What is art?

For the entirety of written human history we have been debating what does or does not constitute art.  One of the most beautiful and intriguing aspects of art is that its definition is vague and allows us, as both individuals and groups, to modify what we classify as art according to our experiences and preferences.  Art is a truly personal experience and, while there are general trends as to what cultures accept as art, the amount of variation seen in the definition within groups (as well as between them) is staggering.

3D illusion street art, image courtesy http://theultralinx.com/2012/06/stunning-3d-illusions-street-art-gallery.html

Art, as defined by Dictionary.com, is “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.”  The word originally comes from the Latin artem meaning “work of art; practical skill; a business, craft.”  It appears in Middle English during the early 1300s (appropriated from Old French) with more of an emphasis toward scholarship and learning, such as sciences and liberal arts.  In English, “art” did not take on the meaning associated with creating painting or sculpture until the 1610s.  The phrase “fine arts” did not appear until 1767, when it was first recorded as “those which appeal to the mind and the imagination.”

Lego brick art, courtesy of http://brickartist.com

When discussing art in the Western tradition, it is typically divided into fine arts and applied arts.  Fine arts encompasses objects and performances geared toward aesthetics or concept, and may not serve any practical function.  Traditionally, the “greater” fine arts included painting, sculpture, architecture, music, & poetry, while drama and dancing were relegated to minor fine arts.  However, with time the scope of the fine arts has broadened to include most visual and performing arts.  Collage, decollage, calligraphy, film, photography, installation, assemblage, print making, conceptual art, mosaics, and fiber arts are all relative newcomers to the fine arts.

Ballet Rehearsal by Edgar Degas, 1873, oil on canvas

The applied arts encompass the application of aesthetics to objects that have function and everyday use.  Fields included under this umbrella include furniture design, graphic design, ceramics, jewelry, glass, quilting, textile art, industrial design, film posters, advertisement posters, fashion design, interior design, architecture, and photography.  The phrase “decorative arts” is sometimes used interchangeably with applied arts, but typically does not include graphic and industrial design.

Organic chair by Tronahue J Veluz

There is also large amount of overlap between fine and applied arts.  Photography, architecture, and fiber arts (textiles and yarn art) have been appropriated into both categories depending on the specific circumstances surrounding each object.  Art is also coming to include areas that have traditionally been considered “crafts,” such as quilting and yarn arts.  This could be due to a lessening of emphasis on extensive education in the artist’s chosen field.  Art is no longer relegated to those with the time and resources for lengthy educations and the number of self-taught artists is on the rise.  It will be fascinating to see where art takes us next and how our definition of art changes in the future!

Alex Wong during his tenure with the Miami City Ballet. Image courtesy http://ziggytawt.blogspot.com/2010/08/dance-in-motion-3.html.
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