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Art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions. It encompasses a diverse range of human activities, creations, and modes of expression, including music, literature, film, sculpture, and paintings. The meaning of art is explored in a branch of philosophy known as aesthetics.

The definition and evaluation of art has become especially problematic since the early 20th century. Richard Wollheim distinguishes three approaches: the Realist, whereby aesthetic quality is an absolute value independent of any human view; the Objectivist, whereby it is also an absolute value, but is dependent on general human experience; and the Relativist position, whereby it is not an absolute value, but depends on, and varies with, the human experience of different humans.[1] An object may be characterized by the intentions, or lack thereof, of its creator, regardless of its apparent purpose. A cup, which ostensibly can be used as a container, may be considered art if intended solely as an ornament, while a painting may be deemed craft if mass-produced.

Traditionally, the term art was used to refer to any skill or mastery. This conception changed during the Romantic period, when art came to be seen as "a special faculty of the human mind to be classified with religion and science".[2] Generally, art is made with the intention of stimulating thoughts and emotions.

The nature of art has been described by Richard Wollheim as "one of the most elusive of the traditional problems of human culture".[3] It has been defined as a vehicle for the expression or communication of emotions and ideas, a means for exploring and appreciating formal elements for their own sake, and as mimesis or representation. Leo Tolstoy identified art as a use of indirect means to communicate from one person to another.[4] Benedetto Croce and R.G. Collingwood advanced the idealist view that art expresses emotions, and that the work of art therefore essentially exists in the mind of the creator.[5][6] The theory of art as form has its roots in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, and was developed in the early twentieth century by Roger Fry and Clive Bell. Art as mimesis or representation has deep roots in the philosophy of Aristotle.[4] More recently, thinkers influenced by Martin Heidegger have interpreted art as the means by which a community develops for itself a medium for self-expression and interpretation.[7]


Definition of the term

Britannica Online defines art as "the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others." By this definition of the word, artistic works have existed for almost as long as humankind: from early pre-historic art to contemporary art; however, some theories restrict the concept to modern Western societies.[8] Adorno said in 1970, "It is now taken for granted that nothing which concerns art can be taken for granted any more: neither art itself, nor art in relationship to the whole, nor even the right of art to exist."[9] The first and broadest sense of art is the one that has remained closest to the older Latin meaning, which roughly translates to "skill" or "craft." A few examples where this meaning proves very broad include artifact, artificial, artifice, medical arts, and military arts. However, there are many other colloquial uses of the word, all with some relation to its etymology.

The second and more recent sense of the word art is as an abbreviation for creative art or fine art. Fine art means that a skill is being used to express the artist's creativity, or to engage the audience's aesthetic sensibilities, or to draw the audience towards consideration of the finer things. Often, if the skill is being used in a common or practical way, people will consider it a craft instead of art. Likewise, if the skill is being used in a commercial or industrial way, it will be considered Commercial art instead of fine art. On the other hand, crafts and design are sometimes considered applied art. Some art followers have argued that the difference between fine art and applied art has more to do with value judgments made about the art than any clear definitional difference.[10] However, even fine art often has goals beyond pure creativity and self-expression. The purpose of works of art may be to communicate ideas, such as in politically-, spiritually-, or philosophically-motivated art; to create a sense of beauty (see aesthetics); to explore the nature of perception; for pleasure; or to generate strong emotions. The purpose may also be seemingly nonexistent.

Art can describe several things: a study of creative skill, a process of using the creative skill, a product of the creative skill, or the audience's experience with the creative skill. The creative arts (art as discipline) are a collection of disciplines (arts) that produce artworks (art as objects) that are compelled by a personal drive (art as activity) and echo or reflect a message, mood, or symbolism for the viewer to interpret (art as experience). Artworks can be defined by purposeful, creative interpretations of limitless concepts or ideas in order to communicate something to another person. Artworks can be explicitly made for this purpose or interpreted based on images or objects. Art is something that stimulates an individual's thoughts, emotions, beliefs, or ideas through the senses. It is also an expression of an idea and it can take many different forms and serve many different purposes. Although the application of scientific knowledge to derive a new scientific theory involves skill and results in the "creation" of something new, this represents science only and is not categorized as art.


Sculptures, cave paintings, rock paintings, and petroglyphs from the Upper Paleolithic dating to roughly 40,000 years ago have been found, but the precise meaning of such art is often disputed because so little is known about the cultures that produced them. The oldest art objects in the world—a series of tiny, drilled snail shells about 75,000 years old—were discovered in a South African cave.[11]

Many great traditions in art have a foundation in the art of one of the great ancient civilizations: Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, India, China, Ancient Greece, Rome, as well as Inca, Maya, and Olmec. Each of these centers of early civilization developed a unique and characteristic style in their art. Because of the size and duration these civilizations, more of their art works have survived and more of their influence has been transmitted to other cultures and later times. Some also have provided the first records of how artists worked. For example, this period of Greek art saw a veneration of the human physical form and the development of equivalent skills to show musculature, poise, beauty, and anatomically correct proportions.

