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Venus de Milo exhibited in the Louvre museum, France.

By its original and broadest definition, art (from the Latin ars, meaning "skill" or "craft") is the product or process of the effective application of a body of knowledge, most often using a set of skills; this meaning is preserved in such phrases as "liberal arts" and "martial arts". However, in the modern use of the word, which rose to prominence during the Renaissance, art is commonly understood to be the process or result of making material works (or artwork) which, from concept to creation, adhere to the "creative impulse"—that is, art is distinguished from other works by being in large part unprompted by necessity, by biological drive, or by any undisciplined pursuit of recreation. By both definitions of the word, artistic works have existed for almost as long as humankind, from early pre-historic art to contemporary art.

The creative arts are a collection of disciplines whose principal purpose is in the output of material that is compelled by a personal drive and echoes or reflects a message, mood, and symbolism for the viewer to interpret. As such, the term art may be taken to include forms as diverse as prose writing, poetry, dance, acting, music, sculpture and painting. In addition to serving as a method of pure creativity and self-expression, the purpose of works of art may be to communicate ideas, such as in politically-, religiously-, and philosophically-motivated art, to create a sense of beauty (see aesthetics and fine art) or pleasure, or to generate strong emotions; the purpose may also be seemingly nonexistent.

As a form of cultural expression, art may be defined by the pursuit of diversity and the usage of narratives of liberation and exploration (i.e. art history, art criticism, and art theory) to mediate its boundaries. This distinction may be applied to objects or performances, current or historical, and its prestige extends to those who made, found, exhibit, or own them. Other than originality, there are no widely agreed-upon criteria for what is or isn't considered "art", and there are many divergent definitions of art to seek more specific requirements.


The word art derives from the Latin ars, which roughly translates to "skill" or "craft", and derives in turn from an Indo-European root meaning "arrangement" or "to arrange". This is the only near-universal definition of art: that whatever is described as such has undergone a deliberate process of arrangement by an agent. A few examples where this meaning proves very broad include artifact, artificial, artifice, artillery, medical arts, and military arts. However, there are many other colloquial uses of the word, all with some relation to its etymological roots.

Art forms[edit]

File:MonaLisa sfumato.jpeg
Detail ofLeonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, showing the painting technique of sfumato
There are a variety of arts, including visual arts and design, decorative arts, plastic arts, and the performing arts. Artistic expression takes many forms: painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, music, literature, and architecture are the most widely recognised forms. However, since the advent of modernism and the technological revolution, new forms have emerged. These include photography, film, animation, video art, installation art, conceptual art, performance art, community arts, land art, fashion, comics, computer art, art intervention and, most recently, video games.

Within each form, a wide range of genres may exist. For instance, a painting may be a still life, a portrait, or a landscape and may deal with historical or domestic subjects. In addition, a work of art may be representational or abstract.

Most forms of art fit under two main categories: fine arts and applied arts, though there is no clear dividing line. It has been proposed that each of the fine arts deal specifically with a main characteristic or trait as follows: literature is related to words; painting is related to colors; architecture to the line; sculpture to the shape or form; dance to movement and music to sound. Of all these music is the only that has the quality of invisibility. In the visual arts, the term fine arts most often refers to painting and sculpture, arts which have little or no practical function and are valued in terms of the visual pleasure they provide or their success in communicating ideas or feelings. Other visual arts typically designated as fine arts include printmaking, drawing, photography, film, and video, though the tools used to realize these media are often used to make applied or commercial art as well. Architecture typically confounds the distinctions between fine and applied art, since the form involves designing structures that strive to be both attractive and functional. The term applied arts is most often used to describe the design or decoration of functional objects to make them visually pleasing. Artists who create applied arts or crafts are usually referred to as designers, artisans, or craftspeople.

Defining art[edit]

There is often confusion about the meaning of the term art because multiple meanings of the word are used interchangeably. Individuals use the word art to identify painting, as well as singing.

