Home Magazine What Do We Mean by Fine Art?

Is art meant to be beautiful? Or utilitarian? Or both? Well, that’s just the thing.

Some works, like those mostly coming from the field of design, are there for us to use and “apply”, while others, such as a Rembrandt painting, is there to be experienced, admired, loved. In essence, this would be the main difference between fine art and applied art, two perhaps biggest categories of the arts at large.

By its definition, fine art is practiced and celebrated mainly for its aesthetic value and has no practical side. However, there are still instances when someone’s work walks that thin line between the beautiful and the useful, making the answer to the question “What is fine art?” a little bit more interesting to answer.

To understand the meaning of visual fine arts today and how it is different from other art, we must delve into its past and becoming. According to some historians, the beginnings of this category can be traced back to the 18th century and the early modern period in Western art, or perhaps even sooner, to the Renaissance art in Italy, and later throughout the rest of Europe. Curiously so, the origin of the word “art” can be connected to the Greek word “techne” or “skill”, alluding to the fact that artworks were made by trained individuals and were typically bought by the wealthy - meaning that while they functioned as attributions and confirmations of their status, they were also there to pay homage to beauty.

The relation between Renaissance and Contemporary Art... read the article dedicated to the recent Bill Viola' Exhibition at Royal Academy

Indeed, the work of an artist or an “artisan” had been brought to a higher level, one that transcends functionality and simply exists for viewing pleasure. Testifying to this are the numerous academies which had sprung in Italy and across Europe in the 16th century. Students were taught “academic art” and the importance of form, colors, compositions, with their painting and sculpture oeuvres being mainly placed into categories of still life, landscape, and portraiture. Even in contemporary art, we still have the genres of fine art prints, fine art paintings and drawings, and fine art photography.


The Academy of the Art of Design in Florence, Courtesy Wikipedia


The example of fine art photography is probably the best one to use when trying to explain the difference between art and fine art. After being invented during the Industrial Revolution in 1839, it was a mechanical tool ready to provide authentic scenery of the reality around us - something that had previously largely depended on the perception and perspective of a painter or a sculptor. Photographs were there to capture people and landscapes for official purposes until the advent of Pictorialism, now considered the birth parent of fine art photography, when photographers such as Edward Steichen realized that camera-made images could also evoke emotions, or simply be nice to look at. Similar can be said for fine art prints and fine art drawings.

If you are always curious about the genre of photography don't miss our latest article What's your favourite black and white photography?

On the other hand, architecture often simultaneously belongs to fine arts and applied arts. Encompassing both design and construction, it produces buildings and physical spaces which often become cultural landmarks due to their aesthetics, but whose other primary goal is to provide operational and subservient structures.


Edward Steichen - Road into the Valley -- Moonrise, negative 1904; print 1906. Getty Center Collection


So, what do we mean by fine art?

It is a rather interesting concept guided by the “art for art’s sake” maxim. Very simply put in contemporary terms, a person can like, or even buy a painting, a photograph, a drawing or a sculpture solely because they like it and would like to see it hanging on their wall. We could conclude that fine art does actually have one “function”, as opposed to the many functions of applied artworks, and that’s to exist and be appealing, alluring, splendid, dazzling, delightful, elegant, exquisite.


Stay Tuned to Kooness magazine for more exciting news from the art world.