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Having recently written a post on artists selling their ideas of art, I have been thinking about the matter of what I call DIY art. Or perhaps it should be called “kit art” or “some assembly (and parts) required art.”

Traditionally, when someone buys art they are usually buying a finished product such as a painting, sculpture or play. There are, of course, exceptions such as when people buy works that were left unfinished by the death of the artist. However, the usual intent is to buy a completed work.

However, as I noted in an earlier post, there are artists who sell works that are incomplete. In some cases, the “work” is merely a short description such as DeWitt’s “Alternate Yellow Ink and Pencil Straight, Parallel Lines, of Random Length, Not Touching the Sides.” The person who purchases such a work has to provide both the materials and the labor in order to have the work instantiated. Interestingly, these works do not come cheap-there seems to be no “discount” of the sort one expects to get when buying a set of plans for something as opposed to the completed object.

There are arguments in favor of taking such directions as being art. First, they could be seen as being on par with other DIY art such as paint by number or art kits for various items. True, the paint by numbers sets and art kits provide materials as well as the directions, but this could be regarded as a modest difference. After all, if something can be sold as art that requires the purchaser to add labor, it would also seem that requiring the purchaser to also  provide the material would not change matters much.

One obvious reply is that it could be argued that when one buys a paint by number set or an art kit, one is not buying art. To use an analogy, if you buy eggs, flour, milk and a recipe for a cake, you are not buying a cake. Rather, you are buying what you will need to make a cake. Likewise for the art-buying the idea is no more buying the art than buying a cookbook is buying meals.

Second, it could be argued that what makes a work a work of art is not the matter that composes it nor the labor that constructed it. Rather, it is the idea or concept behind the art. To use the obvious analogy to Plato’s forms, the true art lives in the realm of ideas and not in the instantiation of the idea. As such, it does not matter which hands complete the work, it is the mind that conceived it that is the artist.

One obvious reply is that while this does have some appeal, the creation of art seems to require more than merely thinking of a brief idea. In some cases, the substantial idea can be considered art-such as the writing of a song or conceiving a poem. However, merely coming up with a description or short directions such as the example above, hardly seems to count. To use a rather obvious example,  if I say “a story in which suspense builds until the twist ending blows the audiences’ mind” I have not thereby created a novel: I actually have to do the work for it to be a work of art. If I merely provide a title, such as “Brittle Soul”, I also do not create art.  Likewise, merely providing a short description of how to make a work of art would not itself be art, but merely a possible recipe (or even just a potential title) for art.

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  1. Not quite art in the strict sense of non-functional, Future Flora Pendant Lights by Tord Boontje is an artful recreation of a typical house object -that usually is bought in one piece – which requires the owner to assemble it through geometric configuration and bending. While still simple to achieve, it is a higher order or operation than typical furniture assembly.

  2. s. wallerstein

    Art may well be a descriptive term: it’s what artists produce
    and what students in art classes produce, even kids in kindergarten.

    “Art” would then be a term like

    I don’t like everybody’s cooking. Some cooking appears to me to be more skillful, more complex and more delicious than other cooking, but it’s all cooking, including the rice and spaghetti which I cook, since I don’t know how to cook other dishes.

    Problems arise when one tries to use “art” as a normative term and to claim that some things which have the description of being art are not “art” in a normative sense.

  3. If the art that is bought is simply a kit that you take home with you, I’m dubious as to the difference between the velvet paint by numbers elvis pieces that you find at rummage sales.

    However, the concept of the artist providing a template for something that people interpret in their own way in the gallery itself is a fantastically interesting idea. It reminds me of how some of the bands that I’ve worked with have invited audience members to come up and play a beat that the band will improvise off of.

    Also, if the interpretation happens in a public area to be displayed, it really makes the interpretation of art a physical tangible thing that can be witnessed, rather than a mental act that is private.

    Thus, buying the piece of art is not so much the end result itself, but also providing the display of artist template and interpretation being presented simultaneously. And what is purchased is the right to interpret the painting as you see fit and in some way fix it for all the others to see.

    I think that if an artist attempted to create an environment where interpretation happened simultaneously with the creation itself, that is something unique and fascinating, so DIY art shouldn’t be dismissed so quickly. It’s just the current DIY scene is missing this concept.

  4. Defining art is a tricky business. What one may see as art, another may not.

  5. The comparison that strikes me is with with music, provided as a score, or a play, provided as a script. Such a thing is accepted as a complete work of art yet you can’t actually see or hear it until it is performed. The performance, requiring artistic interpretation, is accepted as another work of art, dependent on the first, but having merits of its own distinct from the score or script and distinct from other performances of the same score or script.

    The difference between these things and the selling of a mere idea is just (as the article says) that the mere idea seems a very slight thing that brings very little to the party. It doesn’t seem like a complete work of art at all. It isn’t fair to expect the people interpreting the idea to do all of the work and get none of the credit. It seems like a con, and it quite possibly is. (Although possibly the con is an artwork or an artistic experiment of some sort.)

    If an artist is selling something more complete, such as very detailed plans and instructions of how to construct his latest sculpture, then it is perfectly reasonable to accept that this is a genuine artwork and give the artist credit for the resulting sculpture even if he never laid a hand on it.

    So what do we make of artists who sell kits and ideas if there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the approach but we still suspect that something is not quite right with some of the art it is producing?

    I think it is unproductive to start accusing art of not being art. We should let the artists have their way on a couple of points:

    1. Anybody who says they are an artist, is an artist.

    2. Anything an artist says is art, is art.

    But before the artists declare victory, and take all our money at the next auction, there are a couple of caveats to add:

    1a. Just because you are an artist doesn’t mean you are a good artist. You are going to have to demonstrate that. You have no right to be taken seriously just because you are an artist. You are going to have to earn that right.

    2a. Just because you have made an artwork doesn’t mean that it is any good or that we want to buy it.

    Lets not waste time trying to deny bad art the status of art, lets admit that and then judge it by artistic standards. What is its intention? Is it profound? Is it original? Is it sincere? How well is it realised? Is it realised in a way appropriate to the intention? And so on…

    While conceptual and minimal art can be a bit hard to tune in to it is amenable to being judged in this way. The good stuff will produce satisfactory answers and the bad stuff will not.

  6. Hi Everyone!
    Thank you for the article and all your site, I really like it and had a nice time reading everything 🙂
    If you want you can check my site too ( to discuss about philosophy.

  7. “Anything you think is art is art.”
    “Anything you don’t think is art, is not art”

    – seen as art only really exists in each of our heads, the above seems to me the only definition of art that really holds up.

  8. Would I consider a mere idea art? That is a tough one.

    To me, art is anything that is created on purpose, so that others can see, touch, or feel it.

    Someone who comes up with ideas still need to manifest it somehow. They need to orchestrate it into something concrete.

    The person who created the “color by numbers” kit is the artist. There person who fills in the paint is the worker. Together they created art, IMHO.

    It is a concept or an expression that can be that others can witness.

  9. C. Plumber,

    That seems to be rather broad definition of “art.” Given your account, if I make a sandwich or a s’more it would be art. Presumably, my typing this reply would also be art-I am doing this on purpose and people can see it.

    You certainly do seem to be on to something in regards to the need to manifest the idea of art.

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