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What Are the Visual Arts?


Question: What are the Visual Arts?


The visual arts are those creations we can look at, such as a drawing or a painting. Here is a partial list:

  • drawing
  • painting
  • sculpture
  • architecture
  • photography
  • film
  • printmaking


And the decorative arts of:

  • ceramics
  • furniture and interior design
  • jewelry making
  • metal crafting
  • wood working


Any one of these disciplines is a type of visual art.

This is the simple explanation. You can stop reading right here, confident that you know what the visual arts are. Or you can keep reading and get a bit of background on that often-abused phrase "The Arts".

"The Arts," as a term, has an interesting history. During the Middle Ages, The Arts were very scholarly, limited to seven in number and did not involve creating anything at which people looked. They were:

  • grammar
  • rhetoric
  • dialectic logic
  • arithmetic
  • geometry
  • astronomy
  • music


To further confuse matters, these seven Arts were known as the Fine Arts, in order to distinguish them from the "Useful Arts". Why? Only "fine" people -- those who didn't do manual labor -- studied them. (Presumably, the Useful Arts people were too busy being useful to have need of an education.)

At some point in the ensuing centuries, people realized there was a difference between a science and an art. The phrase Fine Arts came to mean anything that had been created to please the senses. After losing the sciences, the list now included music, dance, opera and literature, as well as what we normally think of as "art": painting, sculpture, architecture and the decorative arts.

(By the way, I have no idea whatever happened to the "Useful Arts", but can only hope that phrase was beaten to death by manual laborers who were annoyed by the "fine" snub.)

That list of Fine Arts got a little long, didn't it? Apparently others thought so, too, because during the 20th-century we started to split the Fine Arts up into Visual Arts (painting, sculpture, etc.), Auditory Arts (music, drama, spoken literature) and Performance Arts (which can be either visual, auditory or a combination of the two -- but are performed).

Now, I really should stop here, but feel compelled to make one more observation. Within the world of the visual arts, people still make distinctions between "Fine" art and everything else -- and it gets really confusing, at times.

For instance, we'll talk about painting and sculpture, and automatically classify these as Fine Arts. The decorative arts, which are, sometimes, of a finer nature and craftsmanship than Fine arts, are not called "Fine".

Additionally, visual artists sometimes refer to themselves (or are referred to, by others) as fine artists, as opposed to commercial artists. But! Some commercial art is really wonderful -- "Fine", I would say. And, since an artist needs to sell art in order to remain a working artist (unless his or her grandfather invented, say, Velcro, and he or she exists off a trust fund or two), a strong argument could be made that most art is commercial.

(See? This is exactly the kind of silly wording that puts people off Art.)

It would really simplify matters if we could all just stick with visual, auditory, performance or literary -- when we speak of The Arts -- and eliminate "Fine" altogether. Substitute instead the words "good" and "bad", with the huge understanding that 6.3 billion people are going to have 6.3 billion different opinions on that which constitutes each. Life, however, will never be that simple -- much less Art.


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