In European academic traditions, fine art is art developed primarily for aesthetics or beauty, distinguishing it from decorative art or applied art, which also has to serve some practical function, such as pottery or most metalwork. In the aesthetic theories developed in the Italian Renaissance, the highest art was that which allowed the full expression and display of the artist’s imagination, unrestricted by any of the practical considerations involved in, say, making and decorating a teapot. It was also considered important that making the artwork did not involve dividing the work between different individuals with specialized skills, as might be necessary with a piece of furniture, for example.[1] Even within the fine arts, there was a hierarchy of genres based on the amount of creative imagination required, with history painting placed higher than still life.

Historically, the five main fine arts were paintingsculpturearchitecturemusic, and poetry, with performing arts including theatre and dance.[2] In practice, outside education the concept is typically only applied to the visual arts. The old master print and drawing were included as related forms to painting, just as prose forms of literature were to poetry. Today, the range of what would be considered fine arts (in so far as the term remains in use) commonly includes additional modern forms, such as filmphotographyvideo production/editingdesign, and conceptual art.[original research?][opinion]

One definition of fine art is “a visual art considered to have been created primarily for aesthetic and intellectual purposes and judged for its beauty and meaningfulness, specifically, painting, sculpture, drawing, watercolor, graphics, and architecture.”[3] In that sense, there are conceptual differences between the fine arts and the decorative arts or applied arts (these two terms covering largely the same media). As far as the consumer of the art was concerned, the perception of aesthetic qualities required a refined judgment usually referred to as having good taste, which differentiated fine art from popular art and entertainment.[4]

Paris Street; Rainy Day; by Gustave Caillebotte; 1877; oil on canvas; 2.12 x 2.76 m; Art Institute of Chicago (US)

The word “fine” does not so much denote the quality of the artwork in question, but the purity of the discipline according to traditional Western European canons.[5] Except in the case of architecture, where a practical utility was accepted, this definition originally excluded the “useful” applied or decorative arts, and the products of what were regarded as crafts. In contemporary practice, these distinctions and restrictions have become essentially meaningless, as the concept or intention of the artist is given primacy, regardless of the means through which this is expressed.[6]

The term is typically only used for Western art from the Renaissance onwards, although similar genre distinctions can apply to the art of other cultures, especially those of East Asia. The set of “fine arts” are sometimes also called the “major arts”, with “minor arts” equating to the decorative arts. This would typically be for medieval and ancient art.


According to some writers the concept of a distinct category of fine art is an invention of the early modern period in the West. Larry Shiner in his The Invention of Art: A Cultural History (2003) locates the invention in the 18th century: “There was a traditional “system of the arts” in the West before the eighteenth century. (Other traditional cultures still have a similar system.) In that system, an artist or artisan was a skilled maker or practitioner, a work of art was the useful product of skilled work, and the appreciation of the arts was integrally connected with their role in the rest of life. “Art”, in other words, meant approximately the same thing as the Greek word techne, or in English “skill”, a sense that has survived in phrases like “the art of war”, “the art of love”, and “the art of medicine.”[7] Similar ideas have been expressed by Paul Oskar KristellerPierre Bourdieu, and Terry Eagleton (e.g. The Ideology of the Aesthetic), though the point of invention is often placed earlier, in the Italian RenaissanceAnthony Blunt notes that the term arti di disegno, a similar concept, emerged in Italy in the mid-16th century.[8]

But it can be argued that the classical world, from which very little theoretical writing on art survives, in practice had similar distinctions. The names of artists preserved in literary sources are Greek painters and sculptors, and to a lesser extent the carvers of engraved gems. Several individuals in these groups were very famous, and copied and remembered for centuries after their deaths. The cult of the individual artistic genius, which was an important part of the Renaissance theoretical basis for the distinction between “fine” and other art, drew on classical precedent, especially as recorded by Pliny the Elder. Some other types of object, in particular Ancient Greek pottery, are often signed by their makers, or the owner of the workshop, probably partly to advertise their products.

The decline of the concept of “fine art” is dated by George Kubler and others to around 1880, when it “fell out of fashion” as, by about 1900, folk art was also coming to be regarded as significant. Finally, at least in circles interested in art theory, “”fine art” was driven out of use by about 1920 by the exponents of industrial design … who opposed a double standard of judgment for works of art and for useful objects”.[9] This was among theoreticians; it has taken far longer for the art trade and popular opinion to catch up. However, over the same period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the movement of prices in the art market was in the opposite direction, with works from the fine arts drawing much further ahead of those from the decorative arts.

In the art trade the term retains some currency for objects from before roughly 1900, and may be used to define the scope of auctions or auction house departments and the like. The term also remains in use in tertiary education, appearing in the names of colleges, faculties, and courses. In the English-speaking world this is mostly in North America, but the same is true of the equivalent terms in other European languages, such as beaux-arts in French or bellas artes in Spanish.

John Baldessari

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