What is Art?


By art, most people mean visual art or fine art. Visual art is human expression in a visual form. Traditionally, this has been quite narrowly defined as drawing and printmaking, painting, sculpture, and architecture. More recently, photography was included, and more recently still, aspects of theatre have crossed into sculpture as performance art, while sculpture itself has overlapped with architecture in installation art.

Contemporary art is not restrained by any concept of medium but rather draws its definition from the artist's intent.

Visual art is also sometimes called Fine Art, because (in the meaning still retained in the French) the best traditional arts are skillful and delicate. This has a certain connection with the French 'beaux arts' as in the 'Ecole des Beaux-Arts', beaux meaning beautiful. The Fine Arts shook off the rigid neoclassical style that defined the Academy in the early 20th century, but the appellation still applies to the arts, even when they take a form that would be unrecognizable to David or Bouguereau.

For me though, the most meaningful definition was one that I learned at the opening of my highschool graduation exhibition. Colin Jack-Hinton was officiating, and when I was introduced to him, he asked if I knew what the definition of Fine Art was. Despite the friendly glint in his eye, I was thoroughly daunted by his towering intellect and magnificent beard, and completely unable to formulate an answer. "Fine Art is 'fine'," he said, "because it is the finest expression of the human condition."

(c) Helen South 2012

The term 'fine art' is sometimes used in a metaphorical sense to suggest a very advanced or high level of a skill, usually with some degree of ritual or method involved. "Selina made bargain shopping a fine art" when discussing someone who approaches the holiday sales with great enthusiasm.

This type of use of the term has been thrown around in popular culture so often that it's become quite a cliche. A more problematic cliche is the actual artwork that dramatically labels itself as Fine Art when it is really little more than decoration, mass-produced or at least indifferently produced in order to feed the art market. When you go searching for real art and instead find this kind of mediocre pulp, it hardly inspires enthusiasm for the arts!

'Art' is sometimes used interchangeably with 'craft', and though the two often intersect, they are really quite distinct concepts. Craft tends to focus on practical or manual skill and usually has a function. Practical knitting, pottery, stitching, and jewelry making are all examples of crafts. (Bear in mind that all of these mediums can also be employed in a Fine Art context).

Art is sometimes described as differing from craft by virtue of its uselessness; it is about communicating an idea or emotion, and while it employs crafting ability - in drawing and painting, printing, sculpture - or indeed in ceramics, fiber or beads - its purpose is to express something to the viewer, not to provide something to wear, to sit on, or to eat with.

So it could be said that art does fulfil a function of its own, just not a practical one.

Boundaries are often blurred or crossed. Crafted objects may become works of art when the crafter applies a particular creative aesthetic. Traditionally 'craft' mediums, such as ceramic, are used to explore the formal concerns and completely leave function behind. In some areas, the boundaries between art and craft become very blurred - when items retain their function but are still used as a medium of expression. When is an item of jewelry or clothing functional fashion, and when is it art? What is the difference between a high-street garment and an Issey Miyake? -- but usually is revealed in the intent of the artist.

If in doubt, ask yourself - is this artist or crafter trying to make me think or feel something?

(whether or not they succeed). Or are they just decorating something with a nice pattern?

What does Art mean to you? have your say.