Wednesday, 4 June 2014

What is "Fine Art"?

I'm not sure that there is a definitive answer to this question, although the word "fine" seems to imply "of high quality".

Fine art does not mean "done with a small brush".
Big Brush, Little Brush
Carbon, white sketching pencil and sanguine on grey paper.

The Oxford Dictionary is usually my first port of call in a definition query.
  1. (also fine arts) Creative art, especially visual art whose products are to be appreciated primarily or solely for their imaginative, aesthetic, or intellectual content
  2. An activity requiring great skill or accomplishment
(While the first definition is the most pertinent in the current context, the second is also relevant; after all, it is generally expected that high quality creative art requires skill.)

The question has been asked, in a variety of ways, at least three times in my recent experience.

My friend asked me upon the occasion of me dragging her around a couple of commercial galleries. I flippantly replied that it was "stuff they can charge a lot of money for."

In a rather more involved discussion on-line, among a group of artists, something along the lines of the Oxford definition was proposed and generally agreed upon. It was expanded upon to the effect that, essentially:
Fine Art ≠ Illustration
because illustration is useful; it has a purpose.

This reminded me of Oscar Wilde's famous assertion that, "All art is quite useless." (Preface to Picture of Dorian Gray).

Somebody mentioned figurative (pictures of things) and abstract (pictures of nothing) in the context of the definition of fine art, but, of course, this is a completely separate dichotomy. I drew a Venn diagram to illustrate how these four things interact:
This Venn diagram is not fine art.
It isn't even art - mathematically-derived diagrams don't tend to be.
It is also an illustration, and this one isn't even very good, although it serves its purpose.

I came to the conclusion that there are two aspects to the distinction between "Fine Art" and everything else that might be called art:
  1. Fine art must be useless, that is, created solely for aesthetic purposes.
  2. Fine art must also be of high quality. This is subjective and can be difficult to judge or to agree upon.
I thought that was probably it, although I have since discovered that art-which-is-not-fine-art is sometimes called "Graphic Art".

And then I came across a reported claim that commissioned art is not fine art because, apparently, the artist is not the sole designer of the artwork. Hmm. This may be the case with some commissions, but I do not think that it applies to all; surely it depends on how detailed the brief is, and how involved the client is. Even if the client is heavily involved, surely it is a collaboration, which can still be useless. And good.

So I think that the commissioned art thing is a red herring. Even if it was a professor of art who made the claim. Maybe he was thinking about commissioned illustrations.

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