Characteristics of art[edit]

There follow some generally accepted characteristics of art; after this there is some lengthier discussion of several of those facets perceived as universal or central to art:

  • encourages an intuitive understanding rather than a rational understanding, as, for example, with an article in a scientific journal;
  • was created with the intention of evoking such an understanding, or an attempt at such an understanding, in the audience;
  • was created with no other purpose or function other than to be itself (a radical, "pure art" definition);
  • elusive, in that the work may communicate on many different levels of appreciation; one may take the example of Gericault's Raft of the Medusa, in the case of which special knowledge concerning the shipwreck the painting depicts is not a prerequisite to appreciating it, but allows the appreciation of Gericault's political intentions in the piece;
  • in relation to the above, the piece may offer itself to many different interpretations, or, though it superficially depicts a mundane event or object, invites reflection upon elevated themes;
  • demonstrates a high level of ability or fluency within a medium; this characteristic might be considered a point of contention, since many modern artists (most notably, conceptual artists) do not themselves create the works they conceive, or do not even create the work in a conventional, demonstrative sense (one might think of Tracey Emin's controversial My Bed);
  • the conferral of a particularly appealing or aesthetically satisfying structure or form upon an original set of unrelated, passive constituents.


Art can connote a sense of trained ability or mastery of a medium. An example of this is the contemporary young master Josignacio, creator of Plastic Paint Medium. It can also simply refer to the developed and efficient use of a language so as to convey meaning, with immediacy and or depth.

A common view is that the epithet 'art' (particular in its elevated sense) requires a certain level of creative expertise by the artist, whether this be a demonstration of technical ability (such as one might find in many works of the Rennaissance or in the plays of Shakespeare) or an originality in stylistic approach, or a combination of these two.

For example, a common contemporary criticism of some modern painting occurs along the lines of objecting to the apparent lack of skill or ability required in the production of the artistic object. One might take Tracey Emin's My Bed or Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, as examples of pieces wherein the artist exercised little to no traditionally recognised sets of skills. In the first case, Emin simply slept (and engaged in other activities) in her bed before placing the result in a gallery. She has, however, been insistent that there is a high degree of selection and arrangement in this work, which includes objects such as underwear and bottles around the bed. In the second case, Hirst came up with the conceptual design for the artwork. Although he physically participated in the creation of this piece, he has left the eventual creation of many other works to employed artisans. These approaches are exemplary of a particular kind of contemporary art: conceptual art.

The exclusionary view that art requires a certain skill level to produce is often described as a lay critique. It derives from the fact that in Western culture at least, art has traditionally been pushed in the direction of representationalism, the literal presentation of reality through literal images. On the other hand, criticism has often been brought to bear on modern artists for having no creative involvement whatsoever in their creations: one might take Hirst's work again as emblematic of this approach. It may be further noted that certain forms of art outside a Western tradition, such as Islamic geometric designs and calligraphy, Buddhist or Hindu mandalas and Celtic knotwork, though they are non-representational, still require a measure of skill and certain creative involvement in their execution.

Judgments of value[edit]

File:Aboriginal holllow log tomb.jpg
Aboriginal hollow log tombs . National Gallery, Canberra, Australia
Somewhat in relation to the above, the word art is also used to apply judgments of value, as in such expressions as "that meal was a work of art" (the cook is an artist), or "the art of deception," (the highly attained level of skill of the deceiver is praised). It is this use of the word as a measure of high quality and high value that gives the term its flavor of subjectivity.

Making judgments of value requires a basis for criticism: at the simplest level, a way to determine whether the impact of the object on the senses meets the criteria to be considered art, whether it is perceived to be attractive or repellent. Though perception is always colored by experience, and thus a reaction to art on these grounds is necessarily subjective, it is commonly taken that that which is not aesthetically satisfying in some fashion cannot be art. However, "good" art is not always, or even regularly, aesthetically appealing to a majority of viewers. In other words, an artist's prime motivation need not be the pursuit of the aesthetic, and art often depicts terrible images made for social, moral, or thought-provoking reasons; for example, Francisco Goya's painting depicting the Spanish shootings of 3rd of May 1808 is a graphic depiction of a firing squad executing several pleading civilians, yet at the same time, the horrific imagery demonstrates Goya's keen artistic ability in composition and execution, and his fitting social and political outrage. Thus the debate continues as to what mode of aesthetic satisfaction, if any, is required to define 'art'.

