"What is art?" Few questions provoke such heated debate and provide so few satisfactory answers. If we cannot come to any definitive conclusions, there is still a good deal we can say. Art is first of all a word—one that acknowledges both the idea and the fact of art. Without it, we might well ask whether art exists in the first place. The term, after all, is not found in every society. Yet art is made everywhere. Art, therefore, is also an object, but not just any kind of object. Art is an aesthetic object. It is meant to be looked at and appreciated for its intrinsic value. Its special qualities set art apart, so that it is often placed away from everyday life—in museums, churches, or caves.
What do we mean by aesthetic? By definition, aesthetic is "that which concerns the beautiful." Of course, not all art is beautiful to our eyes, but it is art nonetheless. No matter how unsatisfactory, the term will have to do for lack of a better one. Aesthetics is, strictly speaking, a branch of philosophy which has occupied thinkers from Plato to the present day. Like all matters philosophical, it is subject to debate. During the last hundred years, aesthetics has also become a field of psychology, a field which has come to equally little agreement. Why should this be so? On the one hand, people the world over make much the same fundamental judgments. Our brains and nervous systems are the same because, according to recent theory, we are all descended from one woman in Africa a quarter-million years ago. On the other hand, taste is conditioned solely by culture, which is so varied that it is impossible to reduce art to any one set of precepts. It would seem, therefore, that absolute qualities in art must elude us, that we cannot escape viewing works of art in the context of time and circumstance, whether past or present. How indeed could it be otherwise, so long as art is still being created all around us, opening our eyes almost daily to new experiences and thus forcing us to readjust our understanding?

We all dream. That is imagination at work. To imagine means simply to make an image—a picture—in our minds. Human beings are not the only creatures who have imagination. Even animals dream. Cats' ears and tails may twitch as they sleep, and sleeping dogs may whine and growl and paw the air, as if they were having a fight. Even when awake, animals "see" things. For no apparent reason a cat's fur may rise on its back as it peers into a dark closet, just as you or I may get goose bumps from phantoms we neither see nor hear. Clearly, however, there is a profound difference between human and animal imagination. Humans are the only creatures who can tell one another about imagination in stories or pictures. The urge to make art is unique to us. No other animal has ever been observed to draw a recognizable image spontaneously in the wild. In fact, their only images have been produced under carefully controlled laboratory conditions that tell us more about the experimenter than they do about art. There can be little doubt, on the other hand, that people possess an aesthetic faculty. By the age of five every normal child has drawn a moon pie-face. The ability to make art is one of our most distinctive features, for it separates us from all other creatures across an evolutionary gap that is unbridgeable.




People do not often juxtapose the terms art and history. They tend to think of history as the record and interpretation of past human actions, particularly social and political actions. Most think of art, quite correctly, as part of the present—as something people can see and touch. People cannot, of course, see or touch history's vanished human events. But a visible and tangible artwork is a kind of persisting event. One or more artists made it at a certain time and in a specific place, even if no one now knows just who, when, where, or why. Although created in the past, an artwork continues to exist in the present, long surviving its times. The first painters and sculptors died 30,000 years ago, but their works remain, some of them exhibited in glass cases in museums built only a few years ago.
Modern museum visitors can admire these relics of the remote past and the countless other objects humankind has produced over the millennia without any knowledge of the circumstances that led to the creation of those works. The beauty or sheer size of an object can impress people, the artist's virtuosity in the handling of ordinary or costly materials can dazzle them, or the subject depicted can move them. Viewers can react to what they see, interpret the work in the light of their own experience, and judge it a success or a failure. These are all valid responses to a work of art. But the enjoyment and appreciation of artworks in museum settings are relatively recent phenomena, as is the creation of artworks solely for museum-going audiences to view.


Frank Genry, interior of Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain, 1997

Today, it is common for artists to work in private studios and to create paintings, sculptures, and other objects commercial art galleries will offer for sale. Usually, someone the artist has never met will purchase the artwork and display it in a setting the artist has never seen. But although this is not a new phenomenon in the history of art—an ancient potter decorating a vase for sale at a village market stall also probably did not know who would buy the pot or where it would be housed—it is not at all typical. In fact, it is exceptional. Throughout history, most artists created the paintings, sculptures, and other objects exhibited in museums today for specific patrons and settings and to fulfill a specific purpose. Often, no one knows the original contexts of those artworks.
Although people may appreciate the visual and tactile qualities of these objects, they cannot understand why they were made or why they look the way they do without knowing the circumstances of their creation. Art appreciation does not require knowledge of the historical context of an artwork (or a building). Art history does.
Thus, a central aim of art history is to determine the original context of artworks. Art historians seek to achieve a full understanding not only of why these "persisting events" of human history look the way they do but also of why the artistic events happened at all. What unique set of circumstances gave rise to the erection of a particular building or led a specific patron to commission an individual artist to fashion a singular artwork for a certain place? The study of history is therefore vital to art history. And art history is often very important to the study of history. Art objects and buildings are historical documents that can shed light on the peoples who made them and on the times of their creation in a way other historical documents cannot. Furthermore, artists and architects can affect history by reinforcing or challenging cultural values and practices through the objects they create and the structures they build. Thus, the history of art and architecture is inseparable from the study of history, although the two disciplines are not the same. In the following pages, we outline some of the distinctive subjects art historians address and the kinds of questions they ask, and explain some of the basic terminology art historians use when answering their questions. Armed with this arsenal of questions and terms, you will be ready to explore the multifaceted world of art through the ages.


Art History in the 21st Century

Art historians study the visual and tangible objects humans make and the structures humans build. Scholars traditionally have classified such works as architecture, sculpture, the pictorial arts (painting, drawing, printmaking, and photography), and the craft arts, or arts of design. The craft arts comprise utilitarian objects, such as ceramics, metalwares, textiles, jewelry, and similar accessories of ordinary living. Artists of every age have blurred the boundaries between these categories, but this is especially true today, when multimedia works abound.
From the earliest Greco-Roman art critics on, scholars have studied objects that their makers consciously manufactured as "art" and to which the artists assigned formal titles. But today's art historians also study a vast number of objects that their creators and owners almost certainly did not consider to be "works of art." Few ancient Romans, for example, would have regarded a coin bearing their emperor's portrait as anything but money. Today, an art museum may exhibit that coin in a locked case in a climate-controlled room, and scholars may subject it to the same kind of art historical analysis as a portrait by an acclaimed Renaissance or modern sculptor or painter.
The range of objects art historians study is constantly expanding and now includes, for example, computer-generated images, whereas in the past almost anything produced using a machine would not have been regarded as art. Most people still consider the performing arts—music, drama, and dance — as outside art history's realm because these arts are fleeting, impermanent media. But recently even this distinction between "fine art" and performance art has become blurred. Art historians, however, generally ask the same kinds of questions about what they study, whether they employ a restrictive or expansive definition of art.

The Questions Art Historians Ask


Before art historians can construct a history of art, they must be sure they know the date of each work they study. Thus, an indispensable subject of art historical inquiry is chronology, the dating of art objects and buildings. If researchers cannot determine a monument's age, they cannot place the work in its historical context. Art historians have developed many ways to establish, or at least approximate, the date of an artwork.

Physical evidence often reliably indicates an object's age. The material used for a statue or painting—bronze, plastic, or oil-based pigment, to name only a few—may not have been invented before a certain time, indicating the earliest possible date someone could have fashioned the work. Or artists may have ceased using certain materials—such as specific kinds of inks and papers for drawings and prints — at a known time, providing the latest possible dates for objects made of such materials. Sometimes the material (or the manufacturing technique) of an object or a building can establish a very precise date of production or construction. Studying tree rings, for instance, usually can determine within a narrow range the date of a wood statue or a timber roof beam.

Documentary evidence also can help pinpoint the date of an object or building when a dated written document mentions the work. For example, official records may note when church officials commissioned a new altarpiece—and how much they paid to which artist.

Visual evidence, too, can play a significant role in dating an artwork. A painter might have depicted an identifiable person or a kind of hairstyle, clothing, or furniture fashionable only at a certain time. If so, the art historian can assign a more accurate date to that painting.

Stylistic evidence is also very important. The analysis of style— an artist's distinctive manner of producing an object, the way a work looks—is the art historian's special sphere. Unfortunately, because it is a subjective assessment, stylistic evidence is by far the most unreliable chronological criterion. Still, art historians sometimes find style a very useful tool for establishing chronology.



