There Is Fine Art and There is Not

Some Confusion


For as long as I can remember the debate about ‘What is fine art, and what is not’ has been ongoing. Some people are quite passionate about the subject to the extent that more often than not when it is broached passions flare. There are some artists who are hyper protective of this area of creative visual art and there are those who feel almost anything and everything should fall under the gamut of art and fine art.


I remember a similar debate at the very first meeting of the Visual Arts Network of South Africa (VANSA) in Johannesburg where the 20 or so attendees became quite heated about whether applied art and craft should be countenanced by such an organisation. The issue was never fully resolved but the concession was that there is possibly such a thing as Artistic Craft (craft which tends to be closer to fine art than functional craft). Some asked if it really mattered very much what things were called, and others felt very strongly about it and that the intention of applied art, craft and purely decorative art, as well as the processes used in creating them were often quite diverse.


In reading up about the subject it appears that all visual arts until the 1400’s/1500’s were lumped under craft, so many of the great masters were in fact seen by the good citizens of that time as master craftsmen (and craftswomen of course, although not so many of them back then. Perhaps there were?).


It was also fairly recently that amateur and hobby artists emerged. Many people did not have the time or money to take up painting or sculpture as a pass-time. Pigment and materials were rare and costly and then they had to be hand-ground and prepared. People were too busy trying to survive to bother about such things. It was only by about the time of Queen Victoria (in fact the good queen endorsed this pass-time) that elite and aristocratic ladies began to dabble in mainly watercolours (Oils were still too messy and had to be constantly freshly ground and mixed and then kept in pig’s bladders.) Watercolours could not have been much easier as one had to grind away bits from lumps of pigment and Gum Arabic. It was only after George Rowney and Co. in and around 1820 stumbled on the idea of mixing honey with their watercolour paint that watercolours stayed moist. (Must have been hell with all the bees following one around?) That was solved when Winsor and Newton replaced the honey with glycerine that leisure artists could pursue their daubing in relative peace and ease.


It was as things became more industrialised and people became wealthier and had more leisure time, and as pigment and materials became more accessible and easier to use that the hobby of painting and sculpting became popular. It seems it may have been a case of overkill because today most ‘artists’ are amateurs or hobbyists and full time master craftsmen and fine artists are fairly rare animals now.


To define fine art one also has to consider the ‘fine artist’. Everyone calls themselves artist these days and there is some confusion about if ‘Artist’ is a title earned, or can be used by decree? Does it carry any status? A bit like all medical people being called doctor or all technicians and mechanics being called engineer. Does or should the term indicate a level of competence? Is there something demeaning about calling oneself a painter or sculptor for instance, or even a musician, pianist, guitarist? Is that bad? Literary people seldom have a problem calling themselves writers or authors rather than literary artists, and pianists have no problem with being called just that ‘pianist.’


If everyone is an artist now then perhaps we need to find a new word to describe those who excel as painters or sculptors or fine artists? Perhaps we have reached a point where we do not want people to excel because it shows up those of us who do not want to make the extra effort or do not have the talent to reach higher levels? It’s so much more comfortable to blanket everyone with the same title, in our case, the Artist.


Do painters make paintings and sculptors make sculptures but artists make art? This could be the essence of an interesting debate but is not what the article is really about so let us move on.


Reading in the ‘Oxford Companion to Art’ it says ……”ancient and medieval conceptions of art were not tied to the notion of beauty. (Very interesting, and some time back when playing devils’ advocate, which surprisingly I sometimes do, I asked a committee member of a certain arts collective if she thought that if I joined their group I could in time reach the higher rungs of their organisation? She said if I worked really hard I may make it. She had no clue as to who I was, so tongue in cheek I explained to her that I was really a very good painter and that I was passionate about the incidence of deaths on our roads due to accidents, and therefore I used mainly crash themes with all the attendant gore to bring the wanton slaughter on the roads to public attention. She positively blanched at the thought of having to show my work at one of their exhibitions and one could just imagine the dilemma faced by their rather sanitised judges. Her brain went into overtime and she said she really didn’t think my work would fit in with their group and didn’t think people would like it on their walls. “Pity” I said, “Then I guess Rembrandt with his people hanging on gibbets or Goya’s works would not be welcomed in your Society had they been alive?” She didn’t seem quite sure what they painted or what I was on about and drifted off no doubt thinking I was a really unsavoury character and more than a little unhinged. Road accidents indeed!)


This is interesting because many arts practitioners (A newish term for artist) and administrators/gallerists of a certain mind-set seem to believe that any painting or sculpture that is not beautiful and created as lounge furniture is bad art, and it is their belief that if a painting does not sell then it is a bad painting. I must also add that there are those who believe that if a painting does sell it is bad art. So the confusion!