The assumption of new values or the rebellion against accepted notions of what is aesthetically superior need not occur concurrently with a complete abandonment of the pursuit of that which is aesthetically appealing. Indeed, the reverse is often true, that in the revision of what is popularly conceived of as being aesthetically appealing allows for a re-invigoration of aesthetic sensibility, and a new appreciation for the standards of art itself. Countless schools have proposed their own ways to define quality, yet they all seem to agree in at least one point: once their aesthetic choices are accepted, the value of the work of art is determined by its capacity to transcend the limits of its chosen medium in order to strike some universal chord, or by the rarity of the skill of the artist, or in its accurate reflection in what is termed the zeitgeist.

Communicating emotion[edit]

Art appeals to human emotions. It can arouse aesthetic or moral feelings, and can be understood as a way of communicating these feelings. artists have to express themselves so that their public is aroused, but they do not have to do so consciously. Art explores what is commonly termed as the human condition; that is, essentially, what it is to be human, and art of a superior kind often brings about some new insight concerning humanity (not always positive) or demonstrates a level of skill so fine as to push forward the boundaries of collective human ability.

This is not to say that technical skill is a necessary prerequisite of art, but rather that a high degree of skill goes some way in conferring a judgement of high standard upon an artist or artwork.

Creative impulse[edit]

From one perspective, art is a generic term for any product of the creative impulse, out of which sprang all other human pursuits — such as science via alchemy, and religion via shamanism. The term 'art' offers no true definition besides those based within the cultural, historical and geographical context in which it is applied. Though to the artists themselves, the impulse to create is undeniable; an artist can no more deny that impulse than he/she could ignore breathing (one might compare Kandinsky's inner necessity to this popular view). It is because of the overbearing need to create, in the face of financial ruin, public obscurity or political opposition, that artists are typically conceived of as unstable, even crazy, or misguided.

Differences in defining art[edit]

Definitions of art and aesthetic arguments usually proceed from one of several possible perspectives. Art may be defined by the intention of the artist, as in the writings of Dewey. Art may be seen as being in the response/emotion of the viewer, as Tolstoy claims. In Danto's view, it can be defined as a character of the item itself or as a function of an object's context.


For Plato, art is a pursuit whose adherents are not to be trusted; given that their productions imitate the sensory world (itself an imitation of the divine world of forms) art necessarily is an imitation of an imitation, and thus is hopelessly far from the source of the truth. Plato, it may be noted, barred artists from access to his ideal city, in his Republic.


Aristotle saw art in less of a bad light; though he shared Plato's poor opinion of it, he nevertheless thought that art might serve the purpose of emotional catharsis. That is, by witnessing the sufferings and celebrations of actors onstage onlookers might vicariously experience these same feelings themselves, and thereby purge such negative feelings.

Institutional definition[edit]

Many people's opinions of what art is would fall inside a relatively small range of accepted standards, or "institutional definition of art" (George Dickie 1974). This derives from education and other social factors. Most people did not consider the depiction of a Brillo Box or a store-bought urinal to be art until Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp (respectively) placed them in the context of art (i.e., the art gallery), which then provided the association of these objects with the values that define art (Although, strictly speaking, Warhol's artwork was not an actual Brillo box but an exact replica of one - so it met the traditional criterion of skill at the very least).

  1. Note: Warhol's Brillo Box is an imperfect copy, and its meaning different from the original Brillo boxes. A carpenter was hired to fabricate wooden boxes, where the original Brillo boxes were cardboard. Warhol had his "art workers" paint the boxes, after which they hand silkscreen the commercial imagery in an assembly line fashion. The original Brillo boxes were most likely lithographed in a factory using mechanized processes. Warhol's "criterion of skill" was new as it addressed issues such as fabrication, mass production, and collaboration. Warhol's box is a non-functioning facade, not an "exact replica" of a commercially branded utilitarian container.