Defining artistic style is one of the key elements of art historical inquiry, although the analysis of artworks solely in terms of style no longer dominates the field the way it once did. Art historians speak of several different kinds of artistic styles.
Period style refers to the characteristic artistic manner of a specific time, usually within a distinct culture, such as "Archaic Greek" or "Late Byzantine." But many periods do not display any stylistic unity at all. How would someone define the artistic style of the opening decade of the new millennium in North America? Far too many crosscurrents exist in contemporary art for anyone to describe a period style of the early 21st century—even in a single city such as New York.

Regional style is the term art historians use to describe variations in style tied to geography. Like an object's date, its provenance, or place of origin, can significantly determine its character. Very often two artworks from the same place made centuries apart are more similar than contemporaneous works from two different regions. To cite one example, usually only an expert can distinguish between an Egyptian statue carved in 2500 BCE and one made in 500 BCE. But no one would mistake an Egyptian statue of 500 BCE for one of the same date made in Greece or Mexico.
Considerable variations in a given area's style are possible, however, even during a single historical period. In late medieval Europe during the so-called Gothic age, French architecture differed significantly from Italian architecture. The interiors of Beauvais Cathedral  and Santa Croce in Florence  typify the architectural styles of France and Italy, respectively, at the end of the 13th century. The rebuilding of the choir of Beauvais Cathedral began in 1284. Construction commenced on Santa Croce only 10 years later. Both structures employ the characteristic Gothic pointc; arch, yet they contrast strikingly. The French church has towering stone vaults and large expanses of stained-glass windows, whereas the Italian building has a low timber roof and small, widely separated windows. Because the two contemporaneous churches served similar purposes, regional style mainly explains their differing appearance.

 Choir of Beauvais Cathedral, Beauvais, France, rebuilt after 1284.

 Interior of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy, begun 1294.

Personal style, the distinctive manner of individual artists or architects, often decisively explains stylistic discrepancies among monuments of the same time and place. In 1930 the American painter Georgia O'Keeffe produced a series of paintings of flowering plants. One of them was Jack-in-the-Pulpit No. 4, a sharply focused close-up view of petals and leaves. O'Keeffe captured the growing plant's slow, controlled motion while converting the plant into a powerful abstract composition of lines, forms, and colors (see the discussion of art historical vocabulary in the next section). Only a year later, another American artist, Ben Shahn, painted The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti , a stinging commentary on social injustice inspired by the trial and execution of two Italian anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Many people believed Sacco and Vanzetti had been unjustly convicted of killing two men in a holdup in 1920. Shahn's painting compresses time in a symbolic representation of the trial and its aftermath. The two executed men lie in their coffins. Presiding over them are the three members of the commission (headed by a college president wearing academic cap and gown) that declared the original trial fair and cleared the way for the executions. Behind, on the wall of a columned government building, hangs the framed portrait of the judge who pronounced the initial sentence. Personal style, not period or regional style, sets Shahn's canvas apart from O'Keeffe's. The contrast is extreme here because of the very different subjects the artists chose. But even when two artists depict the same subject, the results can vary widely. The way O'Keeffe painted flowers and the way Shahn painted faces are distinctive and unlike the styles of their contemporaries.
The different kinds of artistic styles are not mutually exclusive. For example, an artist's personal style may change dramatically during a long career. Art historians then must distinguish among the different period styles of a particular artist, such as the "Blue Period" and the "Cubist Period" of the prolific 20th-century artist Pablo Picasso.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Jack-in-the-Pulpit No. 4, 1930.
Oil on canvas.
National Gallery of Art, Washington
(Alfred Stieglitz Collection, bequest of Georgia O'Keeffe).

Ben Shahn, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti,
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
(gift of Edith and Milton Lowenthal in memory of luliana Force).



Another major concern of art historians is, of course, subject matter, encompassing the story, or narrative; the scene presented; the action's time and place; the persons involved; and the environment and its details. Some artworks, such as modern abstract paintings, have no subject, not even a setting. But when artists represent people, places, or actions, viewers must identify these aspects to achieve complete understanding of the work. Art historians traditionally separate pictorial subjects into various categories, such as religious, historical, mythological, genre (daily life), portraiture, landscape (a depiction of a place), still life (an arrangement of inanimate objects), and their numerous subdivisions and combinations.

Iconography—literally, the "writing of images" — refers both to the content, or subject of an artwork, and to the study of content in art. By extension, it also includes the study of symbols, images that stand for other images or encapsulate ideas. In Christian art, two intersecting lines of unequal length or a simple geometric cross can serve as an emblem of the religion as a whole, symbolizing the cross of Jesus Christ's crucifixion. A symbol also can be a familiar object the artist imbued with greater meaning. A balance or scale, for example, may symbolize justice or the weighing of souls on Judgment Day.
Artists also may depict figures with unique attributes identifying them. In Christian art, for example, each of the authors of the New Testament Gospels, the Four Evangelists, has a distinctive attribute. Saint John is known by his eagle, Luke by an ox, Mark by a lion, and Matthew by a winged man.
Throughout the history of art, artists also used personifications— abstract ideas codified in bodily form. Worldwide, people visualize Liberty as a robed woman with a torch because of the tame of the colossal statue set up in New York City's harbor in the 19th century. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a terrifying late-15th-century depiction of the fateful day at the end of time when, according to the Bible's last book, Death, Famine, War, and Pestilence will cut down the human race. The artist, Albrecht Durer, personified Death as an emaciated old man with a pitchfork. Durer's Famine swings the scales that will weigh human souls, War wields a sword, and Pestilence draws a bow.
Even without considering style and without knowing a work's maker, informed viewers can determine much about the work's period and provenance by iconographical and subject analysis alone. In The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, for example, the two coffins, the trio headed by an academic, and the robed judge in the background are all pictorial clues revealing the painting's subject. The work's date must be after the trial and execution, probably while the event was still newsworthy. And because the two men's deaths caused the greatest outrage in the United States, the painter-social critic was probably American.


Gislebertus, The weighing of souls, detail of Last Judgment,
west tympanum of Saint-Lazare, Autun, France, ca. 1120-1135.


The Four Evangelists, folio 14 verso of the Aachen Gospels,
ca. 810.
Ink and tempera on vellum.
Cathedral Treasury, vichen.

Albrecht Durer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,
ca. 1498.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
(gift of Junius S. Morgan, 1919).



If Ben Shahn had not signed his painting of Sacco and Vanzetti, an art historian could still assign, or attribute, the work to him based on knowledge of the artist's personal style. Although signing (and dating) works is quite common (but by no means universal) today, in the history of art countless works exist whose artists remain unknown. Because personal style can play a large role in determining the character of an artwork, art historians often try to attribute anonymous works to known artists. Sometimes they attempt to assemble a group of works all thought to be by the same person, even though none of the objects in the group is the known work of an artist with a recorded name. Art historians thus reconstruct the careers of people such as "the Andokides Painter," the anonymous ancient Greek artist who painted the vases produced by the potter Andokides. Scholars base their attributions on internal evidence, such as the distinctive way an artist draws or carves drapery folds, earlobes, or flowers. It requires a keen, highly trained eye and long experience to become a connoisseur, an expert in assigning artworks to "the hand" of one artist rather than another. Attribution is, of course, subjective and ever open to doubt. At present, for example, international debate rages over attributions to the famous Dutch painter Rembrandt.
Sometimes a group of artists works in the same style at the same time and place. Art historians designate such a group as a school. "School" does not mean an educational institution. The term connotes only chronological, stylistic, and geographic similarity. Art historians speak, for example, of the Dutch school of the 17th century and, within it, of subschools such as those of the cities of Haarlem, Utrecht, and Leyden.

Augustus wearing the corona civica (civic crown),
early first century CE.
Glyptothek, Munich.


