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.

Michelangelo, David, c.1501-1504
Michelangelo, David, c.1501-1504

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. 

John William Waterhouse, Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May, 1908
John William Waterhouse, Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May, 1908

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 Hirst. 

Damien Hirst, The Virgin Mother, 2005
Damien Hirst, The Virgin Mother, 2005

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. 

About the Author:

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Sam Allen

Sam Allen is an arts nut, hobbyist painter and founder of Creative Arts Social, a Singaporean based arts community. You can follow her on Facebook @CreativeArtsSocial and on Instagram @CreativeArtsSocial