Art History/Preface

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Art is that which elevates our understanding of the world and of ourselves from simple description or narrative to the sublime. Art occurs when images and objects, sights and sounds, or drawings and carvings convey the beauty and splendor of the world, or a realized imagination of an artist, for the purpose of self-expression or the shared enjoyment of its creation.

Art: Defined

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The Café Terrace at Night by van Gogh (1888)

The modern use of the word 'Art', which rose to prominence after 1750, commonly refers to a skill used to produce an aesthetic result. By any definition of the word, Art has existed alongside humankind, from the Ancient to the Contemporary.

The first and broadest sense of how Art is described has remained closest to it's Latin meaning, which roughly translates to a "skill" or "craft", a few examples demonstrating the broad sense of the root "Art" includes 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 etymology, such as from the Indo-European root meaning "arrangement" or "to arrange". In this sense, Art is whatever is described as having undergone a deliberate process of arrangement by an agent.

The second, more recent, sense of the word Art is an extension for "creative art" or “fine art". In this instance, Art 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 lowbrow 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 Art. On the other hand, crafts and design are sometimes considered applied art. Some have argued that the difference between fine art and applied art has more to do with value judgments rather than any distinct and defined difference. However, even fine art can have goals beyond just pure creativity and self-expression.

The ultimate derivation of fine in fine art comes from the Aristotelian philosophy, Four causes. This principle states that there are four causes or explanations for an object. The fourth and/or final cause of an object is the purpose for its existence. The term fine art is derived from this notion. If the final cause of an artwork is simply the artwork itself, and not a means to another end, then that artwork could appropriately be called fine.

The closely related concept of beauty is classically defined as "that which when seen, pleases". Pleasure is the final cause of beauty, and so it is not a means to another end, but is an end in itself.

Art can describe several kinds of things: a study of creative skill, a process of using the creative skill, a product of the creative skill, or the audience’s experiencing of the creative skill. The creative arts (“art”’ as discipline) are a collection of disciplines (“arts”) which produce artworks (“art” as objects) that is compelled by a personal drive (“art” as activity) and echoes or reflects 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. The purpose 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 nonexistent or seemingly nonexistent.

Art is something that visually stimulates an individuals thoughts, emotions, beliefs or ideas. Art is a realized expression of an idea, it can take many different forms and serve many different purposes. Though the application of scientific theories to derive a new scientific theory involves skill and end product is "creation" of something new, but this is not categorized as art, but as science only.

"It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident any more." -Walt Weaver

Theories of Art

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Graffiti Art (Park Street, Bristol) by Banksy

Nowhere are we more easily tripped up than in defining what is truly Art. While no one quibbles with the sublime beauty of the Mona Lisa, or the timeless majesty of the Parthenon, a general consensus about some works of art leads us to disturbing and difficult questions like "Who gets to say what art is?" or "What is it about this artwork that makes it beautiful?" We do know that while the artist is trying to relate directly to his intended audience, the process of defining and appreciating art is facilitated by the theoretician and critic, who give us insight into the work, its nature and its place in the history of culture.

There are many related theories of art. Aesthetics is the philosophy of beauty; aesthetic discussions engage us in disputes about the best way to define art. One nihilistic theoretical point of view, for example, is that it is a mistake even to try to define art or beauty, insofar as they have no essence, and therefore can have no definition. Another is that art is a cluster of related concepts rather than a single concept. Examples of this approach include Morris Weitz and Berys Gaut. Fountain by Marcel Duchamp. At the same time, general descriptions of the nature of art can be separated from determinations of beauty and called “theories of art,” but are always ringed with the determination of the relative artistic value of the work.

Another approach is to say that “art” is socially or culturally rooted, and that "art" is whatever artists, schools and museums say it is. This "institutional definition of art" has been championed by George Dickie. This theory smacks of elitism, and has its populist critics. Most people, at first blush, cannot see the artistry of a Brillo Box or a store-bought urinal; that is, until Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp said they were art, by placing them in a context to be viewed as art (i.e., the art gallery). This contextualization of art cum definition is a common, if overused, feature of conceptual art, prevalent since the 1960s; notably, the Stuckist art movement critiques this tendency.

Proceduralists often suggest that it is the process by which a work of art is created or viewed that makes it, art, not any inherent feature of an object, or how well received it is by the institutions of the art world after its introduction to society at large. For John Dewey, for instance, if the writer intended a piece to be a poem, it is one whether other poets acknowledge it or not. Whereas if exactly the same set of word was written by a journalist, intending them as shorthand notes to help him write a longer article latter, these would not be a poem. Leo Tolstoy, on the other hand, claims that what makes something art or not is how it is experienced by its audience, not by the intention of its creator. Functionalists, like Monroe Beardsley argue that whether or not a piece counts as art depends on what function it plays in a particular context, the same Greek vase may play a non-artistic function in one context (carrying wine), and an artistic function in another context (helping us to appreciate the beauty of the human figure).

Art and Class

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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 Museum 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 often considered to belong to a lower caste, however during the Renaissance artists gained an association with high status. "Fine" and expensive goods have been popular markers of status in many cultures, and continue to be so today. At least one function of Art in the 21st century is as a marker of wealth and social status.