The interest many art historians show in attribution reflects their conviction that the identity of an art-work's maker is the major reason the object looks the way it does. For them, personal style is of paramount importance. But in many times and places, artists had little to say about what form their work would take. They toiled in obscurity, doing the bidding of their patrons, those who paid them to make individual works or employed them on a continuing basis. The role of patrons in dictating the content and shaping the form of artworks is also an important subject of art historical inquiry.
In the art of portraiture, to name only one category of painting and sculpture, the patron has often played a dominant role in deciding how the artist represented the subject, whether the patron or another person, such as a spouse, son, or mother. Many Egyptian pharaohs and some Roman emperors, for example, insisted that artists depict them with unlined faces and perfect youthful bodies no matter how old they were when portrayed. In these cases, the state employed the sculptors and painters, and the artists had no choice but to depict their patrons in the officially approved manner. This is why Augustus, who lived to age 76, looks so young in his portraits. Although Roman emperor for more than 40 years, Augustus demanded that artists always represent him as a young, godlike head of state.
All modes of artistic production reveal the impact of patronage. Learned monks provided the themes for the sculptural decoration of medieval church portals. Renaissance princes and popes dictated the subject, size, and materials of artworks destined, sometimes, for buildings constructed according to their specifications. An art historian could make a very long list along these lines, and it would indicate that throughout the history of art, patrons have had diverse tastes and needs and demanded different kinds of art. Whenever a patron contracts an artist or architect to paint, sculpt, or build in a prescribed manner, personal style often becomes a very minor factor in how the painting, statue, or building looks. In such cases, the identity of the patron reveals more to art historians than does the identity of the artist or school. The portrait of Augustus illustrated here was the work of a virtuoso sculptor, a master wielder of hammer and chisel. But scores of similar portraits of that emperor exist today. They differ in quality but not in kind from this one. The patron, not the artist, determined the character of such artworks. Augustus's public image never varied.



The Words Art Historians Use

Like all specialists, art historians have their own specialized vocabulary. That vocabulary consists of hundreds of words, but certain basic terms are indispensable for describing artworks and buildings of any time and place, and we use those terms throughout this book. They make up the essential vocabulary of formal analysis, the visual analysis of artistic form. We define the most important of these art historical terms here. For a much longer list, consult the Glossary in this book's end material.


Form refers to an object's shape and structure, either in two dimensions (for example, a figure painted on a canvas) or in three dimensions (such as a statue carved from a marble block). Two forms may take the same shape but may differ in their color, texture, and other qualities. Composition refers to how an artist organizes (composes) forms in an artwork, either by placing shapes on a flat surface or by arranging forms in space.


To create art forms, artists shape materials (pigment, clay, marble, gold, and many more) with tools (pens, brushes, chisels, and so forth). Each of the materials and tools available has its own potentialities and limitations. Part of all artists' creative activity is to select the medium and instrument most suitable to the artists' purpose—or to pioneer the use of new media and tools, such as bronze and concrete in antiquity and cameras and computers in modern times. The processes artists employ, such as applying paint to canvas with a brush, and the distinctive, personal ways they handle materials constitute their technique. Form, material, and technique interrelate and are central to analyzing any work of art.


Line is one of the most important elements defining an artwork's shape or form. A line can be understood as the path of a point moving in space, an invisible line of sight or a visual axis. But, more commonly, artists and architects make a line concrete by drawing (or chiseling) it on a plane, a flat and two-dimensional surface. A line may be very thin, wirelike, and delicate; it may be thick and heavy; or it may alternate quickly from broad to narrow, the strokes jagged or the outline broken. When a continuous line defines an object's outer shape, art historians call it a contour line.
One can observe all of these line qualities in Durer's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Contour lines define the basic shapes of clouds, human and animal limbs, and weapons. Within the forms, series of short broken lines create shadows and textures. An overall pattern of long parallel strokes suggests the dark sky on the frightening day when the world is about to end.


Light reveals all colors. Light in the world of the painter and other artists differs from natural light. Natural light, or sunlight, is whole or additive light. As the sum of all the wavelengths composing the visible spectrum, it may be disassembled or fragmented into the individual colors of the spectral band. The painter's light in art—the light reflected from pigments and objects — is subtractive light. Paint pigments produce their individual colors by reflecting a segment of the spectrum while absorbing all the rest. Green pigment, for example, subtracts or absorbs all the light in the spectrum except that seen as green, which it reflects to the eyes.
Hue is the property giving a color its name. Although the spectrum colors merge into each other, artists usually conceive of their hues as distinct from one another. Color has two basic variables—the apparent amount of light reflected and the apparent purity. A change in one must produce a change in the other. Some terms for these variables are value or tonality (the degree of lightness or darkness) and intensity or saturation (the purity of a color, its brightness or dullness).
The color triangle Josef Albers and Sewell Sillman developed clearly shows the relationships among the six main colors. Red, yellow, and blue, the primary colors, are the vertexes of the large triangle. Orange, green, and purple, the secondary colors resulting from mixing pairs of primaries, lie between them. Colors opposite each other in the spectrum—red and green, purple and yellow, and orange and blue here — are complementary colors. They "complement," or complete, each other, one absorbing colors the other reflects. When painters mix complementaries in the right proportions, a neutral tone or gray (theoretically, black) results.


Josef Albers and Sewell Sillman, color triangle.
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven.




Texture is the quality of a surface (such as rough or shiny) that light reveals. Art historians distinguish between actual texture, or the tactile quality of the surface, and represented texture, as when painters depict an object as having a certain texture, even though the pigment is the actual texture. Sometimes artists combine different materials of different textures on a single surface, juxtaposing paint with pieces of wood, newspaper, fabric, and so forth. Art historians refer to this mixed-media technique as collage. Texture is, of course, a key determinant of any sculpture's character. People's first impulse is usually to handle a piece of sculpture—even though museum signs often warn "Do not touch!" Sculptors plan for this natural human response, using surfaces varying in texture from rugged coarseness to polished smoothness. Textures are often intrinsic to a material, influencing the type of stone, wood, plastic, clay, or metal sculptors select.


Space is the bounded or boundless "container" of objects. For art historians, space can be actual, the three-dimensional space occupied by a statue or a vase or contained within a room or courtyard. Or it can be illusionistic, as when painters depict an image (or illusion) of the three-dimensional spatial world on a two-dimensional surface.
Mass and volume describe three-dimensional space. In both architecture and sculpture, mass is the bulk, density, and weight of matter in space. Yet the mass need not be solid. It can be the exterior form of enclosed space. "Mass" can apply to a solid Egyptian pyramid or wooden statue, to a church, synagogue, or mosque—architectural shells enclosing sometimes vast spaces — and to a hollow metal statue or baked clay pot. Volume is the space that mass organizes, divides, or encloses. It may be a building's interior spaces, the intervals between a structure's masses, or the amount of space occupied by three-dimensional objects such as sculpture, pottery, or furniture. Volume and mass describe both the exterior and interior forms of a work of art—the forms of the matter of which it is composed and the spaces immediately around the work and interacting with it.



Perspective is one of the most important pictorial devices for organizing forms in space. Throughout history, artists have used various types of perspective to create an illusion of depth or space on a two-dimensional surface. The French painter Claude Lorrain employed several perspectival devices in Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, a painting of a biblical episode set in a 17th-century European harbor with a Roman ruin in the left foreground. For example, the figures and boats on the shoreline are much larger than those in the distance. Decreasing the size of an object makes it appear farther away from viewers. Also, the top and bottom of the port building at the painting's right side are not parallel horizontal lines, as they are in an actual building. Instead, the lines converge beyond the structure, leading viewers' eyes toward the hazy, indistinct sun on the horizon. These perspectival devices—the reduction of figure size, the convergence of diagonal lines, and the blurring of distant forms—have been familiar features of Western art since the ancient Greeks. But it is important to note at the outset that all kinds of perspective are only pictorial conventions, even when one or more types of perspective may be so common in a given culture that they are accepted as "natural" or as "true" means of representing the natural world.


Claude Lorrain, Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, 1648.
Oil on canvas.
National Gallery, London.



In White and Red Plum Blossoms, a Japanese landscape painting on two folding screens, Ogata Korin used none of these Western perspective conventions. He showed the two plum trees as seen from a position on the ground, while viewers look down on the stream between them from above. Less concerned with locating the trees and stream in space than with composing shapes on a surface, the painter played the water's gently swelling curves against the jagged contours of the branches and trunks. Neither the French nor the Japanese painting can be said to project "correctly" what viewers "in fact" see. One painting is not a "better" picture of the world than the other. The European and Asian artists simply approached the problem of picture-making differently.

 Ogata Korin, White and Red Plum Blossoms,
Edo period, ca. 1710-1716.
Pair of twofold screens. Ink, color, and gold leal on paper.
 MOA Art Museum, Shizuoka-ken, Japan.



Artists also represent single figures in space in varying ways. When Peter Paul Rubens painted Lion Hunt in the early 17th century, he used foreshortening for all the hunters and animals—that is, he represented their bodies at angles to the picture plane. When in life one views a figure at an angle, the body appears to contract as it extends back in space. Foreshortening is a kind of perspective. It produces the illusion that one part of the body is farther away than another, even though all the forms are on the same surface. Especially noteworthy in Lion Hunt are the gray horse at the left, seen from behind with the bottom of its left rear hoof facing viewers and most of its head hidden by its rider's shield, and the fallen hunter at the painting's lower right corner, whose barely visible legs and feet recede into the distance.