In Byzantine and Medieval art of the Western Middle Ages, much art focused on the expression of Biblical and not material truths, and used styles that showed the higher unseen glory of a heavenly world, such as the use of gold in the background of paintings, or glass in mosaics or windows, which also presented figures in idealized, patterned (flat) forms. Nevertheless a classical realist tradition persisted in small Byzantine works, and realism steadily grew in the art of Catholic Europe.

Renaissance art had a greatly increased emphasis on the realistic depiction of the material world, and the place of humans in it, reflected in the corporeality of the human body, and development of a systematic method of graphical perspective to depict recession in a three dimensional picture space.

In the east, Islamic art's rejection of iconography led to emphasis on geometric patterns, calligraphy, and architecture. Further east, religion dominated artistic styles and forms too. India and Tibet saw emphasis on painted sculptures and dance with religious painting borrowing many conventions from sculpture and tending to bright contrasting colors with emphasis on outlines. China saw many art forms flourish, jade carving, bronzework, pottery (including the stunning terracotta army of Emperor Qin), poetry, calligraphy, music, painting, drama, fiction, etc. Chinese styles vary greatly from era to era and are traditionally named after the ruling dynasty. So, for example, Tang Dynasty paintings are monochromatic and sparse, emphasizing idealized landscapes, but Ming Dynasty paintings are busy, colorful, and focus on telling stories via setting and composition. Japan names its styles after imperial dynasties too, and also saw much interplay between the styles of calligraphy and painting. Woodblock printing became important in Japan after the 17th century.

The western Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century saw artistic depictions of physical and rational certainties of the clockwork universe, as well as politically revolutionary visions of a post-monarchist world, such as Blake's portrayal of Newton as a divine geometer, or David's propagandistic paintings. This led to Romantic rejections of this in favor of pictures of the emotional side and individuality of humans, exemplified in the novels of Goethe. The late 19th century then saw a host of artistic movements, such as academic art, Symbolism, impressionism and fauvism among others.

The history of twentieth century art is a narrative of endless possibilities and the search for new standards, each being torn down in succession by the next. Thus the parameters of Impressionism, Expressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, etc. cannot be maintained very much beyond the time of their invention. Increasing global interaction during this time saw an equivalent influence of other cultures into Western art, such as Pablo Picasso being influenced by African sculpture. Japanese woodblock prints (which had themselves been influenced by Western Renaissance draftsmanship) had an immense influence on Impressionism and subsequent development. Later, African sculptures were taken up by Picasso and to some extent by Matisse. Similarly, the west has had huge impacts on Eastern art in 19th and 20th century, with originally western ideas like Communism and Post-Modernism exerting powerful influence on artistic styles.

Modernism, the idealistic search for truth, gave way in the latter half of the 20th century to a realization of its unattainability. Relativism was accepted as an unavoidable truth, which led to the period of contemporary art and postmodern criticism, where cultures of the world and of history are seen as changing forms, which can be appreciated and drawn from only with irony. Furthermore the separation of cultures is increasingly blurred and some argue it is now more appropriate to think in terms of a global culture, rather than regional cultures.

See also


  1. Wollheim 1980, op. cit. Essay VI. pp. 231-39.
  2. Gombrich, Ernst. (2005). Press statement on The Story of Art. The Gombrich Archive. Retrieved on 2008-11-18.
  3. Richard Wollheim, Art and its objects, p.1, 2nd edn, 1980, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521297060
  4. 4.0 4.1 Jerrold Levinson, The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics, Oxford university Press, 2003, p5. ISBN 0-1992-7945-4
  5. Jerrold Levinson, The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics, Oxford university Press, 2003, p16. ISBN 0-1992-7945-4
  6. R.G. Collingwood's view, expressed in The Principles of Art, is considered in Wollheim, op. cit. 1980 pp 36-43
  7. Martin Heidegger, "The Origin of the Work of Art", in Poetry, Language, Thought, (Harper Perenniel, 2001). See also Maurice Merleau-Ponty, "Cézanne's Doubt" in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, Galen Johnson and Michael Smith (eds), (Northwestern University Press, 1994) and John Russon, Bearing Witness to Epiphany, (State University of New York Press, 2009).
  8. Elkins, James "Art History and Images That Are Not Art", The Art Bulletin, Vol. 47, No. 4 (Dec. 1995), with previous bibliography. "Non-Western images are not well described in terms of art, and neither are medieval paintings that were made in the absence of humanist ideas of artistic value". 553
  9. Adorno, Theodor W., Aesthetic Theory, (1970 in German)
  10. David Novitz, "The Boundaries of Art", 1992
  11. Radford, Tim. "World's Oldest Jewellery Found in Cave". Guardian Unlimited, April 16, 2004. Retrieved on January 18, 2008.
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