Utility of Art

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Often one of the defining characteristics of fine art as opposed to applied art, is the absence of any clear usefulness or utilitarian value. But this requirement is sometimes criticized as being a class prejudice against labor and utility. Opponents of the view that art cannot be useful, argue that all human activity has some utilitarian function, and the objects claimed to be "non-utilitarian" actually have the function of attempting to mystify and codify flawed social hierarchies. It is also sometimes argued that even seemingly non-useful art is not useless, but rather that its use is the effect it has on the psyche of the creator or viewer.

Art is also used by art therapists, 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.

File:Graffiti Panorama rome.jpg

Graffiti is a kind of graphic art, often painted on buildings, buses, trains and bridges. The "use" of art from the artist’s standpoint could be as a means of expression. 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, art 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 often 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.

Classification disputes about Art

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It is common in the history of art for people to dispute about whether a particular form or work, or particular piece of work counts as art or not. Philosophers of Art call these disputes “classificatory disputes about art.” For example, Ancient Greek philosophers debated about whether or not ethics should be considered the “art of living well.” Classificatory disputes in the 20th century included: cubist and impressionist paintings, Duchamp’s urinal, the movies, superlative imitations of banknotes, propaganda, and even a crucifix immersed in urine. Conceptual art often intentionally pushes the boundaries of what counts as art and a number of recent conceptual artists, such as Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin have produced works about which there are active disputes. Video games and role-playing games are both fields where some recent critics have asserted that they do count as art, and some have asserted that they do not.

Philosopher David Novitz has argued that disagreement about the definition of art, are rarely the heart of the problem, rather that “the passionate concerns and interests that humans vest in their social life” are “so much a part of all classificatory disputes about art” (Novitz, 1996). According to Novitz, classificatory disputes are more often disputes about our values and where we are trying to go with our society than they are about theory proper. For example, when the Daily Mail criticized Hirst and Emin’s work by arguing "For 1,000 years art has been one of our great civilising forces. Today, pickled sheep and soiled beds threaten to make barbarians of us all" they are not advancing a definition or theory about art, but questioning the value of Hirst’s and Emin’s work.

Controversial Art

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Famous examples of controversial European art of the 19th century include Theodore Gericault's "The Raft of the Medusa" (1820), construed by many as a blistering condemnation of the French government's gross negligence in the matter, Edouard Manet's "Le D'jeuner sur l'Herbe" (1863), considered scandalous not because of the nude woman, but because she is seated next to fully-dressed men, and John Singer Sargent's "Portrait_of_Madame_X", (1884) which caused a huge uproar because of the model's plunging neckline and the fact that her dress strap fell off shoulder. The model's family petitioned for the painting to be removed from the salon, and Sargent repainted the left dress strap on to the shoulder.

In the 20th century, examples of high-profile controversial art include Pablo Picasso's "Guernica" (1937), considered by most at the time as the primitive output of a madman, this the sole explanation for its 'hodgepodge of body parts' and Leon Golub's "Interrogation III" (1958), shocking the American conscience with a nude, hooded detainee strapped to a chair, surrounded by several ever-so-normal looking "cop" interrogators.

In 2001, Eric Fischl created "Tumbling Woman" as a memorial to those who jumped or fell to their death on 9/11. Initially installed at Rockefeller Center in New York City, within a year the work was removed as too disturbing.

Forms, Genres, Mediums, and Styles

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Detail of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, showing the painting technique of sfumato

The creative arts are often divided into more specific categories, such as decorative arts, plastic arts, performing arts, or literature. For example painting is a form of decorative art, and poetry is a form of literature.

An art form is a specific form for artistic expression to take, it is a more specific term than art in general, but less specific than “genre.” Some examples include, but are by no means, limited to:

  • painting
  • drawing
  • printmaking
  • sculpture
  • music
  • poetry
  • architecture
  • cinema

A genre is a set of conventions and styles for pursuing an art form. For instance, a painting may be a still life, an abstract, a portrait, or a landscape, and may also deal with historical or domestic subjects. The boundaries between form and genre can be quite fluid. So, for example, it is not clear whether song lyrics are best thought of as an art form distinct from poetry, or a genre within poetry. Is cinematography a genre of photography (perhaps “motion photography”) or is it a distinct form?

An artistic medium is the substance the artistic work is made out of. So for example stone and bronze are both mediums that sculpture uses sometimes. Multiple forms can share a medium (poetry and music, both use sound), or one form can use multiple media. An artwork or artist’s style is a particular approach they take to their art. Sometimes style embodies a particular artistic philosophy or goal, we might describe Joy Division as Minimalist in style, in this sense, for example. Sometimes style is intimately linked with a particular historical period, or a particular artistic movement. So we might describe Dali’s paintings as Surrealist in style in this sense. Sometimes style is linked to a technique used, or an effect produced, so we might describe a Roy Lichtenstein painting as pointillist, because of its use of small dots, even thought it is not aligned with the original proponents of Pointillism.

Many terms used to describe art, especially recent art, are hard to categorize as forms, genres, or styles; or such categorizations are disputed. No one doubts there is such a thing as land art, but is it best thought of as a distinct form of art? Or, perhaps, as a genre of architecture? Or perhaps as a style within the genre of landscape architecture? Are comics an art form, medium, genre, style, or perhaps more than one of these?