Fine Art

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The Oxford Dictionary defines Fine Art as:

1. creative art, especially visual art whose products are to be appreciated primarily or solely for their imaginative, aesthetic, or intellectual content. ‘The convergence of popular culture and fine art’.

2. an activity requiring great skill or accomplishment. ‘The fine art of drinking tequila’.

And the Cambridge Dictionary says:

Drawings, paintings, and sculptures that are admired for their beauty and have no practical use.

So, art has no practical use and it has an intellectual component. Rather elite, I’d say, though possibly accurate. It is also worth noting Kant’s view on beauty versus the sublime, which I have covered elsewhere, and which stresses the importance of the intellect. A fuller description of my own view of Fine Art is reflected in this Wikipedia entry:

The word ‘fine’ does not so much denote the quality of the artwork in question, but the purity of the discipline according to traditional Western European canons. Except in the case of architecture, where a practical utility was accepted, this definition originally excluded the ‘useful’” applied or decorative arts, and the products of what were regarded as crafts. In contemporary practice, these distinctions and restrictions have become essentially meaningless, as the concept or intention of the artist is given primacy, regardless of the means through which this is expressed.

Of course, we can ask lots of questions. What is beauty? What is an aesthetic, and how do we know? And what is intention? I am sometimes told that I write in an abstract and academic way, and I don’t want to apologise too much for that, as I enjoy the research. But given that the subject of ‘photography and fine art’ has come up in several online and Zoom conversations recently, I thought I’d try another approach.

At this week’s Frome Wessex Camera Club Zoom, I commented that the word ‘art’ has become loaded, both positively and negatively, and maybe it is a word we should avoid or at least put into context rather than make some kind of absolutist statement about it.

I am a Fine Artist‘ is a clear statement of personal definition, and anyone is of course allowed to say that. It also expresses an aesthetic and intellectual judgment from the artist about the kind of work that an audience will see. This is, maybe intentionally, likely to affect the audience’s initial perception of the work. After all, who can deny the right of a Fine Artist to make art? Today, we would expect the artist to be able to back-up his or her statements with examples, history and so forth. But perhaps more ominously, it is also possible that ‘I am a Fine Artist’ is signalling to an audience that we lack the aesthetic taste, education, experience or perspective to view the artist’s work in the ‘correct’ way.

On the other hand ‘I am not an artist‘ could either be a genuinely self-effacing way to introduce oneself and one’s work, or an almost subversive attempt to set some kind of counter-current in the audience.

Either way, these are loaded statements.

And consider ‘That’s just arty farty‘ or ‘That is arty bollocks‘. These are value judgements offered on one’s own work or that of others which also attempt to set the scene for subsequent discourse. Anyone who has had to write an artist’s statement for a degree course or an RPS submission knows that it is so easy to wander into intellectual nonsense. Equally, anyone that reads exhibition catalogues is in danger of finding pretentious gobbledegook that makes their head spin. Even a few Facebook groups can do that (… ad nauseam).

Most of us will offer preferences for one painting over another, one photograph over another. And many of us might offer views about work that is ‘merely’ decorative rather than ‘artistic’. Sit in a Camera Club judging session and that happens all of the time. Who hasn’t heard ‘that’s too arty to win a competition’?

On the other hand, words such as ‘pretty’, ‘vernacular’, ‘decorative’ or ‘pictorial’ are wielded like elite weapons to dismiss work that doesn’t reach the stratospheric heights of ‘fine art’. Hard not to describes Grayson Perry’s pottery and tapestries as merely decorative and not art. Or is it?

I’ve also been in conversations suggesting that there is something pure about art, and any economic considerations aren’t really the point. We should apparently dismiss the market as a judgement criteria, but then also remember that Andreas Gursky’s multi-million dollar photoshopped photographs are ‘fine art’ …

Can we bring discussion of ‘art’ a bit more down to earth, without its loaded and argumentative overtones? Consider this:

Bernd Becher and Hilla Becher. 1974. Pitheads. Tate Gallery.

The world describes the Becher’s as artists, and their repetitious typologies were ‘different’ and intellectually new when they first appeared. The Becher’s world would meet the Oxford and Cambridge definitions of art, and the art world embraces them and their output. Yet any one of the images is hardly equivalent to a Mona Lisa, or even an Irving Penn portrait. Is the Becher’s series art because it was declared so, either by them or others or because there is something intrinsic in the work that makes it art? I’d submit it is more likely the former. But even then simply declaring something art isn’t enough. The work has to be contextually, historically and intentionally situated with other works of art.

Let me wander academically for a short while. The philosopher Alasdair Macintyre, in his work on ethics, suggested that decontextualising was a rather barren activity. He accused the pure empiricists as leading us into an uninterpretable world, even though empiricism is a critical building block of science. The example he quotes is powerful. When we look at the night sky, do we see small coloured dots on a dark background, or do we see stars and plants, and know what they mean? And what do we see when we see a Van Gogh painting of that night?

