Classificatory disputes about art

Claude Monet, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), 1872, oil on canvas, Musee Marmottan

Art historians and philosophers of art have long had classificatory disputes about art regarding whether a particular cultural form or piece of work should be classified as art. Disputes about what does and does not count as art continue to occur today.[1]

Definitions of art

Dong Qichang, Landscape 1597. Dong Qichang was a high-ranking Ming civil servant, painting imaginary landscapes in the Chinese tradition of literati painting, with collector's seals and poems.

Defining art can be difficult. Aestheticians and art philosophers often engage in disputes about how to define art. 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 after 1750, “art” is commonly understood to be skill used to produce an aesthetic result (Hatcher, 1999).

Britannica Online defines it as "the use of skill or imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others".[2] But how best to define the term “art” today is a subject of much contention; many books and journal articles have been published arguing over even the basics of what we mean by the term “art” (Davies, 1991 and Carroll, 2000). Theodor Adorno claimed in 1969 “It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident any more.” It is not clear who has the right to define art. Artists, philosophers, anthropologists, and psychologists all use the notion of art in their respective fields, and give it operational definitions that are not very similar to each other's.

The second, more narrow, more recent sense of the word “art” is roughly as an abbreviation for creative art or “fine art.” Here we mean that skill is being used to express the artist’s creativity, or to engage the audience’s aesthetic sensibilities. Often, if the skill is being used to create objects with a practical use, rather than paintings or sculpture with no practical function other than as an artwork, it will be considered it as falling under classifications such as the decorative arts, applied art and craft rather than fine art. Likewise, if the skill is being used in a commercial or industrial way, it will be considered design instead of art. Some thinkers 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 (Novitz, 1992). The modern distinction does not work well for older periods, such as medieval art, where the most highly regarded art media at the time were often metalwork, engraved gems, textiles and other "applied arts", and the perceived value of artworks often reflected the cost of the materials and sheer amount of time spent creating the work at least as much as the creative input of the artist.