What makes art, art?

Published 12 February 2024 in Art for All

by Nolan Stevens

Ever wondered what makes art truly art? If you're new to the world of art and you’re thinking of buying your first piece, it helps to understand what art is.


Art is a way to tell stories, just like we do through music, dance, and theatre. From the earliest cave paintings, which showed daily life and events, to today's modern and conceptual artworks, art has always been about sharing narratives.

At its heart, art aims to share stories

This storytelling began with the prehistoric cave dwellers, who used rock paintings to document their lives, including hunts, spiritual rituals, and daily activities. As time moved on, especially during the Enlightenment era (or Age of Reason, as it’s also known), art took on an educational role in the west. For example, churches used paintings and stained glass windows to share bible stories with people who couldn't read.

Soon, art began to focus on individuals in positions of wealth and power, such as kings and queens, moving away from purely religious figures.

Alongside this shift, there was a growing desire to experiment with the form, context, and representation of art. This led to questioning and exploring the world, marking the beginning of the Renaissance period. Artists started to look beyond just depicting reality, paving the way for modern art movements like cubism, abstract art, and pop art. 


These movements not only experimented visually but also commented on societal and global issues, as seen in works like Francisco Goya's ‘3rd of May’ and Pablo Picasso's ‘Guernica’, which both reflect on the horrors of war.

In more recent times, contemporary art has focused more on personal narratives, touching on themes like race, gender, and global conflicts. Contemporary art, often seen as innovative or avant-garde, uses new mediums and sometimes unconventional materials. 


This shift to a more individual focus allows artists to build on the visual language of the past while commenting on current issues.


So far, this essay has presented art history from a western perspective. However, one of the roles of contemporary art is to challenge and critique forms of art that are marginalised, which has given rise to movements like African Contemporary Art. This particular space becomes a visual reaction against the othering, so often imposed onto African-ness or black-ness.

For this reason, many artists from Africa and the diaspora address themes such as displacement, objectification, and poverty, thereby enriching the global art narrative.


Artist such as Asisebenze’s own Fumani Walter Maluleke, Mummy Khumalo and Zamani Xaba are great examples of artists whose narratives are in line with some of the global topics.