be anonymous.
is finished, collect the cards.
Group synthesis: Key words search
Distribute the cards back to the class at random. If a student gets his/her own
card, they should trade it in for another. Ask students to take turns reading
the texts aloud.
As each definition is read, ask the group to point out any key words or phrases.
Have a student volunteer or teacher write these on the board as they are stated.
If a word or phrase is given more than once, it can be underlined each time it
Create a sign or poster from the students’ synthesis. Write “What
is art?” at the top of the poster, then list each key word or phrase,
beginning with those given most often. Save this poster for review when
you reach the end
of this packet.
©2004 Walker Art Center