Peter Paul Rubens, Lion Hunt, 1617-1618.
Oil on canvas.
Alte Pinakothek, Munich.



The artist who carved the portrait of the ancient Egyptian official Hesire did not employ foreshortening. That artist's purpose was to present the various human body parts as clearly as possible, without overlapping. The lower part of Hesire's body is in profile to give the most complete view of the legs, with both the heels and toes of the foot visible. The frontal torso, however, allows viewers to see its full shape, including both shoulders, equal in size, as in nature. (Compare the shoulders of the hunter on the gray horse or those of the fallen hunter in Lion Hunt's left foreground.) The result, an "unnatural" 90-degree twist at the waist, provides a precise picture of human body parts. Rubens and the Egyptian sculptor used very different means of depicting forms in space. Once again, neither is the "correct" manner.

from his tomb at Saqqara,
Egypt, Dynasty III,
ca. 2650 BCE.
Egyptian Museum, Cairo.


Proportion concerns the relationships (in terms of size) of the parts of persons, buildings, or objects. "Correct proportions" may be judged intuitively ("that statue's head seems the right size for the body"). Or proportion may be formalized as a mathematical relationship between the size of one part of an artwork or building and the other parts within the work. Proportion in art implies using a module, or basic unit of measure. When an artist or architect uses a formal system of proportions, all parts of a building, body, or other entity will be fractions or multiples of the module. A module might be a column's diameter, the height of a human head, or any other component whose dimensions can be multiplied or divided to determine the size of the work's other parts.
In certain times and places, artists have formulated canons, or systems, of "correct" or "ideal" proportions for representing human figures, constituent parts of buildings, and so forth. In ancient Greece, many sculptors formulated canons of proportions so strict and all-encompassing that they calculated the size of every body part in advance, even the fingers and toes, according to mathematical ratios. The ideal of human beauty the Greeks created based on "correct" proportions influenced the work of countless later artists in the Western world  and endures to this day. Proportional systems can differ sharply from period to period, culture to culture, and artist to artist. Part of the task art history students face is to perceive and adjust to these differences.
In fact, many artists have used disproportion and distortion deliberately for expressive effect. In the medieval French depiction of the weighing of souls on Judgment Day, the devilish figure yanking down on the scale has distorted facial features and stretched, lined limbs with animal-like paws for feet. Disproportion and distortion make him appear "inhuman," precisely as the sculptor intended.
In other cases, artists have used disproportion to focus attention on one body part (often the head) or to single out a group member (usually the leader). These intentional "unnatural" discrepancies in proportion constitute what art historians call hierarchy of scale, the enlarging of elements considered the most important. On a bronze plaque from Benin, Nigeria, the sculptor enlarged all the heads for emphasis and also varied the size of each figure according to its social status. Central, largest, and therefore most important is the Benin king, mounted on horseback. The horse has been a symbol of power and wealth in many societies from prehistory to the present. That the Benin king is disproportionately larger than his horse, contrary to nature, further aggrandizes him. Two large attendants fan the king. Other figures of smaller size and status at the Benin court stand on the king's left and right and in the plaque's upper corners. One tiny figure next to the horse is almost hidden from view beneath the king's feet.

King on horseback with attendants, from Benin, Nigeria,
ca. 1550-1680. Bronze.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
(Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller).



Sculptural technique falls into two basic categories, subtractive and additive. Carving is a subtractive technique. The final form is a reduction of the original mass of a block of stone, a piece of wood, or another material. Wooden statues were once tree trunks, and stone statues began as blocks pried from mountains. In an unfinished 16th-century marble statue of a bound slave by Michelangklo, the original shape of the stone block is still visible. Michelangelo thought of sculpture as a process of "liberating" the statue within the block. All sculptors of stone or wood cut away (subtract) "excess material." When they finish, they "leave behind" the statue—in our example, a twisting nude male form whose head Michelangelo never freed from the stone block.
In additive sculpture, the artist builds up the forms, usually in clay around a framework, or armature. Or a sculptor may fashion a mold, a hollow form for shaping, or casting, a fluid substance such as bronze. The ancient Greek sculptor who made the bronze statue of a warrior found in the sea near Riace, Italy, cast the head, limbs, torso, hands, and feet in separate molds and then welded them (joined them by heating). Finally, the artist added features, such as the pupils of the eyes (now missing), in other materials. The warrior's teeth are silver, and his lower lip is copper.

Michelangelo, unfinished captive, 1527-1528. Marble.
 Accademia, Florence.

Head of a warrior,
detail of a statue from the sea off Riace, Italy,
ca. 460-450 bch.
Archaeological Museum, Reggio Calabria.



Statues or busts that exist independent of any architectural frame or setting and that viewers can walk around are freestanding sculptures, or sculptures in the round, whether the piece was carved or cast. In relief sculptures, the subjects project from the background but remain part of it. In high relief sculpture, the images project boldly. In some cases, such as the weighing-of-souls relief at Autun, the relief is so high that not only do the forms cast shadows on the background, but some parts are actually in the round. The arms of the scale are fully detached from the background in places—which explains why some pieces broke off centuries ago. In low relief, or bas-relief, such as the wooden relief of Hesire, the projection is slight. In a variation of both techniques, sunken relief, the sculptor cuts the design into the surface so that the image's highest projecting parts are no higher than the surface itself. Relief sculpture, like sculpture in the round, can be produced either by carving or casting. The plaque from Benin is an example of bronze casting in high relief. Artists also can make reliefs by hammering a sheet of metal from behind, pushing the subject out from the background in a technique called repousse.


 Buildings are groupings of enclosed spaces and enclosing masses. People experience architecture both visually and by moving through and around it, so they perceive architectural space and mass together. These spaces and masses can be represented graphically in several ways, including as plans, sections, elevations, and cutaway drawings.
A plan, essentially a map of a floor, shows the placement of a structure's masses and, therefore, the spaces they bound and enclose. A section, like a vertical plan, depicts the placement of the masses as if the building were cut through along a plane. Drawings showing a theoretical slice across a structure's width are lateral sections. Those cutting through a building's length are longitudinal sections. Illustrated here are the plan and lateral section of Beauvais Cathedral, which may be compared to the photograph of the church's choir. The plan shows not only the choir's shape and the location of the piers dividing the aisles and supporting the vaults above but also the pattern of the crisscrossing vault ribs. The lateral section shows not only the interior of the choir with its vaults and tall stained-glass windows but also the structure of the roof and the form of the exterior buttresses that hold the vaults in place.
Other types of architectural drawings appear throughout this book. An elevation drawing is a head-on view of an external or internal wall. A cutaway combines an exterior view with an interior view of part of a building in a single drawing.
This overview of the art historian's vocabulary is not exhaustive, nor have artists used only painting, drawing, sculpture, and architecture as media over the millennia. Ceramics, jewelry, textiles, photography, and computer art are just some of the numerous other arts.

Plan (left) and lateral section (right) of Beauvais Cathedral, Beauvais, France, rebuilt after 1284.


Different Ways of Seeing

The history of art can be a history of artists and their works, of styles and stylistic change, of materials and techniques, of images and themes and their meanings, and of contexts and cultures and patrons. The best art historians analyze artworks from many viewpoints. But no art historian (or scholar in any other field), no matter how broad-minded in approach and no matter how experienced, can be truly objective. Like artists, art historians are members of a society, participants in its culture. How can scholars (and museum visitors and travelers to foreign locales) comprehend cultures unlike their own? They can try to reconstruct the original cultural contexts of artworks, but they are bound to be limited by their distance from the thought patterns of the cultures they study and by the obstructions to understanding—the assumptions, presuppositions, and prejudices peculiar to their own culture—their own thought patterns raise. Art historians may reconstruct a distorted picture of the past because of culture-bound blindness.
A single instance underscores how differently people of diverse cultures view the world and how various ways of seeing can cause sharp differences in how artists depict the world. We illustrate two contemporaneous portraits of a 19th-century Maori chieftain side by side — one by an Englishman, John Sylvester, and the other by the New Zealand chieftain himself, Te Pehi Kupe. Both reproduce the chieftain's facial tattooing. The European artist included the head and shoulders and underplayed the tattooing. The tattoo pattern is one aspect of the likeness among many, no more or less important than the chieftain's dressing like a European. Sylvester also recorded his subject's momentary glance toward the right and the play of light on his hair, fleeting aspects that have nothing to do with the figure's identity.
In contrast, Te Pehi Kupe's self-portrait—made during a trip to Liverpool, England, to obtain European arms to take back to New Zealand—is not a picture of a man situated in space and bathed in light. Rather, it is the chieftain's statement of the supreme importance of the tattoo design that symbolizes his rank among his people. Remarkably, Te Pehi Kupe created the tattoo patterns from memory, without the aid of a mirror. The splendidly composed insignia, presented as a flat design separated from the body and even from the head, is Te Pehi Kupe's image of himself. Only by understanding the cultural context of each portrait can viewers hope to understand why either looks the way it does.