To continue with the Oxford companion. ”…so the older classification of art did not cover those activities which are denoted by the expression ‘fine arts’ or by art in an aesthetic context, and which are now denoted by the expression ‘Fine Art’ or by the term ‘art’ in an aesthetic context.” (Paintings and sculpture should be interesting and thought provoking rather than merely pretty)


“Painting, Sculpture and Architecture were not ranked among the liberal Arts and so no MUSE was assigned to them. The aesthetic conception of art emerged gradually.”


“Near the end of antiquity the elder Philostratus distinguished the arts of poetry, music, painting and sculpture from craftsmanship and classified them with the ‘sciences’ as forms of wisdom. But this distinction was lost through the Middle Ages…”


So, there was much repositioning of art through the ages, but it was finally during the Renaissance period that the plastic arts were held separate from manual skills and were classified with the Liberal arts.


“The intellectualisation of the arts continued through the Age of Enlightenment and it was not till the 17th Century that they began to be distinguished from the sciences without being reduced to the level of crafts.” End of quotes from Oxford companion.


Ok, so we now have certain sections of the visual arts being elevated to the level of science at least for a while but nevertheless seen as a form of wisdom. But can we assume that this includes all levels of painting or sculpting? Does it have to be intellectual to be classified as fine art? To a degree I think it does or else it falls under the classification of ‘applied art’, ‘craft’ or ‘decorative art’. I do understand that a great portion of fine art is also decorative but not exclusively so.


As far as I’m concerned the split is that Fine Art is in fact when it’s all about the artist. Egotistical but true. We read that the really great artists also had really great egos. Fine art requires thought and passion and great self-awareness. ‘The art cannot be bigger than the artist’s mind’ was what Robert Genn suggested in his weekly blog recently, and so true that is. Art is first about the mind (Of the artist) and then about the hand that records what the mind is saying. Some clever person stated that “All great art is autobiographical” (How I wish I had thought that one up). So we can say that according to the artist’s skills can that mental imagery be understood. Good handwriting makes the art understandable, but poor handwriting means that the art needs to be accompanied by screeds of explanations. By handwriting I of course mean the artists skill to present his thoughts, understanding and feelings to an audience visually, be that in paint, stone or wood.


Fine art is not about slavishly copying not only other’s creative visions but even one’s own. How many Artists do you know who have one idea and then keep reusing that one thought over and over for the rest of their lives. I think it was one of the Impressionists who said something like ”Each time I paint it is as if it was the first time” In other words fine art needs new thoughts and new approaches to problems all the time.




As I indicated earlier, art as a hobby is a fairly recent phenomenon and in laying claim to art as a hobby or amateur art it seems it has lost much of the original intention of art making. Many academics too have lost the plot to a degree in that they have in certain cases over-intellectualised the making of art to ‘being clever at all costs’, and so it has almost lost its humanness. The hobbyists have reduced it to being essentially a bit of fun and pretty, and wall furniture at best. This to the extent that a great deal of it is superficial and even banal and instantly forgettable.


The litmus test of great art is that it tends to stick to your mind and soul. It becomes memorable or unforgettable.


When painting, or in fact when any art-making becomes repetitive or merely fun it tends to lose its intellectualism and autobiographical nature and tends to become somewhat superficial. I believe it then loses its claim to be considered Fine Art.


My intention is not to be judgemental on what is NOT fine art but merely to point out that it is different. To be considered fine art it requires to being of the mind to some extent.


There is most certainly a place for art making outside of fine art, and the popularity of that body of work underscores that. When one reads of the great sales at places like ‘Art in the Park’ at Pietermaritzburg and many other such art fairs one must concede that the majority of buyers are broadly undiscerning.


To recap what I was saying about work that does not fall into the fine art category you can test it for yourself. I certainly have and on my visits to these displays have found that by the time I get home I can barely remember any of the work on that was on display. However where the essentials of fine art have been employed (even where I did not like the subject matter or the style) I have remembered most of what was presented. That includes work that is not really meant to be seriously thought-provoking. For instance a John Singer Sargent exhibition in London last year, and the work of people such as our own Adriaan Boshof and Neil Roger, though not hugely intellectual you still find that you cannot shake their images from your mind. They have presence and power that sticks to you and feeds your soul. Most work made to be merely decorative does not have that power. That is essentially it!


Fine art has power and the creative artists that make it exercise that certain power over their audiences. If one does not find this in work then one can consider it to be not Fine Art.


These are my thoughts and it would be extremely interesting to hear what yours are?


Till next month….


P.S. For those of you who found the reference to art becoming a hobby or leisure activity and the early history of watercolour, it is interesting to note that by 1850 the first “how to”/step by step guides in this medium were available.


1804 the founding of the Royal Watercolour Society.


Written: July / August 2010

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