Posted on 18 Comments

But is it Art?

The dictionary definition is that art is a “diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory or performing artifacts, expressing the author’s imagination or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power.” So work by cats, elephants, horses and monkeys doesn’t count. Although that said, I have seen a surprising number of videos of more than one horse clearly enjoying painting and they had a good eye for colour.

However, I have a particular bugbear about my local university. Every year there are posters around campus displaying entries for their “Research as Art” competition. Now, I get hot under the collar about this as I suspect that the scientists are trying to muscling in on the artists territory under false pretenses. Taking a photograph of some technicolour microbes as your research and then deciding it’s “art” just isn’t good enough for me.


Miranda Whitten, Swansea University Medicine School, produced this image (above) which shows a cell from a female mosquito undergoing transformation after mating. Mating changes her physiology so radically that the mosquito becomes ‘mating – resistant’. This is a pretty pattern but sorry, Miranda, its not art.

I think that art has to be created as art. As my husband, Seamas, says “there should be intention behind it”.  So, if Miranda got out her felt tip pens and coloured the image in with the intention of making art and not science that would be art.


However, owl pellet contents’ (above) by Melissanthi Sommers-Kontoleon has me undecided. The primary intent of this work is undoubtedly scientific. Barn owls, like many other birds, produce pellets that contain all the undigested parts of their prey and here they are. But the arrangement in a circle, defying straightforward classification, is decidedly artistic.


‘Natural colours from the sea for a natural lifestyle’ by Claudio Fuentes Grünewald (College of Science). I had to think about this because Claudio was collaborating with an artist Luisa Balaban, from the University of the Arts London, Chelsea College of Arts to develop an alternative natural microalgae-extracted pigment. But the collaboration didn’t produce a work of art. It produced what Swansea University website claimed as a “surprising type of biological art design work.” No, it was a by product of your science not art.

Finally to this years winner. Bioblocks: building for nature’ by Ruth Callaway (College of Science). Over 200 children used cubes of clay to sculpt ecologically attractive habitats for coastal creatures as part of a Bioblocks workshop was held at Oriel Science in February 2017. This is a tough one. The bioblocks are all different, colourful and engaging to look at. Their purpose is a scientific one. They were made by 200 children who choose to make them different colours. That alone, qualifies them as art. However, the real decider is who ever arranged them for the photograph. Like the owl pellets that deliberate arrangement was not scientific but had an eye on hues and tones. So, yes, one is art. What do you think?35326532430_f07834afbc_z

18 thoughts on “But is it Art?

  1. I agree that a scientist who photographs Nature’s ‘art’ is not an artist – just a scientist who takes pictures!

    1. You understand my point exactly. Thank you for your comment Annabelle.

  2. An idea that challenges on many levels. Presentation of patterns isn’t art👍the bio blocks is, as you say on several counts as art. The owl pellets are ‘artitstic’, ie approaching art, but the intent is more science than art. I have several friends who are both scientists and artists. The biggest difference lies in their use of material and intent.

    1. Thank you Leonie. I hadn’t really considered materials as such. I think intent is everything. I don’t think it counts if its a “side-product” of some other endeavour. Someone better tell the organisers of “Research as Art” competition. I

      1. As someone who knows the creator of “Owl pellets” extremely well, I can say that the intention was entirely artistic, and that Mel was very much torn between doing science or art in higher education. As someone who works in a scientific discipline, even if I would hesitate to describe myself as an actual scientist, I can say that I would never arrange a series of samples I was examining in such a way if my intention was entirely pragmatic and analytical, nor would anyone else I know.

  3. I agree on all counts. With one exception. Nature is, by its very definition, technically Science. But if one belueves in any type of higher power or creative force then all that has been created by such a force could be viewed as art, depending upon its intent. 😊💕

    1. Thank you for your comments Cheryl. Yes, intent is everything. You raise an interesting point. Thank you.

    2. Well, that’s a whole other ball game and I’m not going there! I take your point, though. Thank you!

  4. Kunst is wat men er in ziet en voor betalen il.Kunst moet je raken.

    1. Thank you for your comments!

  5. You raise an interesting discussion – and of course a never ending discussion. No doubt there need to be some intention behind the creation of art. But wherein lies that intent? The intent to photograph some natural pattern isn’t enough? Taking that conclusion a bit further, no documentary photography can be art, then, since the intention behind producing such a photo lies in capturing something that is already created – by human beings or nature. Can’t the scientist’s photo be compared to any documentary photographer’s photo? I don’t have the answer, but only raise the question. 🙂

    1. You raise some interesting points Otto. By implication the question of whether a documentary is art, I suppose. It depends. Maybe its a spectrum and intent determines how far along that spectrum the piece lies. Someone else has pointed out that it also lies in the eye of the beholder. Thank you for your comment.

  6. It is an interesting question indeed. I do both paint and take pictures and I do think photographs can be art too.., sometimes. I think ‘art’ is hard to understand. Sometimes I do see manmade things that I don’t understand at all and then I think”well, it must be a contempary art-thingy”. And about what dweezer says about nature being art if a higher power has created it.. well in the defenition it says art is art if made by humans, so…
    I do think science can be inspiring art. Once I did see some microscopic pictures of tears. Beautiful patterns, I used them in a small artistbook I made about a year ago.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you. I suspect art is in the eye of the beholder…you used those photos of tears for art purposes although the original intention may well have been scientific. I was just annoyed that the local university thought they could label science-images as “art” if they looked pretty. I think there has to be some sort of artistic intervention/intention to make it art.

  7. The thing is that there is no consensus any more as to what is or what is not art, is there? A very large number of people would be happy to say that a huge amount of work considered art,often by successful or even extremely successful artists is in fact nor art at all. Are “found objects” art? I personally would say that they can be, but can easily understand why many might think otherwise. Art is unusual in this respect. In most areas of human endeavr, the debate is usually about whether a thing is good. Art is the only area where we first have to agree whether something is or is not art before deciding whether it is any good or not.

    Going back to the found objects, if an object (say Duchamp’s famous “Fountain”) can become art simple because an artist declares it to be so, then surely any of these works could also be art, without their creators actually being artists (as the actual manufacturer of “Fountain” is not considered to be the artist)?

    1. Yes, Duchamp has a lot to answer for! He muddied the waters (or opened eyes, depending on your point of view). I still think that intent is vital. By placing that found object “Fountain” in an gallery he intended it to be seen as art. I suppose by that line of argument all the entries in the Science as Art competition should be viewed as art as they were entered as art…although, I am not happy admitting that. Thank you for your comment.

  8. Fascinating. The classification of what art is at the start depressed me already. I knew it! No words! And there must be intent. (Or is it intention?) I knew I’ll never amount to much artwise. :p

    Yet I agree with your examples, more or less. Even though poor Miranda! She should colour it in! What was she thinking?

    I have an example for you. Mom discovered that her heap of bricks in the garden, which had been in the same place under the sun and rain for years, was full of quite interesting specimens when taken apart. She gave them a collective name, added a stone or shell with glue, and gifted them to family and friends. Mine is the black and red one:

    I know, probably it is art because she added stones. And if she left them as found?

    1. I love them! I would say, they were definately art with the added stones, but they would also been art if she’d left them alone and taken a photograph of them, or wrote a poem about them (lol) …its all in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps its all a bit like a Koan. If a tree falls in the wood and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? If the bricks are unobserved are they art? I have my tongue firmly in my cheek here. I think that it’s often a case of “I know Art when I see it (and those microbes on a slide arent’t art)”. Enjoyed contecting and looking forward to following your blog.

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