John Sylvester (left) and Te Pehi Kupe (right), portraits of Maori chief Te Pehi Kupe, 1826.
From The Childhood of Man, by Leo Frobenius
(New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1909).


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Art is the process or product of deliberately and creatively arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions, especially beauty. In its narrow sense, the word art most often refers specifically to the visual arts, including media such as painting, sculpture, and printmaking. However, "the arts" may also encompass a diverse range of human activities, creations, and modes of expression, including music and literature. Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy which studies art.

Traditionally, the term art was used to refer to any skill or mastery. This conception changed during the Romantic period, when art came to be seen as "a special faculty of the human mind to be classified with religion and science". Generally, art is a human activity, made with the intention of stimulating thoughts and emotions. Beyond this description, there is no general agreed-upon definition of art.

The definition and evaluation of art has become especially problematic since the 20th century. Richard Wollheim distinguishes three approaches: the Realist, whereby aesthetic quality is an absolute value independent of any human view; the Objectivist, whereby it is also an absolute value, but is dependent on general human experience; and the Relativist position, whereby it is not an absolute value, but depends on, and varies with, the human experience of different humans. An object may be characterized by the intentions, or lack thereof, of its creator, regardless of its apparent purpose. A cup, which ostensibly can be used as a container, may be considered art if intended solely as an ornament, while a painting may be deemed craft if mass-produced.

Visual art is defined as the arrangement of colors, forms, or other elements "in a manner that affects the sense of beauty, specifically the production of the beautiful in a graphic or plastic medium". The nature of art has been described by Wollheim as "one of the most elusive of the traditional problems of human culture". It has been defined as a vehicle for the expression or communication of emotions and ideas, a means for exploring and appreciating formal elements for their own sake, and as mimesis or representation. Leo Tolstoy identified art as a use of indirect means to communicate from one person to another. Benedetto Croce and R.G. Collingwood advanced the idealist view that art expresses emotions, and that the work of art therefore essentially exists in the mind of the creator. Art as form has its roots in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, and was developed in the early twentieth century by Roger Fry and Clive Bell. Art as mimesis or representation has deep roots in the philosophy of Aristotle.


The most common usage of the word "art," which rose to prominence after 1750, is understood to denote skill used to produce an aesthetic result. Britannica Online defines it as "the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others." By any of these definitions of the word, artistic works have existed for almost as long as humankind: from early pre-historic art to contemporary art. Much has been written about the concept of "art". Where Adorno said in 1970 "It is now taken for granted that nothing which concerns art can be taken for granted any more[...]," The first and broadest sense of art is the one that has remained closest to the older Latin meaning, which roughly translates to "skill" or "craft," and also from an Indo-European root meaning "arrangement" or "to arrange". In this sense, art is whatever is described as having undergone a deliberate process of arrangement by an agent. A few examples where this meaning proves very broad include artifact, artificial, artifice, artillery, medical arts, and military arts. However, there are many other colloquial uses of the word, all with some relation to its etymology.

The second and more recent sense of the word art is as an abbreviation for creative art or fine art. Fine art means that a skill is being used to express the artist’s creativity, or to engage the audience’s aesthetic sensibilities, or to draw the audience towards consideration of the finer things. Often, if the skill is being used in a common or practical way, people will consider it a craft instead of art. Likewise, if the skill is being used in a commercial or industrial way, it will be considered Commercial art instead of art. On the other hand, crafts and design are sometimes considered applied art. Some art followers have argued that the difference between fine art and applied art has more to do with value judgments made about the art than any clear definitional difference.[ However, even fine art often has goals beyond pure creativity and self-expression. The purpose of works of art may be to communicate ideas, such as in politically-, spiritually-, or philosophically-motivated art; to create a sense of beauty; to explore the nature of perception; for pleasure; or to generate strong emotions. The purpose may also be seemingly nonexistent.

Art can describe several things: a study of creative skill, a process of using the creative skill, a product of the creative skill, or the audience’s experience with the creative skill. The creative arts (art as discipline) are a collection of disciplines (arts) that produce artworks (art as objects) that are compelled by a personal drive (art as activity) and echo or reflect a message, mood, or symbolism for the viewer to interpret (art as experience). Artworks can be defined by purposeful, creative interpretations of limitless concepts or ideas in order to communicate something to another person. Artworks can be explicitly made for this purpose or interpreted based on images or objects. Art is something that stimulates an individual's thoughts, emotions, beliefs, or ideas through the senses. It is also an expression of an idea and it can take many different forms and serve many different purposes. Although the application of scientific theories to derive a new scientific theory involves skill and results in the "creation" of something new, this represents science only and is not categorized as art.


In the nineteenth century, artists were primarily concerned with ideas of truth and beauty. The aesthetic theorist John Ruskin, who championed the raw naturalism of J. M. W. Turner, saw art's role as the communication by artifice of an essential truth that could only be found in nature. The arrival of Modernism in the early twentieth century lead to a radical break in the conception of the function of art, and then again in the late twentieth century with the advent of postmodernism. Clement Greenberg's 1960 article "Modernist Painting" defines Modern Art as "the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself". Greenberg originally applied this idea to the Abstract Expressionist movement and used it as a way to understand and justify flat (non-illusionistic) abstract painting:

Realistic, naturalistic art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art; modernism used art to call attention to art. The limitations that constitute the medium of painting – the flat surface, the shape of the support, the properties of the pigment — were treated by the Old Masters as negative factors that could be acknowledged only implicitly or indirectly. Under Modernism these same limitations came to be regarded as positive factors, and were acknowledged openly.

After Greenberg, several important art theorists emerged, such as Michael Fried, T. J. Clark, Rosalind Krauss, Linda Nochlin and Griselda Pollock among others. Though only originally intended as a way of understanding a specific set of artists, Greenberg's definition of Modern Art underlies most of the ideas of art within the various art movements of the 20th century and early 21st century. The art of Marcel Duchamp becomes clear when seen within this context; when submitting a urinal, titled fountain, to the Society of Independent Artists exhibit in 1917 he was critiquing the art exhibition using its own methods.

Pop artists like Andy Warhol became both noteworthy and influential through critiquing popular culture, as well as the art world, through the language of that popular culture. Certain radical artists of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s took those ideas further by expanding this technique of self-criticism beyond high art to all cultural image-making, including fashion images, comics, billboards and pornography.

Utility and Purpose

The purpose of Art has been discussed throughout the history of philosophy via the concept of beauty. Beauty, in this context, refers to the ability of human beings to experience and appreciate the visible object, regardless of the many different views of what is beautiful. Nearly every major philosopher has commented on art, including Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Bertrand Russell, and others. The different purposes of art may be grouped according to those which are non-motivated, and those which are motivated (Levi-Strauss).

Non-Motivated Functions of Art

The non-motivated purposes of Art are those which are integral to being human, transcend the individual, or do not fulfill a specific external purpose. Aristotle has said, "Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature."  In this sense, Art, as creativity, is something which humans must do by their very nature (i.e. no other species creates art), and is therefore beyond utility.

Basic human instinct for harmony, balance, rhythm. Art at this level is not an action or an object, but an internal appreciation of balance and harmony (beauty), and therefore an aspect of being human beyond utility.
"Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature. Next, there is the instinct for 'harmony' and rhythm, meters being manifestly sections of rhythm. Persons, therefore, starting with this natural gift developed by degrees their special aptitudes, till their rude improvisations gave birth to Poetry." -Aristotle

Experience of the mysterious. Art provides us with a way to experience ourselves in relation to the universe. This experience may often come unmotivated, as we appreciate art, music or poetry.
"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science." -Albert Einstein

Expression of the imagination. Art provide a means to express the imagination in non-grammatic ways that are not tied to the formality of spoken or written language. Unlike words, which come in sequences and each of which have a definite meaning, art provides a range of forms, symbols and ideas with meanings that are maleable.
"Jupiter's eagle [as an example of art] is not, like logical (aesthetic) attributes of an object, the concept of the sublimity and majesty of creation, but rather something else - something that gives the imagination an incentive to spread its flight over a whole host of kindred representations that provoke more thought than admits of expression in a concept determined by words. They furnish an aesthetic idea, which serves the above rational idea as a substitute for logical presentation, but with the proper function, however, of animating the mind by opening out for it a prospect into a field of kindred representations stretching beyond its ken." -Immanuel Kant

Universal communication. Art allows the individual to express things toward the world as a whole. Earth Artists often create art in remote locations that will never be experienced by another person. The practice of placing a cairn, or pile of stones at the top of a mountain, is an example. (Note: This need not suggest a particular view of God, or religion.) Art created in this way is a form of communication between the individual and the world as a whole.

