Tuesday, October 24, 2006



Art, a disciplined activity that may be limited to skill or expanded to include a distinctive way of looking at the world. The word art is derived from the Latin ars, meaning “skill.” Art is skill at performing a set of specialized actions, as, for example, the art of gardening or of playing chess.

Art in its broader meaning, however, involves both skill and creative imagination in a musical, literary, visual, or performance context. Art provides the person or people who produce it and the community that observes it with an experience that might be aesthetic, emotional, intellectual, or a combination of these qualities.


Traditionally, in most societies, art has combined practical and aesthetic functions. In the 18th century in the West, however,... a more sophisticated public began to distinguish between art that was purely aesthetic and art that was also practical. The fine arts (French beaux arts)—including literature, music, dance, painting, sculpture, and architecture—are concerned primarily with aesthetics. The decorative or applied arts, such as pottery, metalwork, furniture, tapestry, and enamel, are often useful arts and for a time were demoted to the rank of crafts. Because the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris taught only the major visual arts, the term art was sometimes narrowed to mean only drawing, painting, architecture, and sculpture. Since the mid-20th century, however, greater appreciation of non-Western and folk traditions and of individual work in a mechanized society has tended to blur the old distinction. Both categories are becoming valued as art.

Both art and science require technical skill. Both artist and scientist try to create order out of the seemingly random and diverse experiences of the world. Both try to understand and appreciate the world and to convey their experience to others. However, an essential difference exists: The scientist studies quantitative sense perceptions in order to discover laws or concepts that are universally true. The artist selects qualitative perceptions and arranges them to express personal and cultural understanding. Whereas further investigation may cause a scientific law to be invalidated, a work of art—despite changes in the artist's view or the public taste—has permanent validity as an aesthetic statement at a particular time and place.


Although artists may be unique geniuses impelled by their own creative energies, they are also very much products of their societies. A society must provide sufficient wealth and leisure to enable the public or an institution to pay a professional artist, as did Sumerian priests and Renaissance princes. An amateur artist must have free time, as, for example, a farmer who carves or embroiders in winter, or an office worker who paints on Sunday. Even the choice to be an artist may be culturally influenced. In many traditional societies, artists, like other people, customarily followed their father's profession, as did certain Japanese families of actors and painters and the musical dynasties of 18th-century Europe.

The physical resources of a society affect the medium in which an artist works. In stoneless Mesopotamia, Sumerian architects built in brick. Nomadic Asian herders wove wool from their flocks into rugs. Medieval European painters worked on wood panels, plaster walls, stained-glass windows, and parchment books in an era before paper was known in the West. Mass production and world trade have given 20th-century artists an enormous range of materials.

An artist's medium affects the style of the work. Thus, a sculptor must treat stone differently from wood; a musician achieves different effects with drums than with violins; a writer must meet certain demands of poetry that might be irrelevant to the novel. Local tradition also affects art styles. Pottery design in one area and period may be geometric and in another, naturalistic. Indian tradition prescribed closely curled hair in depictions of the Buddha, just as Western tradition decreed blond hair for depictions of Jesus Christ. Eastern artists paid no heed to scientific perspective, which has been a major concern of Western painters since the European Renaissance.

In addition, the subject of art is largely dictated by the society that supports it. Ancient Egyptian art and architecture, dominated by state and religion, glorified the pharaoh and life after death. In pious medieval Europe, most visual arts and theater had Christian themes. In 20th-century totalitarian countries, officially accepted art must serve the state. Since the 19th century, in most Western countries, artists have had greater freedom to choose the subjects they please. Sometimes, as in conceptual art and absolute music, the form of the work becomes its subject.

The status of artists in the West has changed over the centuries. In classical and medieval times, poets and other writers who used mental skills were usually ranked above actors, dancers, musicians, painters, and sculptors who used physical skills. From the Renaissance on, as all aspects of the human personality came to be valued, those skilled in the visual and performing arts gradually gained greater recognition and social prestige. Today art in all its categories is considered an essential part of human achievement, and some of its many, varied creators are ranked among the most celebrated citizens of the world.

For art theory see Aesthetics; Criticism, Literary. For art technique and history see Architecture; Clothing; Dance; Drama and Dramatic Arts; Music; Music, Western; Novel; Painting; Poetry; Pottery; Sculpture. See also articles on individual artists, dancers, musicians, and writers.

Microsoft ® Encarta ® Encyclopedia


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