Is Fine Art ‘True’ Art?
What defines a piece of art’s quality and value? Should it be judged at face value or by how it conveys the artist’s message? Philosophers first categorised the five main art forms of painting, architecture, music and poetry, sculpture and performing arts as Les Beaux Arts or Fine Arts. The question of what makes it true art has divided critics, enthusiasts and practitioners since the nineteenth century.
Does Fine Art only have Aesthetic Value?
The term, ‘art for arts sake’ was popularised by the French art critic, Theophile Gautier. He ignited a debate about whether true art should be judged as autotelic; solely for the aesthetic pleasure it evokes in the viewer or should it have another external purpose, use and responsibility.
In detaching the piece from the artist and emotion, Gautier and his supporters, (including Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde and Whistler, who championed the aesthetics movement in Britain) believed that art had its own worth and should be evaluated independently from any moral, religious, historical or political standpoint. Accordingly, many believed true fine art demonstrated exquisite skill and a sublime, artistic perfection, made purely to be admired for its objective beauty and nothing more.
However his contemporary, the realist philosopher, Leo Tolstoy, echoed Gautier’s opponents. He believed that real, true art attached itself to the artist and its viewers with a kind of infectiousness and truth. Hegel, his predecessor, thought that real art revealed truths and understanding, similarly to religion and philosophy, surmising
that art could not be separated from societal values, beliefs and viewpoints.
The dispute rose again in the 20th century, with the emergence of Modern Art and Abstract Expressionism. Many artists found Gautier’s concept insular and pointless because it meant that art could only be examined by a pre-defined set of ideals. Followers of Dadaism, Constructivism and Surrealism such as artist, Marcel Duchamp saw this idea as an artistic limitation. Consequently, Duchamp’s attack on 'art for art's sake' was probably the most influential of the past century as his piece, Fountain demonstrated perfectly when it was rejected from the Society of Independent Artists in 1917.
The belief that art exists in separation from life’s other concerns widely informed
avant-garde, formalism and modernism movements. Art for art’s sake is a phrase
that is still used today though in a different context; to mean freedom of speech or
to uphold tradition. Despite the fact that it has diminished as a concept now, many
contemporary artists still acknowledge its influence through their subversion of the perfectionism, meaning and aesthetics of fine art, such as British artist, Damien
Diplomatically, the Oxford Dictionary’s current definition of fine art alludes to both sides of the debate; explaining it as a demonstration of great skill combined with intelligent content. If we interpret ‘content’ as the artist’s perception and attachment to the world around him and ‘skill’ as artistry, then both schools of thought have merged to describe fine art today. However, in education, fine art and applied arts, are viewed, exhibited and taught separately with the former still perceived as creating pleasure and beauty and the latter, useful and purposeful art that engages with the environment around it.
Does Art for Art’s Sake Apply to Us?
In our interaction and consumption of art today, we are often drawn to some art
works immediately because they instantly appeal. Equally, other pieces may be
dismissed due to an immediate lack of connection with its style. However, if the
artist’s background and their intentions are discussed at length with someone else
who knows the work, you might find the piece takes on a different form, and respect, if not admiration develops. What is more, a piece that sparks conversation
has longevity and layering in its appeal, even if that is not instantly obvious. By
settling for aesthetic attraction and not exploring a piece’s true potential, we are
limiting our engagement with it. Is that always true?
Not necessarily; due to technology, our concentration spans are at an all time low
and the rise of Instagram has revolutionised how we engage with art, encouraging a
speedy and much more superficial reaction to it. The change in the way we consume
art also arguably gives us a greater access to a wider selection of art, which we can
uncover and appreciate in more depth if it appeals to us at a different time.
Even though the global art market’s taste and trends are still governed by a chosen
few, at least now the average person is not restricted by those opinions. Through our
accessibility to art on and offline we can define art’s quality and value ourselves by
choosing how we consume it. We can determine if it is true art by appreciating its
striking, immediate beauty and skill or through forming a deeper emotional
connection and understanding of how it reflects society and culture.