Ritualistic and symbolic functions. In many cultures, art is used in rituals, performances and dances as a decoration or symbol. While these often have no specific utilitarian (motivated) purpose, anthropologists know that they often serve a purpose at the level of meaning within a particular culture. This meaning is not furnished by any one individual, but is often the result of many generations of change, and of a cosmological relationship within the culture.
"Most scholars who deal with rock paintings or objects recovered from prehistoric contexts that cannot be explained in utilitarian terms and are thus categorized as decorative, ritual or symbolic, are aware of the trap posed by the term 'art'." -Silva Tomaskova

Motivated Functions of Art

The purposes of art which are motivated refer to intentional, conscious actions on the part of the artists or creator. These may be to bring about political change, to comment on an aspect of society, to convey a specific emotion or mood, to address personal psychology, to illustrate another discipline, to (with commercial arts) to sell a product, or simply as a form of communication.

Communcation. Art, at its simplest, is a form of communication. As most forms of communication have an intent or goal directed toward another individual, this is a motivated purpose. Illustrative arts, such as scientific illustration, are a form of art as communication. Maps are another example. However, the content need not be scientific. Emotions, moods and feelings are also communicated through art.
"[Art is a set of] artefacts or images with symbolic meanings as a means of communication." -Steve Mithen

Art as Entertainment. Art may seek to bring about a particular emotion or mood, for the purpose of relaxing or entertaining the viewer. This is often the function of the art industries of Motion Pictures and Video Games.

The Avante-Garde. Art for political change. One of the defining functions of early twentieth century art has been to use visual images to bring about political change. The art movements which had this goal - Dadaism, Surrealism, Russian Constructivism, and Abstract Expressionism, among others - are collectively referred to as the avante-garde arts.

"By contrast, the realistic attitude, inspired by positivism, from Saint Thomas Aquinas to Anatole France, clearly seems to me to be hostile to any intellectual or moral advancement. I loathe it, for it is made up of mediocrity, hate, and dull conceit. It is this attitude which today gives birth to these ridiculous books, these insulting plays. It constantly feeds on and derives strength from the newspapers and stultifies both science and art by assiduously flattering the lowest of tastes; clarity bordering on stupidity, a dog’s life." -Andre Breton (Surrealism)

Art for psychological and healing purposes. Art is also used by art therapists, psychotherapists and clinical psychologists as art therapy. The Diagnostic Drawing Series, for example, is used to determine the personality and emotional functioning of a patient. The end product is not the principal goal in this case, but rather a process of healing, through creative acts, is sought. The resultant piece of artwork may also offer insight into the troubles experienced by the subject and may suggest suitable approaches to be used in more conventional forms of psychiatric therapy.

Art for social inquiry, subversion and/or anarchy. While similar to art for political change, subversive or deconstructivist art may seek to question aspects of society without any specific political goal. In this case, the function of art may be simply to criticize some aspect of society.
Graffiti art and other types of street art are graphics and images that are spray-painted or stencilled on publicly viewable walls, buildings, buses, trains, and bridges, usually without permission. Certain art forms, such as graffiti, may also be illegal when they break laws (in this case vandalism).

Art for propaganda, or commercialism. Art is often utilized as a form of propaganda, and thus can be used to subtly influence popular conceptions or mood. In a similar way, art which seeks to sell a product also influences mood and emotion. In both cases, the purpose of art here is to subtly manipulate the viewer into a particular emotional or psychological response toward a particular idea or object.
The functions of art described above are not mutually exclusive, as many of them may overlap. For example, art for the purpose of entertainment may also seek to sell a product, i.e. the movie or video game. One of the central challenges of post-modern art (after the 1970s), is that as the world becomes increasingly utilitarian, functional, and market-driven, the presence of the non-motivated arts, or art which is ritualistic or symbolic, becomes increasingly rare.

Classification disputes

It is common in the history of art for people to dispute whether a particular form or work, or particular piece of work counts as art or not. In fact for much of the past century the idea of art has been to simply challenge what art is. Philosophers of Art call these disputes “classificatory disputes about art.” For example, Ancient Greek philosophers debated about whether or not ethics should be considered the "art of living well". Classificatory disputes in the 20th century included: cubist and impressionist paintings, Duchamp’s Fountain, the movies, superlative imitations of banknotes, propaganda, and even a crucifix immersed in urine. Conceptual art often intentionally pushes the boundaries of what counts as art. New media such as Video games slowly become co-opted by artists and/or recognized as art forms in its own right, though these new classification shifts are not universally adopted and remain the subject of dispute.

Philosopher David Novitz has argued that disagreement about the definition of art are rarely the heart of the problem. Rather, "the passionate concerns and interests that humans vest in their social life" are "so much a part of all classificatory disputes about art" (Novitz, 1996). According to Novitz, classificatory disputes are more often disputes about our values and where we are trying to go with our society than they are about theory proper. For example, when the Daily Mail criticized Hirst's and Emin’s work by arguing "For 1,000 years art has been one of our great civilising forces. Today, pickled sheep and soiled beds threaten to make barbarians of us all" they are not advancing a definition or theory about art, but questioning the value of Hirst’s and Emin’s work. In 1998, Arthur Danto, suggested a thought experiment showing that "the status of an artifact as work of art results from the ideas a culture applies to it, rather than its inherent physical or perceptible qualities. Cultural interpretation (an art theory of some kind) is therefore constitutive of an object’s arthood."

Controversial art

Theodore Gericault's "Raft of the Medusa" (1820), was a social commentary on a current event, unprecedented at the time. Edouard Manet's "Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe" (1863), was considered scandalous not because of the nude woman, but because she is seated next to men fully dressed in the clothing of the time, rather than in robes of the antique world. John Singer Sargent's "Madame Pierre Gautreau (Madam X)" (1884), caused a huge uproar over the reddish pink used to color the woman's ear lobe, considered far too suggestive and supposedly ruining the high-society model's reputation.

In the twentieth century, Pablo Picasso's Guernica (1937) used arresting cubist techniques and stark monochromatic oils, to depict the harrowing consequences of a contemporary bombing of a small, ancient Basque town. Leon Golub's Interrogation III (1981), depicts a female nude, hooded detainee strapped to a chair, her legs open to reveal her sexual organs, surrounded by two tormentors dressed in everyday clothing. Andres Serrano's Piss Christ (1989) is a photograph of a crucifix, sacred to the Christian religion and representing Christ's sacrifice and final suffering, submerged in a glass of the artist's own urine. The resulting uproar led to comments in the United States Senate about public funding of the arts.

In the twenty-first century, Eric Fischl created Tumbling Woman as a memorial to those who jumped or fell to their death in the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Initially installed at Rockefeller Center in New York City, within a year the work was removed as too disturbing.

Art, class and value

Art has been perceived by some as belonging to some social classes and often excluding others. In this context, art is seen as an upper-class activity associated with wealth, the ability to purchase art, and the leisure required to pursue or enjoy it. For example, the palaces of Versailles or the Hermitage in St. Petersburg with their vast collections of art, amassed by the fabulously wealthy royalty of Europe exemplify this view. Collecting such art is the preserve of the rich, or of governments and institutions.

Fine and expensive goods have been popular markers of status in many cultures, and continue to be so today. There has been a cultural push in the other direction since at least 1793, when the Louvre, which had been a private palace of the Kings of France, was opened to the public as an art museum during the French Revolution. Most modern public museums and art education programs for children in schools can be traced back to this impulse to have art available to everyone. Museums in the United States tend to be gifts from the very rich to the masses (The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, for example, was created by John Taylor Johnston, a railroad executive whose personal art collection seeded the museum.) But despite all this, at least one of the important functions of art in the 21st century remains as a marker of wealth and social status.

