What Do We Mean by the “Visual Arts”?

Art in the middle ages had a very different meaning than our common understanding of the word today.  During the Middle Ages art referred to seven very specific studies, namely, grammar, rhetoric, dialectic logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music.  In addition, the arts were called the fine arts to differentiate them from the useful arts.  Useful arts were those practiced by people who did manual labor, whereas fine arts were those practiced only by “fine” people.

Through the centuries the term fine art evolved to include anything that pleases the senses, and other arts were looked at as science.  Fine arts included not only what we normally think of as art, namely painting, sculpture, architecture and decorative arts, but also music, dance, opera and literature.  As the list of arts grew, the fine arts were further divided in the twentieth century into the visual arts (sculpture, painting, architecture, etc.), the auditory arts (drama, music, etc.), the literary arts (poetry, novel writing, etc.) and the performing arts (visual and/or auditory but performed).

All art is the attempt of the artist to communicate about self or the world as seen through his eyes. The artist can communicate this vision through many types of visual arts, including painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, computer and digital graphics, architecture, and ceramics among them. The artist does this through the use of different media. Media are the materials or substances the artist uses to produce his art.  For the artist who draws, media includes such things as pencils, pen and ink, charcoal, pastel chalks, water paints, oil and canvas, etc.  For the artist who sculpts, media includes metals, clay, wood, bronze, wax, stone, etc.

As many as are the media used in the production of art, so too are the topics or subject matter of visual art, or for that matter, any art.  The subject matter of art consists of:

  • objects, either reproduced realistically or representationally
  • people, animals or other animate beings
  • places, such as landscapes, seascapes, interiors
  • events, such as births, deaths, sickness, wars, festivals
  • issues, such as multiculturalism, pollution, global warming.

It is the intersection of the artist’s vision, the subject matter selected and the media used that becomes what we know as a fine piece of art.