Visual Arts
Definition, Meaning, History, Classification.

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Examples of Visual Art

Contemporary sand art. How visual art encompasses works in all sorts of media.

Nail Art decoration.
Personal visual art.

Visual Art: Definition & Meaning

"Visual Arts" is a modern but imprecise umbrella term for a broad category of art which includes a number of artistic disciplines from various sub-categories. Its wide ambit renders meaningless any attempt at definition, so rather than define or compose some diluted meaning for it, here is a list of its constituent disciplines. (See also: Types of Art.)

What Does Visual Art Include?

Definitions of visual art usually encompass the following:

1. Fine Arts
All fine art belongs to the general category of visual arts. These include activities such as: Drawing, Painting, Printmaking and Sculpture, along with associated activities like Graphic art, Manuscript Illumination, Book Illustration, Calligraphy and Architecture.

2. Contemporary Arts
The visual arts also include a number of modern art forms, such as: Assemblage, Collage, Mixed-media, Conceptual Art, Installation, Happenings and Performance art, along with film-based disciplines such as Photography, Video Art and Animation, or any combination thereof. This group of activities also includes high tech disciplines like computer graphics and giclee prints. Another modern visual art, is the new environmental or Land art, which also includes transitory forms like ice/snow sculpture, and (presumably) graffiti art.

For an explanation of the
aesthetic issues surrounding
the creative visual arts, see:
Art Definition, Meaning.

For artworks made out of
salvaged materials, see:
Junk Art.
For painting/sculpture made
by artists outside mainstream,
see: Outsider Art.
For works by mental patients
see: Art Brut.

For a general guide to forms
of non-representational art,
see: Abstract Art.
For geometric abstraction,
see: Concrete Art,
or Non-Objective Art.

Read our article for students and
teachers on appreciation, see:
Art Evaluation: How to Appreciate Art
and How To Appreciate Paintings.

For important dates in the
development of fine art and
other artforms, see:
History of Art.

For Irish creative practitioners,
see: Visual Artists Ireland and
Ireland Visual Arts.

3. Decorative Arts & Crafts
In addition, the general category of visual arts encompasses a number of decorative art disciplines and crafts, including: ceramics and studio pottery, mosaic art, mobiles, tapestry, glass art (including stained glass), and others.

4. Other
Wider definitions of visual art sometimes include applied art areas such as graphic design, fashion design, and interior design. In addition, new types of Body art may also fall under the general heading of visual arts. These include: tatto art, face painting, and body painting.

History of Art Classification

New Profession of Artist

Although various forms of art have been practised for hundreds of millennia, it is only comparatively recently that the role of the "artist" has emerged. During Classical Antiquity, as well as the era of Byzantium, Carolingian, Ottonian, Romanesque and Gothic art, painters and sculptors were treated as mere artisans - paint-applyers or carvers. Then, during the Renaissance, thanks to individuals such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, the profession of "artist" was raised to a new higher level, reflecting the newly perceived importance of the "design" element - or "disegno". Suddenly, painters and sculptors had a new unique status - on a par with architects. For fine artists, this situation has remained largely unchanged to this day, except that they have now been joined by visual artists involved in installation, video art, conceptual works, assemblage and the like. Some crafts are also included under the umbrella of visual art, although most continue to be funded by "crafts" (rather than "arts") bodies.

Academic Art

From the Renaissance onwards, this new status was also reflected in an educational system based around a network of Fine Art Academies, that promulgated a particular form of "academic art". This contained all sorts of rules about how (mainly) paintings and sculptures were to be created. Elements such as subject matter, form, message, composition, colour were quite strictly regulated. Failure to follow the rules meant exclusion from the prestigious annual art exhibitions organized by the academies. And since participation in these art shows was often the only way an artist could gain a reputation, win commissions, and ultimately secure coveted membership of his national Academy, exclusion meant financial ruin. It wasn't until the 20th century that the power of the academies began to wane in any significant sense.

Visual Art Embraces Arts and (Many) Crafts

The 20th century also witnessed a gradual change in attitudes towards the practice of crafts. Put very simply, up until about 1900, aside from literature and the "performing arts", the educational and professional establishments only recognized two basic classes of artistic activity: (1) fine arts - that is, works created purely for aesthetic reasons, and (2) crafts, that is works with a utilitarian purpose. (See also Aesthetics.) The former - since Renaissance times - were created by "artists", the latter by a lower category of "craftspeople". There was very little justification for this arbitrary distinction between arts and crafts, as many craftworks were wholly devoid of any functional purpose and required as much skill as fine art. By encompassing several "crafts", the category of visual art has helped to remove some of the barriers between arts and crafts, although many remain.

Visual Art Extended to Include Modern Forms

Another set of changes in our classification and appreciation of art began to unfold during the early decades of the 20th century. This was due to the emergence of several new art-forms, such as: collage (from Picasso & Braque's synthetic Cubism c.1912); assemblage and "found objects" (like the "readymades" of Marcel Duchamp, 1887-1968); conceptual art (from Marcel Duchamp's works such as Fountain, 1917, Replica, Tate Collection, London); Performance art and Happenings (from the Dada antics of Tristan Tzara (1896-1963) at the Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich, c.1916-20); photomontage (from works by Dadaists like Raoul Hausmann and Kurt Schwitters, which used illustrations and advertisement clippings, c.1918-20); photography and video art (from pioneering work by Man Ray (1890–1976) and others); animation art (from early 20th century works by American animators J. Stuart Blackton, Emile Cohl, Winsor McCay and Walt Disney). New techniques also appeared in traditional fine art disciplines, like painting - with the invention of acrylic paints, used by David Hockney (b.1937) and others - and printmaking - with the introduction of silkscreen printing, famously used by Andy Warhol (1928-87); and with giclee prints.

The Visual Arts Industry

Increasing affluence during the second half of the 20th century has led to significant extra investment in what has become a major visual arts industry. In many European countries, tertiary level art colleges now teach a huge range of subjects to hundreds of thousands of art students. Whole government departments, with multi-million dollar budgets, are now devoted to the promotion of visual arts, while even local government authorities maintain full-time "arts officers" to coordinate activities at local level. This structure is frequently augmented by state-run agencies (eg. Arts Councils), whose role is to disperse the increasing number of grants, bursaries, residencies, special stipends and other types of financial support for visual artists. In addition, governments are becoming major art patrons by buying significant quantities of paintings, plastic art and other works, for public display. New methods of fundraising to support public art have been developed, such as the Percent For Art scheme in Ireland. Recent cutbacks notwithstanding, all this demonstrates the enormous scale of the visual art industry in the 21st century. And even if many full-time artists are still poor, this is mainly because their numbers have shot up significantly over the past few decades.

• For more about the meaning of art terms, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.

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