There have been attempts by artists to create art that can not be bought by the wealthy as a status object. One of the prime original motivators of much of the art of the late 1960s and 1970s was to create art that could not be bought and sold. It is "necessary to present something more than mere objects"[30] said the major post war German artist Joseph Beuys. This time period saw the rise of such things as performance art, video art, and conceptual art. The idea was that if the artwork was a performance that would leave nothing behind, or was simply an idea, it could not be bought and sold. "Democratic precepts revolving around the idea that a work of art is a commodity impelled the aesthetic innovation which germinated in the mid-1960s and was reaped throughout the 1970s. Artists broadly identified under the heading of Conceptual art... substituting performance and publishing activities for engagement with both the material and materialistic concerns of painted or sculptural form... [have] endeavored to undermine the art object qua object."

In the decades since, these ideas have been somewhat lost as the art market has learned to sell limited edition DVDs of video works, invitations to exclusive performance art pieces, and the objects left over from conceptual pieces. Many of these performances create works that are only understood by the elite who have been educated as to why an idea or video or piece of apparent garbage may be considered art. The marker of status becomes understanding the work instead of necessarily owning it, and the artwork remains an upper-class activity. "With the widespread use of DVD recording technology in the early 2000s, artists, and the gallery system that derives its profits from the sale of artworks, gained an important means of controlling the sale of video and computer artworks in limited editions to collectors."

Forms, genres, mediums, and styles

The creative arts are often divided into more specific categories that are related to their technique, or medium, such as decorative arts, plastic arts, performing arts, or literature. Unlike scientific fields, art is one of the few subjects that is academically organized according to technique . An artistic medium is the substance or material the artistic work is made from, and may also refers to the technique used. For example, paint is the media used in painting, paper is a media used in drawing.

An art form is the specific shape, or quality an artistic expression takes. The media used often influences the form. For example, the form of a sculpture must exist in space in three-dimensions, and respond to gravity. The constraints and limitations of a particular medium are thus called its formal qualities. To give another example, the formal qualities of painting are the canvas texture, color, and brush texture. The formal qualities of video games are non-linearity, interactivity and virtual presence. The form of a particular work of art is determined by both the formal qualities of the media, and the intentions of the artist.

A genre is a set of conventions and styles within a particular media. For instance, well recognized genres in film are western, horror and romantic comedy. Genres in music include death metal and trip hop. Genres in painting include still life, and pastoral landscape. A particular work of art may bend or combine genres but each genre has a recognizable group of conventions, clichés and tropes. (One note: the word genre has a second older meaning within painting; genre painting was a phrase used in the 17th to 19th century to refer specifically to paintings of scenes of everyday life and can still be used in this way.)

An artwork, artist’s, or movement's style is the distinctive method and form that art takes. Any loose brushy, dripped or poured abstract painting is called expressionistic (with a lower case "e" and the "ic" at the end). Often these styles are linked with a particular historical period, set of ideas, and particular artistic movement. So Jackson Pollock is called an Abstract Expressionist.

Because a particular style may have a specific cultural meanings, it is important to be sensitive to differences in technique. Roy Lichtenstein's (1923-1997) paintings are not pointillist, despite his uses of dots, because they are not aligned with the original proponents of Pointillism. Lichtenstein used Ben-Day dots: they are evenly-spaced and create flat areas of color. These types of dots, used in halftone printing, were originally used in comic strips and newspapers to reproduce color. Lichtenstein thus uses the dots as a style to question the "high" art of painting with the "low" art of comics - to comment on class distinctions in culture. Lichtenstein is thus associated with the American Pop art movement (1960s). Pointillism is a technique in late Impressionism (1880s), developed especially by the artist Georges Seurat, that employs dots that are spaced in a way to create variation in color and depth in an attempt to paint images that were closer to the way we really see color. Both artists use dots, but the particular style and technique relates to the artistic movement these artists were a part of.

These are all ways of beginning to define a work of art, to narrow it down. "Imagine you are an art critic whose mission is to compare the meanings you find in a wide range of individual artworks. How would you proceed with your task? One way to begin is to examine the materials each artist selected in making an object, image video, or event. The decision to cast a sculpture in bronze, for instance, inevitably effects its meaning; the work becomes something different than if it had been cast in gold or plastic or chocolate, even if everything else about the artwork remained the same. Next, you might examine how the materials in each artwork have become an arrangement of shapes, colors, textures, and lines. These, in turn, are organized into various patterns and compositional structures. In your interpretation, you would comment on how salient features of the form contribute to the overall meaning of the finished artwork. [But in the end] the meaning of most artworks... is not exhausted by a discussion of materials, techniques, and form. Most interpretations also include a discussion of the ideas and feelings the artwork engenders."


Art predates history; sculptures, cave paintings, rock paintings, and petroglyphs from the Upper Paleolithic starting roughly 40,000 years ago have been found, but the precise meaning of such art is often disputed because so little is known about the cultures that produced them. The oldest art objects in the world: a series of tiny, drilled snail shells about 75,000yrs old, were discovered in a South African cave.

The great traditions in art have a foundation in the art of one of the great ancient civilizations: Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, India, China, Ancient Greece, Rome, or Arabia (ancient Yemen and Oman). Each of these centers of early civilization developed a unique and characteristic style in their art. Because of the size and duration these civilizations, more of their art works have survived and more of their influence has been transmitted to other cultures and later times. They have also provided the first records of how artists worked. For example, this period of Greek art saw a veneration of the human physical form and the development of equivalent skills to show musculature, poise, beauty and anatomically correct proportions

In Byzantine and Gothic art of the Western Middle Ages, art focused on the expression of Biblical and not material truths, and emphasized methods which would show the higher unseen glory of a heavenly world, such as the use of gold in the background of paintings, or glass in mosaics or windows, which also presented figures in idealized, patterned (flat) forms.

The western Renaissance saw a return to valuation of the material world, and the place of humans in it, and this paradigm shift is reflected in art forms, which show the corporeality of the human body, and the three dimensional reality of landscape.

In the east, Islamic art's rejection of iconography led to emphasis on geometric patterns, calligraphy, and architecture. Further east, religion dominated artistic styles and forms too. India and Tibet saw emphasis on painted sculptures and dance with religious painting borrowing many conventions from sculpture and tending to bright contrasting colors with emphasis on outlines. China saw many art forms flourish, jade carving, bronzework, pottery (including the stunning terracotta army of Emperor Qin), poetry, calligraphy, music, painting, drama, fiction, etc. Chinese styles vary greatly from era to era and are traditionally named after the ruling dynasty. So, for example, Tang Dynasty paintings are monochromatic and sparse, emphasizing idealized landscapes, but Ming Dynasty paintings are busy, colorful, and focus on telling stories via setting and composition. Japan names its styles after imperial dynasties too, and also saw much interplay between the styles of calligraphy and painting. Woodblock printing became important in Japan after the 17th century.

The western Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century saw artistic depictions of physical and rational certainties of the clockwork universe, as well as politically revolutionary visions of a post-monarchist world, such as Blake’s portrayal of Newton as a divine geometer, or David’s propagandistic paintings. This led to Romantic rejections of this in favor of pictures of the emotional side and individuality of humans, exemplified in the novels of Goethe. The late 19th century then saw a host of artistic movements, such as academic art, symbolism, impressionism and fauvism among others.

By the 20th century these pictures were falling apart, shattered not only by new discoveries of relativity by Einstein and of unseen psychology by Freud, but also by unprecedented technological development accelerated by the implosion of civilisation in two world wars. The history of twentieth century art is a narrative of endless possibilities and the search for new standards, each being torn down in succession by the next. Thus the parameters of Impressionism, Expressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, etc cannot be maintained very much beyond the time of their invention. Increasing global interaction during this time saw an equivalent influence of other cultures into Western art, such as Pablo Picasso being influenced by African sculpture. Japanese woodblock prints (which had themselves been influenced by Western Renaissance draftsmanship) had an immense influence on Impressionism and subsequent development. Later, African sculptures were taken up by Picasso and to some extent by Matisse. Similarly, the west has had huge impacts on Eastern art in 19th and 20th century, with originally western ideas like Communism and Post-Modernism exerting powerful influence on artistic styles.

Modernism, the idealistic search for truth, gave way in the latter half of the 20th century to a realization of its unattainability. Relativity was accepted as an unavoidable truth, which led to the period of contemporary art and postmodern criticism, where cultures of the world and of history are seen as changing forms, which can be appreciated and drawn from only with irony. Furthermore the separation of cultures is increasingly blurred and some argue it is now more appropriate to think in terms of a global culture, rather than regional cultures.


