What is it to refer to something as a fine art? What makes an artwork ‘fine’? Fine art is a term whose usage is in decline in this day and age. It came into the English language in the 18th century and has traditionally referred to the formal disciplines of architecture, painting, sculpture, printmaking, music and poetry; in the modern era, photography and film were added to the list. Not included were dance and crafts. Inherent to the idea of fine art is the concept of good taste. The practical purpose of a creation was less important than the qualities pertaining to aesthetic reflection. A work of art must cause the spectator (or the listener, as in the case of music) to question, at least to him or herself, why the work is beautiful.
The consideration of the aesthetic is universal and timeless. Nevertheless, the challenge of artists throughout history has been not only to adhere to aesthetic ideals, but also to adapt to an ever-changing world. The waning of the power of the Church, so long the major patron of the arts, lead to the challenge of creating art for the burgeoning middle class. The advent of photography transformed culture and would lead to the challenge of painters to take a new direction – or disappear.
From around the turn of the 20th century, there was the birth of the avant-garde. “Newness” and “progress” became the ideas to drive artistic experimentation for the first three quarters of the 20th century. The results were an artistic collection of “isms” which would vary in quality from brilliant to outright absurd.
Art reflects the people and society which created it. The world was transformed by scientific breakthroughs, world wars and revolutions. Values were often radically reassessed. Post-war artists aimed to dispense with the aesthetic – indeed the very objectivity, of art. For them, art could be an inner experience.
Partially due to economic boom and financial deregulation in the 80’s, Modernism fizzled out. Art brokerages flourished. Painting, in a more or less traditional style, re-emerged as a respected and valuable art form. Yet this age of art – known as Post-Modernism and which continues to the present – almost dispenses with the notion of “fine art” by blurring and intermingling artistic disciplines. Artists today may operate with prints, paintings, films, photography, digital media or an installed combination of all of these media. He or she may quote from any historic period of art and offer reinterpretations. He or she may use blood or faeces as a medium. Nothing new can be created anymore, says Post-Modernism, and there are no rules. In the great auction houses such as Sothebys in New York, London and all over the world, whatever the international elitist art clique has labelled as art – which may include a stuffed shark in a tank – may sell for many millions of dollars. Such is the art world