What is art?

A new film presented by UBS and the Fondation Beyeler playfully answers questions about art

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Foundation Beyeler and UBS: What is art?

27 questions. 27 answers.

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Here, we explore a selection of celebrated works featured in the film that capture arts remarkable diversity – from a diamond-encrusted skull, to powerful compositions that use text.

When does something become art?

Is graffiti art? And why is the Mona Lisa so famous? These are among twenty-seven questions to feature in ‘What is Art? 27 Questions 27 Answers’ – a book published by UBS and the Fondation Beyeler almost a decade ago, which has become a go-to introduction to the subject for anyone eager to develop their understanding. The 27 questions, formulated by a panel of teens, address the subjects they consider the most relevant. Featuring personal responses from experts, the guide acknowledges that there are no quick and easy answers – but, it says, this is exactly what makes art so rewarding.

The rich and varied definition of art is explored afresh in a new film presented by UBS and the Fondation Beyeler. Art, it explains, has no binding guidelines – nor is there an appointed authority, capable of defining what is and isn’t art. Universal to every artwork, however, is a focus on appreciation: an artist’s work might be praised by art historians, loved by the public – or harshly criticized. History has also shown that something not considered art can later be accepted as such: photography, for example, was not viewed as an art form when it first emerged.

What, beyond being the subject of appreciation, distinguishes something as a work of art? While materials such as oil paint or marble might traditionally be associated with art, renowned artists have demonstrated that works can be created in a variety if mediums – from glittering diamonds, to found objects that cost nothing to source. The film also explores the significance of technical skill: while some artists perfect complex techniques, others collaborate with teams of specialists to realize their vision – or create works using text, rather than images. 

Whatever a work’s composition, or the techniques behind it, all art stems from a brilliant idea. Though its definition is complex, ‘What is Art?’ celebrates this quality. Like society, the definition of art evolves over time. And, though its form might shift, art will always open conversations – and celebrate what makes us human.

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