3.19. What is Art? A discussion of objects at the V&A

This post serves as a diary entry for my artistic research, and shows my favourite pieces from my visit to the V&A. It also discusses one of the hardest questions to answer – what is Art? What does something have to be in order to be considered a piece of Art? Through a discussion of five objects, I will give my honest thoughts on this question.

After the intensity of setting up an exhibition in week 5, to have a break from normal studio in enhancement week was a big change. To not have that day of presenting, feedback, and discussion left me far more to my own devices, which is liberating but disorientating. In order to keep myself thinking about art in general and my practice, I decided to pay a visit to one of my favourite galleries – the Victoria & Albert Museum.

There was such variety in what was displayed. Not all of it was necessarily art – if there is a boundary between galleries and museums, the V&A seems to straddle that boundary. Everything there, however, had artistic elements, and was artistically inspiring in some way.

Fashioned from Nature, an exhibition that explores the relationship between fashion and nature, at the Victoria & Albert Museum, 2018-19.

We’ll start off with a brief look at one of the exhibitions currently (as of 09.11.18) going on: Fashioned from Nature. This exhibition displayed all kinds of different garments throughout history. Some were lavish and exquisitely decorated, while others were more minimalist and subtle.

Now, I do not usually think of clothes as art. I personally believe that anything is art that has no purpose other than itself; no function except to be experienced for what it is. Clothes are for warmth, they are for protection against the elements, they are for comfort – they do not generally fit into my definition of art. However, the boundary is not always clear, and this exhibition throws up many questions for me on this topic. If clothes are not art, why don’t they all look alike? Why do they look the way they do? If clothes are not art, then what is fashion? Is fashion a category of art? Does displaying clothes in a museum make them art?

The exhibition featured all kinds of garments, new and old. Shown here is London Contemporary Menswear from 2012-2015.

Art or not, they are part of our self-expression and certainly involve a great deal of design and labour to create. Take the finely crafted waistcoat and jacket seen below. There is so much intricacy, so much craftsmanship, and so much beauty in the way it looks. For one reason or another, it arouses feelings of awe, of respect, and of admiration for both the object itself and the person or people who created it. It suggests a long process of precise, considered work, which is exactly the kind of artistic process I feel would work to my strengths and suit my practice.

Continuing with the theme of intricate, considered work, shown below is a decorative screen from the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). The detail here is phenomenal. It appears as though every single aspect of the object is contemplated, deliberate, and executed perfectly.


Decorative Screen, Qing Dynasty, V&A Museum November 2018

The same is true of these Samurai weapons from premodern Japan. These swords fall into the same category as clothes, because they are designed to be weapons, giving them a function other than to simply exist – therefore I don’t believe that they are technically art, but that’s not to say they don’t have artistic elements. Far from it – once again, the detail on the handle and scabbard is exquisitely designed and extremely beautiful.

Top: Short sword (wakazashi) and scabbard. Blade 1666, scabbard and fittings 1750-1800
Below: Dagger (tantō). Blade 1500-1600; scabbard and fittings 1800-50


The Jameel Prize is an award for contemporary art inspired by the Islamic tradition. The prize is biennial and began at the V&A in 2009, in partnership with Art Jameel.

Naqsh collective

Younes Rahmoun


Published by William Fowler

I'm studying Art and English Literature at the University of Reading. My work includes painting, drawing, installation, film, performance, writing, and music. My main influences are surrealism, psychedelia, philosophy, literature, op art, and Arte Povera.

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