Exploring the concept of Fine Art: A beginner’s guide

What is fine art?

Ever wondered what fine art means? And why some works of design and art are meant to see and apply and document events while others are there to be experienced and admired? Well, fine art refers to the latter. It is art developed for aesthetics with no practical function. Fine art is created solely to express the artist’s creative expression and revolves around the concept of “art for art’s sake”.

This concept originated at the turn of the 19th century with the rise of art that exists for its purpose. Artists wanted to use their art as a freedom of expression rather than to serve any particular function. To complement this concept, the term ‘fine art’ was coined to differentiate art created solely as an agent of creative expression from artworks that were created either by commission or to serve utilitarian functions.

Types of fine arts

While historically, fine art encompassed five main art forms, namely, painting, architecture, music, sculpture, and poetry, today, the fine arts have expanded to include conceptual art, printmaking, film, and photography.

Fine art is judged for its meaningfulness, beauty and aesthetic value, especially for visual arts such as paintings, sculptures, drawings, graphics, architecture and watercolor. Another aspect of fine art is the fact that it doesn’t have to be beautiful. After all, beauty does lie in the eye of the beholder. Instead, fine art involves creative expression and exists to convey an idea or an emotion. The artists are free to let their creativity reign and tell their personal stories, transport a message, idea, or vision or even use their art as a social commentary.

However, the term ‘fine art’ has had its share of debates, with some arguing that anything made on commission is not fine art, which excludes many works by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, among other renowned artists. Others, on the other hand, argue that the nature of art and even the artists themselves has changed and, therefore, the term should not be so exclusionary.

Even further has been the sharp line between fine art and decorative arts and crafts such as textiles and ceramics. The latter serve some purpose and hence, though they may be aesthetically pleasing, they have a utilitarian function, thus excluding them from fine art.

Indeed, a demonstration of this by Marcel Duchamp, whose work Fountain involved him presenting a readymade sculpture, is often cited. Duchamp took an ordinary porcelain urinal, turned it upside down on a stand, signed it “R. Mutt 1917” and presented it at an art exhibition causing controversial debates regarding what constituted art. According to Duchamp, art was based on the creative freedom and expression of the artist and what the artist considered art then should be limited by the restricted beliefs of others.

The definition of fine art has evolved over the last two centuries. With the development of new mediums such as digital art, photography, and film, this will likely keep changing even in the future. Fine art can be two-dimensional, such as a drawing or a painting or three-dimensional, such as sculptures and architecture.

History of fine art

Art has been prevalent throughout history. Even in prehistoric times, cave art was created and told a story that alluded to the main activity of the cavemen, which was hunting. The Sumerians, Greek, Egyptians, and other ancient societies used art to document cultural events and religious beliefs, which is why a lot of the art from these eras materialized the gods, emperors, and philosophers of the time. Renaissance art was related to the Greek’s artistic visions and West European art depicted the history of monarchism and focused on the aristocracy.

Art was strictly regulated in color, perspective, composition, and techniques which restricted the artist’s creativity. It was almost always created outside and lacked life. It served to satisfy the superficial rich who were the patrons commissioning artworks from the artists of the time. Therefore, when the revolutions started, artists sought to break away from the stuffy and strict regulations that defined art at the time. This was seen in the different movements that emerged afterward, from realism and impressionism to cubism and the avant-garde. Artists wanted to reclaim art as something beautiful, with life and a creative expression of the artist themselves.

Thus, fine art was birthed.

The history of fine art is fascinating. It stems from the rise of Romanticism, an art movement in the 19th century that focused on beauty, the sublime and art that sought to set itself from utilitarian works. One of the famous artworks among the first to be considered fine art was James Abbott McNeil Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. The work centered on mood and color to depict the scene, which was a practice that was not widely accepted at the time.

Fast forward to the beginning of Modernism, where fine art became more than just about aesthetics. It took on a different connotation to become a marker for a refined taste. This also saw the birth of the Avant-Garde Movement, which championed concept and intellectual purpose over the aesthetics of art.

Among the artworks considered fine art that were created during this time are Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night and others that were an expression of the true artistic intentions and expression unrestricted by a patron’s needs.

Modern and contemporary fine art has expanded the boundaries of fine art and this includes new forms of art such as plastic art, installations, etc. Indeed, the development of fine art occurred in the 20th century and cinematography was included in fine art after the activism of Ricciotto Canudo, who argued for this publishing The Manifesto of the Seven Arts.

In this contemporary art era, many fine artists gained popularity. Artists such as Andy Warhol, considered the father of the Pop Art Movement, used commercial art tools to develop art were propelled to even higher recognition. Another fine artist and leading figure of the Cubism movement was Pablo Picasso.

