What Are the Visual Arts?

Explore the Definitions of "The Arts"

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
Aleksandr Zykov/Flickr

The visual arts are those creations that we can see rather than something like the auditory arts, which we hear. These art forms are very common and extremely diverse, from the artwork that hangs on your wall to the movie you watched last night.

What Types of Art Are Visual Arts?

The visual arts include mediums such as drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, film, and printmaking. Many of these pieces of art are created to stimulate us through a visual experience. When we look at them, they provoke a feeling of some sort, whether good or bad.

Within the visual arts is a category known as the decorative arts. This is art that is more utilitarian and has a function but retains an artistic style and still requires talent to create. The decorative arts include ceramics, furniture and interior design, jewelry making, metal crafting, and woodworking.

What Is "The Arts"?

"The Arts," as a term, has an interesting history. During the Middle Ages, The Arts were very scholarly, limited to seven categories and they did not involve creating anything for people to look at. They were grammar, rhetoric, dialectic logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.

To further confuse matters, these seven Arts were known as the "Fine Arts," in order to distinguish them from the "Useful Arts." Why? Only "fine" people—those who did not do manual labor—studied them. Presumably, the Useful Arts people were too busy being useful to require an education.

At some point in the ensuing centuries, people realized there was a difference between a science and an art. The phrase fine arts came to mean anything that had been created to please the senses. After losing the sciences, the list now included music, dance, opera, and literature, as well as what we normally think of as "art": painting, sculpture, architecture, and the decorative arts.

That list of fine arts got a little long, didn't it? Apparently, others thought so, too. During the 20th century, the fine arts were split up into three categories.

  • Visual Arts (painting, sculpture, etc.)
  • Auditory Arts (music, drama, spoken literature, etc.)
  • Performance Arts (can be either visual, auditory, or a combination of the two, but they are performed)

So What Makes Art "Fine"?

Within the world of the visual arts, people still make distinctions between "fine" art and everything else. It really does get confusing and it can change depending on whom you're speaking with.

For instance, painting and sculpture are almost automatically classified as fine arts. The decorative arts, which are at times of a finer nature and craftsmanship than some fine arts, are not called "fine."

Additionally, visual artists sometimes refer to themselves (or are referred to by others) as fine artists, as opposed to commercial artists. However, some commercial art is really wonderful—even "fine," some would say.

Since an artist needs to sell art in order to remain a working artist, a strong argument could be made that most art is commercial. Instead, commercial art is typically reserved for art created to sell something else, such as for an advertisement.

This is exactly the kind of silly wording that puts many people off Art.

It would really simplify matters if we could all just stick with visual, auditory, performance, or literary when we speak of The Arts and eliminate "Fine" altogether. Substitute instead the words "good" and "bad," with the understanding that 6.3 billion people are going to have 6.3 billion different opinions on what constitutes each. Life, however, will never be that simple and the art world will not either.