Most viewers of these objects initially rejected such associations, because the objects did not, themselves, meet the accepted criteria. The objects needed to be absorbed into the general consensus of what art is before they achieved the near-universal acceptance as art in the contemporary era. Once accepted and viewed with a fresh eye, the smooth, white surfaces of Duchamp's urinal are strikingly similar to classical marble sculptural forms, whether the artist intended it or not. This type of recontextualizing provides the same spark of connection expected from any traditionally created art. It should be noted, however, that Duchamps act might be as readily interpreted as a demonstration of the (not always beneficial) power of artistic institutions, rather than the universal art potentially inherent in all objects.

The placement of an object in an artistic context is not taken as a universal standard of art, but is a common characteristic of conceptual art, prevalent since the 1960s; notably, the Stuckist art movement criticises this tendency of recent art.

Related issues[edit]

Social criticism[edit]

Versailles: Louis Le Vau opened up the interior court to create the expansive entrance cour d'honneur, later copied all over Europe
Art is often seen as belonging to one social class and excluding others. In this context, art is seen as a high-status activity associated with wealth, the ability to purchase art, and the leisure required to pursue or enjoy it. The palaces of Versailles or the Hermitage in St. Petersburg with their vast collections of art, amassed by the fabulously wealthy royalty of Europe exemplify this view. Collecting such art is the preserve of the rich, in one viewpoint.

Before the 13th century in Europe, artisans were considered to belong to a lower caste, since they were essentially manual labourers. After Europe was re-exposed to classical culture during the Renaissance, particularly in the nation-states of what is now Italy (Florence, Siena), artists gained an association with high status. However, arrangements of "fine" and expensive goods have always been used by institutions of power as marks of their own status. This is seen in the 20th and 21st century by the commissioning or purchasing of art by big businesses and corporations as decoration for their offices.


There are many who ascribe to certain arts the quality of being non-utilitarian. This fits within the "art as good" system of definitions and suffers from a class prejudice against labor and utility. Opponents of this view argue that all human activity has some utilitarian function, and these objects claimed to be "non-utilitarian" actually have the rather mundane and banal utility of attempting to mystify and codify unworkable justifications for arbitrary social hierarchy. It might also be argued that non-utilitarian is, in this context, a mis-usage; that art is not in and of itself, useless, but rather that it particularly use does not manifest itself in any traditionally demonstrable way (though advances in neuroscience may arguably enable the isolation of those associated cortices of the brain concerned with the creation or appreciation of art).

Art is also used by art therapists and some psychotherapists and clinical psychologists as art therapy. The end product is not the principal goal in this case; rather a process of healing, through creative acts, is sought. The resultant piece of artwork may also offer insight into the troubles experienced by the subject and may suggest suitable approaches to be used in more conventional forms of psychiatric therapy.

The "use" of art from the artist’s standpoint is as a means of expression. When art is conceived as a device, it serves several context and perspective specific functions. From the artist’s perspective it allows one to symbolize complex ideas and emotions in an arbitrary language subject only to the interpretation of the self and peers.

In a social context, it can serve to soothe the soul and promote popular morale. In a more negative aspect of this facet, art is often utilised as a form of propaganda, and thus can be used to subtly influence popular conceptions or mood (in some cases, artworks are appropriated to be used in this manner, without the creator's initial intention).

From a more anthropological perspective, art is a way of passing ideas and concepts on to later generations in a (somewhat) universal language. The interpretation of this language is very dependent upon the observer’s perspective and context, and it might be argued that the very subjectivity of art demonstrates its importance in providing an arena in which rival ideas might be exchanged and discussed, or to provide a social context in which disparate groups of people might congregate and mingle.

History of art[edit]

Main article: History of Art

The term 'art history' typically refers to a historical examination of the various trends of the visual arts through certain periods of human history. It may also be taken to encompass a study of the theories of art, which may or may not include an examination of their historical context.


Main article: Symbols

Much of the development of individual artist deals with finding principles for how to express certain ideas through various kinds of symbolism. For example, Vasily Kandinsky developed his use of color in painting through a system of stimulus response, where over time he gained an understanding of the emotions that can be evoked by color and combinations of color. Contemporary artist Andy Goldsworthy, on the other hand, chose to use the medium of found natural objects and materials to arrange temporary sculptures.

Cultural differences of art[edit]

Several genres of art are grouped by cultural relevance, examples can be found in terms such as:

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]


Professional links[edit]