What is Fine Art?

What is fine art? When seeking a definition of fine art, the old argument about what is art and what is craft or decoration seems to rear its head.

Although we would expect fine art to be well crafted it seems that a definition of fine art is more about the discipline that informs it, rather than the quality or form of the result.

If the work observes the traditional values of classical or academic skills, which have been perfected after much practice and if its concepts and approach are original then it is likely to be considered fine art if (and this is an important “if”) it has been created purely for aesthetic rather than utilitarian purposes.

Technical prowess is just the beginning and the fine artist must have a vision, a concept, even a message and communicate this imaginatively through the atmosphere created in the artwork, be that a rare quality such as sublime beauty, excitement, or intellectual explorations.


Best known of the fine arts, painting and sculpture are usually created for aesthetic expression, communication, or contemplation. The actual mediums or “style” don’t seem to be so important, so realistic oil paintings sit happily alongside semi-abstract mixed media, water based paintings, bronze or recycled sculptures, installations, and performance art.

Although often thought of as portraying some aspect of beauty and enlightenment, fine art, being also about communication, can tackle uncomfortable or even ugly subjects. It has often been provocative or shocking, so maybe we should add the ability to make an audience think and question to our definition of fine art?

Fine art, created for aesthetic rather than decorative or utilitarian purposes is an entity on its own. It can be understood, studied and interacted with, without explanation or interpretation. Indeed, most viewers then become part of the creative process by bringing their life’s experiences and “culture “ to the work – and so the meaning and purpose of the work “take off” in different directions, adding richness to the lives of those who take the time to consider it.

But it’s a fine line to agree on what is fine art, isn’t it? So often one sees what appear to be quite superficial offerings – “ merely decorative”. Hold on a minute. Is that a lack of vision, skill or education in the artist or the viewer? Obviously there is an element of subjectivity for both.

Can fine art be commercial?

Another little problem in this quest to decide what is fine art is the prevailing attitude amongst artists and commentators that fine art cannot be “commercial”. I would interpret this to mean not made with the aim of financial gain.

So how are artists meant to make a living? Usually grants for artists from government agencies help them to get around this quandary or they will apply to exhibit their work in commercial galleries. By implication, they will not show their best, most thoughtful work there but use them as outlets for predictable “production” work, sometimes known as “pot-boilers”!

In Australia there are, of course, exceptions to this situation, whereby artists hold solo or group exhibitions in a commercial gallery. It is up to that gallery director’s skill and ability to choose artists whose work and reputation enhances that of the particular gallery.

"The Arts"

“The Arts”, a much broader sweep of creative endeavour, encompass a wide range of mediums and disciplines including painting, sculpture, music, theatre, glass art, dance, architecture, printmaking, photography, film, digital media and environmental art.

In addition there are the “grey” areas of the applied arts such as craft, illustration, commercial or graphic design or the ornamental, functional, decorative arts as used in interior design .

Furthermore, any definition of what is fine art that we may agree upon is always seen through the filter of our own cultural perception, informed by history and personal experience.

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