Vincent Van Gogh. 1889. Starry Night. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Macintyre writes:

‘The twentieth­ century observer looks into the night sky and sees stars and planets; some earlier observers saw instead chinks in a sphere through which the light beyond could be observed. What each observer takes himself or herself to perceive is identified and has to be identified by theory-laden concepts. Perceivers without concepts, as Kant almost said, are blind. Empiricist philosophers have contended that common to the modern and the medieval observer is that which each really sees or saw, prior to all theory and interpretation, namely many small light patches against a dark surface; and it is at the very least clear that what both saw can be so described. But if all our experience were to be characterized exclusively in terms of this bare sensory type of description – a type of description which it is certainly useful for a variety of special purposes to resort to from time to time – we would be confronted with not only an uninterpreted, but an uninter­pretable world, with not merely a world not yet comprehended by theory but with a world that never could be comprehended by theory.

A world of textures, shapes, smells, sensations, sounds and nothing more invites no questions and gives no grounds for furnishing any answers’. (After Virtue: 79).

I have argued elsewhere that our own fields of context are very important, as they are an intrinsic part of how we approach looking at photographs and paintings and are, in fact, unavoidable. I have also suggested that intention is fundamental to both the creation of artworks and the critiquing of them. As I was pondering last evening’s Club Zoom conversation, I recalled Grayson Perry’s 2013 Reith Lectures, which I have listened to a couple of times before. I find his approach to art thoughtful, funny and right.

Grayson Perry. 2013. BBC.

Grayson described his lectures as Playing to the Gallery rather than Sucking up to an academic elite (his own words), and he commented that the art mafia have even let in an Essex Transvestite Potter. This all sets out his stall perfectly.

In the first lecture, Democracy has Bad Taste, he argued that there is no empirical way to judge quality in art. Instead the validation of quality rests in the hands of a tight-knit group of people at the heart of the art world including curators, dealers, collectors and critics who decide what ends up in galleries and museums. The Fine Art world. And he goes further in describing the market mechanism of art – banks store silver, wine, [fine] art and gold as investments in their vaults: SWAG.

Grayson examined the words and language that have developed around art critique, including what he sees as the growing tendency to over-intellectualise the response to art. His suggests that artist statements are tools of the art establishment – ‘art speak bollocks’  – over-intellectualising the subject. That both puts off the wider general public and positions academics, gallery directors, curators, et al as superior beings. He suggests that sometimes we experience ‘metaphysical seasickness’ when reading some ‘fine art’ statements and reviews.

From a photographic perspective, he asks why is it that we all want to take the archetypical ‘brochure’ picture when we visit Machu Picchu. His answer is that ‘beauty’ is being defined for us. Often the last to have a say on what is art are the public.

His second lecture, Beating the Bounds, suggests that today whilst we seem to be encouraged to think that everything can be art, much of it really isn’t. So how do we decide what it is? He suggests it is the market, noting that one of the main reasons today’s artists want to call their work ‘art’ is economic.

Grayson’s tests of whether something is a work of art are as follows:

  1. Is the work in a gallery or art context?
  2. Is it a boring version of something else? You don’t go for jokes at the opera – and being decorative (purely pleasurable) is not considered art.
  3. Is it made by a (self-defined) artist? Gombrich said that there is no such things as art – just artists.
  4. Photography is problematic. If the people in the image are smiling, then it’s probably not art. If it’s big and highly priced, it’s art (Martin Parr).
  5. The limited edition test. Think Gursky.
  6. The handbag and hipster test. You decide if it’s art by seeing who is looking at it – hipsters and oligarchs.
  7. The rubbish dump test. If people notice something on a rubbish dump and take an interest, then it’s art. But the dump might be art itself!
  8. The computer artist. When you look at web art, it has the ‘grip of porn’ without consummation or ending.

Whilst undoubtedly some of this is ‘tongue in cheek’, it strikes me as a pretty decent way to view the circumstances in which art’ is considered as such. In summary, Grayson is suggesting that art is art not because of what it is, but because of where it is, who made it, and why. It is an overlapping set of people, institutions, contexts and experiences. It’s all contextual and situational, it can change over time, and it declares something to be ‘art’, even if not everyone agrees.

Yet, on the other hand, Grayson is also making space for people to look at self-declared art, consider those contexts and views, and say ‘not for me’ even if the elites tell them it is art.

In his farewell address, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower noted the dangers of the ‘Military Industrial Complex’. Despite that warning, that complex still exists, and, in truth, not all it does is bad, starting with keeping us safe. Then think of the innovations that positively transformed civilian life – the beginnings of the Internet, GPS etc. To paraphrase another ex US President, ‘It’s the market, stupid’.

Art IS a market, for good or bad. It always was. Renaissance paintings were commissioned on monastery walls, Venetian patrons wanted portraits and on to today’s complex of collectors, galleries and museums. Photography always had a chip on its shoulder about being an independent art form, which was only really broken by – guess what – the emergence of a market (including Midlands & Northern UK entrepreneurs in the late 1800s / early 1900s) and a complex of supporters which continues to grow. And I’d add that even the Camera Club competition circuit is its own kind of market.

So, to go back to where I started. We might like to say our work is ‘art’ or ‘not art’. But in the end, we don’t get to decide. We can only just do our best.


Header: Grayson Perry. 2014. Comfort Blanket. Tapestry


MACINTYRE, Alasdair. 2007. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. Third Edition. Notre Dame, Indiana:University of Notre Dame Press.

PERRY, Grayson. 2013. Reith Lecture: Playing to the Gallery: Democracy has Bad Taste. Available at: (accessed 18/9/2018)

PERRY, Grayson. 2016. Playing to the Gallery: Helping Contemporary Art in its Struggle to Be Understood. London: Penguin.

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