They say art is in the eye of the beholder. Well, okay, that's one answer to the question "what is art?", but it doesn't really say a whole lot, does it? All it's telling you is that art is whatever you think it is. That's true enough, art is definitely subjective and individual people do have individual tastes. However, let's dig deeper into the question. What elevates something to the status of art? What separates craft from art, in the higher sense? I'm sure there are a million answers out there, this is just my opinion. If I offend anyone in the course of providing it, which I suspect I might, well, calm down and toughen up, it's an opinion and you are more than welcome to disagree or agree.
For me, the starting point is that there is a fundamental difference between art and skill. You can have skill without art, but not art without skill. Skill refers to the nuts and bolts technical foundational necessities, the ability to draw, to paint, to sculpt. Skill is something that can be taught, and probably is, at every art school out there (although it's great if the one receiving the teaching has a basic level of aptitude). Art is what you do with that skill, it's the secret sauce that elevates a work from technically good to a masterpiece. It's the emotion, the creativity, the vision and the ability of the artist to convey those elements as they employ the skill. That second necessary component, the artistry, cannot be taught, you either have it or you don't.
For example, many people out there can paint or draw a picture of something by looking at whatever it is and making it look exactly like it, almost like a photograph. That is an amazing skill, and an excellent foundation for creating art. The problem is, the realistic painting or drawing, with nothing else, isn't art, not yet. There's nothing but a realistic replication of whatever it is. If I want that, I can take a photo. That being said, there are some photographers that can and do elevate photography to an art through their clever use of light, shadow, angle, etc. to evoke emotion (for an example of a photographer who is a true artist, check out Juan Solis in Barstow, California). But that's not the photo I'm talking about here, I'm talking about a snap shot. My point is, there's precious little difference between realism (a realistic, looks like a photo, painting or drawing of something) and a decent snap shot.
For me, what's missing in the above is the "secret sauce", the creativity, the emotion, the vision. For me art isn't so much about what something looks like in real life, it's about what it "feels" like, what feeling it evokes in the viewer. Can the piece make you see something in a different light? Can it make you laugh or cry? Can it scare you or piss you right the f&($ off? Is it something you've never quite seen before, something you find yourself compelled to look at over and over again?
Conversely, you can have art where, to the untrained eye, no apparent skill exists (it's there, it's just different from the obvious "he can draw a tree" skill you're used to). You've all seen abstract pieces, a blob on a blank canvas, squiggly lines criss-crossing each other with no obvious rhyme or reason. You know, those pieces that make you say, "what the hell is it?" You stare at it, it draws you in, your eyes almost cross each other trying to decipher what's going on. You have no idea what it is but there's something about it, it makes you feel ... something, you suddenly find you've left your head and are interpreting it with your heart. Ta da, there's art!
Basically, if you want to know if something is art, next time you see something, check yourself. Is your brain saying, "wow, that's amazing, it looks exactly like (whatever)? Or is your heart saying, "Holy shit! That makes me feel (happy, sad, angry, whatever)? If it takes you out of your head, and away from simple admiration of skill and to someplace deeper, that, my friends, is art.