Picasso led numerous artistic movements that developed after the revolution that birthed fine art such as Surrealism, Expressionism, etc. He was a multimedia artist who not only focused on paintings but also created sculptures, prints, ceramics, and self-expression. Thus, Picasso was one of the artists that made fine art even more popular by rousing the creativity of the artistic scene at the time and for generations of artists to come.

The difference between art and fine art

One of the best mediums to explain the differences that manifest between fine art and art is fine art photography. After the invention of the camera, which was used to capture the reality of the scenes, something that previously depended on the perspective and perception of painters, and sculptors, it became a way to express authentically different subjects and scenery.

However, fine art photography developed when some photographers realized that even images made with the camera could convey a message or serve to evoke certain emotions. They could also simply be nice images to look at and admire. The same can be said of other fine art forms. They are artworks meant to just be appreciated, to convey a certain message, or evoke particular emotions according to the artist’s intentions and based on his creative expression.

One of the art forms that seem to simultaneously belong to the category of fine art and applied art is architecture. Architecture encompasses both design and construction and, as a result, yields physical spaces that are aesthetically pleasing, culturally relevant, and also serve some operational function.

Décor art vs. fine art

Since décor art is also essentially meant to transform a place based on its aesthetic value, it can get confusing as to what differentiates it from fine art. As the name suggests, décor art is art whose main purpose is to decorate and enhance the background. This purpose is what differentiates it from fine art, as the latter is not meant to serve a purpose, whether utilitarian or decorative. Instead, it is an art that has no purpose whatsoever other than to be admired and loved and communicate whatever emotion or aesthetic that the artist so desires.

Décor art is meant to fit in, while fine art is meant to stand out and attract the viewers’ attention. As such, fine art is an investment because its value and relevancy are more likely to grow over time, while the value of décor art, on the other hand, remains stagnant or drops over some time.

Characteristics of fine art

We’ve seen the definition of fine art and how it came to be, not to mention how it sets itself apart from other types of art. However, to further expound on what fine art is, several characteristics distinguish it:

It is unique

Fine art is art for art’s sake and its originality is one of its major qualities, which in tandem with the artist behind it and the message conveyed, determines its value and price. Most fine art pieces are one of a kind or created in limited editions. Unlike applied art which consists of decorative art and commercial art, among other artworks that are often mass-produced and with a huge, almost limitless number of identical pieces, original fine art is one of a kind and harder to reproduce.

It evokes emotions

Fine art has a deeper meaning and the artist uses his artistic impression and creative expression to convey a certain message and evoke certain emotions from the viewers. As such, fine art is not limited to just expressing the subject matter and can be created as a way to generate an intellectual response, comment on a social issue, create an emotional reaction and is unrestricted in its ability to convey ideas and emotions, whether good or bad, ugly or beautiful, shocking or disturbing.

It conveys a message

How many times have you stared at a piece of artwork and tried to infer its meaning or deduce what the artist tried to communicate? Fine art has a myriad of different meanings, some of which are universal while others are subjective. They can mean different things to different people. Sometimes, artists provide the meaning or leave it vague and subject to interpretation.

Some experts try to interpret art based on context, subject matter, form, and medium. Therefore, it is safe to say that one of the characteristics of fine art is that it is not straightforward. While it is aesthetically striking, it is also a way to pass a certain message to the viewer, whether based on the artist’s personal experiences or their observations and perception of society.

Materials used

Fine artists choose the materials for their pieces based on whether they serve a purpose in evoking specific messages or creating the emotional reaction they want, while most commercial and decorative art use inexpensive materials or follow certain standards of material used.

The creative process

The process of making fine art is not as straightforward as in other applied forms of art that have certain steps to follow and are less complicated. Fine art pays attention to details and is often the result of a more complex artistic process that the artist uses to evoke emotions, convey an idea or even comment on society, politics, or their surrounding environment. As such, it is often a result of experimentation and efficiency is not a primary concern to fine artists. They want to use the best materials and artistic process that will enable them to transfer their vision and create art that accurately represents this vision and creative prowess.

As seen above, whenever we talk about the subject of fine arts, we are referring to several types of arts such as painting, architecture, sculptures, music, poetry, performing arts, film, photography, digital art, printmaking, etc. We are also essentially referring to art that is developed with the primary objectives of beauty and aesthetics as well as to evoke specific emotional reactions and intellectual responses.

Fine art has evolved; however, its essential meaning remains as it was then – art that is created for pure visual qualities without other purposes and functions. The role of fine arts is related to the creativity of an artist and all it needs is a creative mind and eyes as well as inquisition to gain insight into the artist’s intended message and emotions.

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