The evolution of fine art

By Chris Chreighton-Kelly, June 2014

Is the idea of fine art still relevant today?

Trekking around the CRD, as many of us do, the term “fine art” pops up frequently. From Sooke to Sidney there are various fine art shows which are regional exhibitions of artworks—mostly paintings, drawings, prints and small sculptures. Victoria itself has quite a few private galleries promoting fine art. Some of these specialize in what they call “contemporary fine art,” others highlight “fine craft art.”

There is no tight consensus about the meaning of “fine art” but it is generally understood as an art historical term first used in the mid 1700s and developed in Europe over the next century and into the early 1900s. Its sister term in French, beaux-arts, translates as “the beautiful arts.” According to the dictionary, it signifies “visual art considered to have been created primarily for aesthetic purposes and judged for its beauty and meaningfulness.” 

Another way of saying this is the modernist slogan—art for art’s sake. The idea of fine art was contrasted with the term “applied arts”—activities such as fabric art, ceramics or weaving which were associated with everyday, domestic life. Of course, 200 years ago domestic equalled female and these practices were diminished and disregarded as “decorative” arts. Thanks go to the feminist artists who began in the 1970s (and continue today) to rescue these creative activities and re-contextualize them as part of contemporary art.

If we rewind about a hundred years, just as this idea of art for art’s sake was becoming a kind of orthodoxy in Western art, along came a series of challenges from different directions. Dadaists mocked the pretension of fine art, insisting that any object, when contextualized as such, could be art. Surrealists, constructivists, futurists and many others—all with conflicting theories about where art comes from or goes to—nevertheless resisted the notion of a “fine art” beauty. And, entering from stage left, came the social realists who hoped that art could be in the service of a new kind of society. 

It is critical to recall that as the idea of fine art was being developed, anthropology as a discipline was also being birthed in the 1800s. The world’s peoples, their cultures and their artistic practices were being studied mostly by white, European men. They saw anthropology as a means to understand the so-called progression of different human societies. In this schema, the European way of life had already passed through its primitive period before it became “civilized.” 

The rest of the world was presumed to be moving towards this Western ideal, moving out of its various “primitive” states. And so, moving from utilitarian forms of art to fine art. 

Looking back, we see just how ridiculous this is. In the last century, even anthropology has adopted more non-hierarchical models so that any specific culture can be seen in and of itself as a valid cosmology and not evaluated against some Western ideal.

How ironic to realize in retrospect that Picasso or Gauguin, both firmly in the fine art tradition, borrowed—some would say stole—motifs, styles, and content from so-called primitive peoples. Who was actually ahead of whom? 

In the territory that we now call Canada, Indigenous cultural objects were collected as artifacts by rich Europeans. The broadly held view was that Indians were a vanishing race and so it was best to collect their artworks for historical, ethnographic reasons. Today, Aboriginal artists remarkably renew, rejuvenate and re-imagine traditional arts practices and meld them with mainstream art activities creating some of the most vital, energetic and innovative contemporary art.

So is the idea of fine art still relevant today? Sue Donaldson is an arts professional who has worked in the visual arts across four decades. She has been a curator, an executive director of a local art gallery, and currently works as an arts bureaucrat. Maybe she could help me sort this out.

So, fine art? She responds boldly, “Well, I do not think very much about art being described that way. For me, there is no usefulness to this term.” She continues, “I see the contemporary container much broader than ‘fine art.’ I prefer the term ‘visual arts.’ It encompasses all the practices of contemporary artists, including painting, drawing, sculpture, etc. But also art practices like installation, performance, conceptual art or new visual media. Not to mention the fact that visual artists use all kinds of materials, not just paint, and techniques, not just brushes, when creating a canvas.” Then Sue adds, “Plus, the fine arts world is commercial; it is market-driven.” 

So is all fine art a commercial enterprise? Ms Donaldson explains, “I would not put it exactly like that. I would say that fine art is market-driven as opposed to artist-driven. Work designed to sell whether it sells or not, versus work that responds to the intent of the artist’s practice, which suggests that they create without regard to selling anything. That doesn’t mean that work that is artist-driven could not eventually find a market. It is just not made with that intention.”

Again, how ironic. Fine art, a term that began designating an approach to art that was removed from everyday life, that was to be about a refined form of aesthetic appreciation above all, has evolved into a commercial, connoisseurship model of beautiful objects for sale.

Not that there is anything wrong with that. In the world we live in—with all its attendant, sometimes horrific, challenges coupled with the withering capability of citizens to effect lasting and meaningful social changes—a desire for a little beauty in one’s life is both understandable and laudable.

The problem begins when this “fine art” understanding—art as a search for truth and beauty—becomes the de facto definition of the visual arts. I have lost track of the hundred or more conversations I have had that begin with, “...but that is not art because it is not beautiful; it is ugly or annoying or obscene or objectionable or too sexual or provocative or too political or a-child-could-make-it or disgusting or not enough technique or, or, or ...” 

To which I usually respond, “Well, who told you that art had to be beautiful?” I jog back to a comment Sue made. She insisted that art education is at the centre of this discussion. “I search an ephemeral art experience from the visual arts. I can get this at the Louvre looking at a Flemish masterpiece or from a conceptual performance work that takes place in a non-arts venue. But we need schools to teach this visual literacy, all media from sketching to sculpture to screen culture. We need audiences that are conversant with the visual arts.” 

Yes, agreed, Ms Donaldson. Imagine a society where art could, of course, be beautiful. But also, one in which we all agreed that it does not have to be. 

Chris Creighton-Kelly is a Canadian artist and writer who lives in the Victoria area. Along with France Trépanier, he is co-author of Understanding Aboriginal Arts in Canada Today. He has recently begun writing a book on the Canadian art system.