Art tends to facilitate intuitive rather than rational understanding, and is usually consciously created with this intention. Fine art intentionally serves no other purpose. As a result of this impetus, works of art are elusive, refractive to attempts at classification, because they can be appreciated in more than one way, and are often susceptible to many different interpretations. In the case of Gericault's Raft of the Medusa, special knowledge concerning the shipwreck that the painting depicts is not a prerequisite to appreciating it, but allows the appreciation of Gericault's political intentions in the piece. Even art that superficially depicts a mundane event or object, may invite reflection upon elevated themes.

Traditionally, the highest achievements of art demonstrate a high level of ability or fluency within a medium. This characteristic might be considered a point of contention, since many modern artists (most notably, conceptual artists) do not themselves create the works they conceive, or do not even create the work in a conventional, demonstrative sense. Art has a transformative capacity: confers particularly appealing or aesthetically satisfying structures or forms upon an original set of unrelated, passive constituents.

Skill and craft

Art can connote a sense of trained ability or mastery of a medium. Art can also simply refer to the developed and efficient use of a language to convey meaning with immediacy and or depth. Art is an act of expressing our feelings, thoughts, and observations. There is an understanding that is reached with the material as a result of handling it, which facilitates one's thought processes.

A common view is that the epithet “art”, particular in its elevated sense, requires a certain level of creative expertise by the artist, whether this be a demonstration of technical ability or an originality in stylistic approach such as in the plays of Shakespeare, or a combination of these two. Traditionally skill of execution was viewed as a quality inseparable from art and thus necessary for its success; for Leonardo da Vinci, art, neither more nor less than his other endeavors, was a manifestation of skill. Rembrandt's work, now praised for its ephemeral virtues, was most admired by his contemporaries for its virtuosity. At the turn of the 20th century, the adroit performances of John Singer Sargent were alternately admired and viewed with skepticism for their manual fluency, yet at nearly the same time the artist who would become the era's most recognized and peripatetic iconoclast, Pablo Picasso, was completing a traditional academic training at which he excelled.

A common contemporary criticism of some modern art occurs along the lines of objecting to the apparent lack of skill or ability required in the production of the artistic object. In conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain" is among the first examples of pieces wherein the artist used found objects ("ready-made") and exercised no traditionally recognised set of skills. Tracey Emin's My Bed, or Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living follow this example and also manipulate the mass media. Emin slept (and engaged in other activities) in her bed before placing the result in a gallery as work of art. Hirst came up with the conceptual design for the artwork but has left most of the eventual creation of many works to employed artisans. Hirst's celebrity is founded entirely on his ability to produce shocking concepts. The actual production in many conceptual and contemporary works of art is a matter of assembly of found objects. However there are many modernist and contemporary artists who continue to excel in the skills of drawing and painting and in creating hands on works of art.

Value judgment

Somewhat in relation to the above, the word art is also used to apply judgments of value, as in such expressions like "that meal was a work of art" (the cook is an artist), or "the art of deception," (the highly attained level of skill of the deceiver is praised). It is this use of the word as a measure of high quality and high value that gives the term its flavor of subjectivity.

Making judgments of value requires a basis for criticism. At the simplest level, a way to determine whether the impact of the object on the senses meets the criteria to be considered art, is whether it is perceived to be attractive or repulsive. Though perception is always colored by experience, and is necessarily subjective, it is commonly taken that - that which is not aesthetically satisfying in some fashion cannot be art. However, "good" art is not always or even regularly aesthetically appealing to a majority of viewers. In other words, an artist's prime motivation need not be the pursuit of the aesthetic. Also, art often depicts terrible images made for social, moral, or thought-provoking reasons. For example, Francisco Goya's painting depicting the Spanish shootings of 3rd of May 1808, is a graphic depiction of a firing squad executing several pleading civilians. Yet at the same time, the horrific imagery demonstrates Goya's keen artistic ability in composition and execution and produces fitting social and political outrage. Thus, the debate continues as to what mode of aesthetic satisfaction, if any, is required to define 'art'.

The assumption of new values or the rebellion against accepted notions of what is aesthetically superior need not occur concurrently with a complete abandonment of the pursuit of that which is aesthetically appealing. Indeed, the reverse is often true, that in the revision of what is popularly conceived of as being aesthetically appealing, allows for a re-invigoration of aesthetic sensibility, and a new appreciation for the standards of art itself. Countless schools have proposed their own ways to define quality, yet they all seem to agree in at least one point: once their aesthetic choices are accepted, the value of the work of art is determined by its capacity to transcend the limits of its chosen medium in order to strike some universal chord by the rarity of the skill of the artist or in its accurate reflection in what is termed the zeitgeist.


Art is often intended to appeal and connect with human emotion. It can arouse aesthetic or moral feelings, and can be understood as a way of communicating these feelings. Artists express something so that their audience is aroused to some extent, but they do not have to do so consciously. Art explores what is commonly termed as the human condition that is essentially what it is to be human. Effective art often brings about some new insight concerning the human condition either singly or en-mass, which is not necessarily always positive, or necessarily widens the boundaries of collective human ability. The degree of skill that the artist has, will affect their ability to trigger an emotional response and thereby provide new insights, the ability to manipulate them at will shows exemplary skill and determination.


Topic outline of art

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Art is skill used to produce an aesthetic result. Arts or the arts encompasses visual arts, performing arts, language arts, and culinary arts. Many artistic disciplines involve aspects of the various arts, so the definitions of these terms overlap to some degree. The term art also refers to the physical forms produced or performed using those skills, such as a sculpted figure, a poem, or a piece of music.

The following topic outline is provided as an overview of and introduction to art:

Types of art
Applied art
Conceptual art
Decorative art
Fine art
Public art

Art forms
Installation art
Video installation
Literary art
New media art
Ascii Art
Bio Art
Computer art
Digital art
Digital poetry
Electronic art
Evolutionary art
Generative art
Information art
Interactive art
Internet art
Mathematics and art
Net art
Radio art
Robotic art
Software art
Sound art
Systems art
Video art
Video installation
Virtual art
Performing arts
Performance art
A Brief History of Classical Music
A Brief History of Jazz
Performance art
Visual arts
A Brief History of Photography
Fine art photography:
Fine Art Photography
Plastic arts

Art genres
Abstract art
Erotic art:
Erotica in Art
Figurative art

Fiction genres
Historical Fiction
Alternate history
Period Piece
Costume drama
Spy fiction
Martial arts film
Kung Fu
Science Fiction
Military Science Fiction
Space Opera
Science Fantasy
Crime Fiction
Murder Mystery
Comedy of manners
Black comedy
Romantic comedy
Comedic Science Fiction
Giant Monster
Survival Horror

Film genres
Traditional Animation
Stop Motion
Computer Generated Images (CGI)
Live Action

Painting genres
History painting
Genre works
Portrait painting
Landscape painting
Still life painting

TV genres
Reality Show

History of art
History of architecture
History of computer art
History of fiction
History of crime fiction
History of the novel
History of science fiction
History of film
History of literature:
A Brief History of Literature, Philosophy and Religions
History of music:

A Brief History of Classical Music
History of painting
History of photography:
A Brief History of Photography
History of poetry
History of sculpture

By period
Prehistoric art, Ancient art:
From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
Medieval art:
Gothic Art
Renaissance  Art
Baroque and Rococo Art
Modern art:
Neoclassicism, Romanticism  Art
Art Styles in 19th century

Contemporary art:
Art of the 20th century

Art movements

14th to 18th century
International Gothic:
Gothic Art
Renaissance (Early) (14th):
The Early Renaissance
Mannerism (16th):
The High Renaissance and Mannerism
Baroque (17th), Rococo:
Baroque and Rococo
Neoclassicism, Romanticism (18th):
Neoclassicism and Romanticism
19th century
Official Art
The Impressionism
Les Nabis:
Hudson River School

20th century
Abstract expressionism:
Abstract Expressionism
Neue Kunstlervereinigung Munchen
Der Blaue Reiter:
Der Blaue Reiter
Die Brucke:
Die Brucke
Art Nouveau:
Art Nouveau
The Bauhaus school
De Stijl
De Stijl
Art Deco:
Art Deco
Pop art:
Pop Art
Color Field
Installation art
Lyrical Abstraction
Conceptual art:
Conceptual Art
Land art:
Land art
Performance art:
Happening & Performance Art
Video art
Outsider Art
New media art
Young British Artists
Systems art

21st century
Relational art
Videogame art


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