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What are the arts?

Updated on April 21, 2021

And who is to decide whether you can call an object a work of art?

This article will first of all deal with two aspects: 1) Which genres can reasonably be defined within the category of arts, and - even more intreresting, 2) The quite difficult question: which criteria must a work fulfil to qualify as a work of art.

The middle ages: Art & craft

During the middle ages one spoke of the seven arts, which in modern teminology were both art and craft: the Artes Liberales, which was grammar, logic, rhetoric, music, astronomy, arithmehic and geometry. As oppesed to these there were the Arthes Mechanicae, the mechanical arts, such as metalworking, farming and cooking. Certainly nobody would today label for example farming as an art, but one did not distigush between arts and crafts.


Later, during the renaissance, a concept of art developed, which was closer to a modern understanding of art. Now, the seven arts were: Architecture, Theatre, sculpturing, painting, music, dance and poetry. This was eventully going to be the traditional list of the arts.

Over time, though, the list had to be extended as new arts were added, primarily due to the technological development. Thus film as well as photography were results of new technological achievements. The latter became as fine art photography comparable to contemporary wall art, especially when skilled black and white photographers exhibited their works at modern art galleries. Also the comic - as a representative of modern pop-culture - might be added to the list.

All that said, such lists are in no means adequate. Not least due to the fact that the list itself is disputable. For instance, is the comic genre to be considered an art? Some would definitely refuse that.

What are the arts: An attempt - meant to be incomplete

Exactly because lists of arts are in themselves disputable the following list to be briefly discussed is by nature incomplete:

Is this a work of art?


Architecture are by most people probably associated with extraordinary buildings, such as impressive mansions, bridges or cathedrals. The artistic value of such monuments is indisputable. But as a matter of fact often rather ordinary family houses is the work of an architect. The question now is: Can an ordinary family house be considered a work of art? And if so, what would qualify such a definition?


Of course you have the ballet but also a discipline such as figure skating has got obvious artsitic qualities. But what about folkloristic dancing, then. Is it art?

Drawing and Painting

All right, someone might say I am showing these disicplines disrespect by describing them together. Be that as it may, the point is that they are closely related.

That drawing and painting deserve the label art is beyond doubt. Some of the most oustanding creative works made by homo sapiens consist of for example oil paintings on canvas. Nevertheless especially modern art painting has been quite vulnerable when it comes to the border between art and non-art. One might say that this is due to the development in abstract wall art because non-figurative motifs may in principle be made by a child in a kindergarten. And consequently there has been several embarassing incidents in the world of art, where anonymous competitions have finally been won by small kids. Thus, especially modern canvas art, is often the subject when discussions of art gets noisy!


To be honest I find it difficult to place gastronomy among the arts. Anyway, if it's true that l'art pour l'art then gastronomy is certainly not for arts sake but rather for the belly! You don't consume a work of art! An important exception is when gastronomy is an element in a larger work of art. For example if the act of eating is part of a fluxus happening.

I know that many people will disagree with me at this point. Just feel free to express your opinion among the comments below!


As opposed to gastronomy, that fiction and poetry are among the arts is beyond doubt. But alwhen it comes to literature you can ask similar questions whether a piece of fiction is to be considered art. For example pornografic literature. Is it art? Well ...


So many people are delighted every day with the "language of the heart". But music is also used as a means to manipulate people, not only for art's sake but for other ends, such as poitical or commercial. Think of the muzak you listen to at the supermarket, The intention is to make you feel comfortable, becuase when you feel comfortable you'll probably spend even more of your money. Is muzak to be considered art?


The theatre has a long and glorious tradition as its foundation, from the classic Greek Comedies and Tragedies over Shakespeare and to modern days masters like Samuel Beckett and Alan Ayckbourn. On the other hand you got the School Comedy or the nativity scene at the local church.

Video Games

Even video games has been added to the list. Though many video games contain impressive scenario I wouldn't call it art. The aestetic impression is not the primary focus for the creators of video games. A video game should be exciting. A game without excitement is a bad game. Even the most beautiful graphics cannot change that.

The criteria of a work of art

So far we have been occupied with the question which categories or genres you can qualify as being among the arts. Now to the even more interesting question, namely conderning the single work: When does a given work qualify as a work of art? Now this is a VERY INTRIGUING QUESTION which I've discussed several times with a good friend of mine.

The answer to the question is far form simple, and which answer you give depends among other things on whether your concept of art is objective og subjective. Now, let's have a look at those different paths to a concept of art:

The objective concept of art

According to the objective concept of art some objective criteria must be fulfilled for a work to qualify as a work of art. For example you may say that the artist of fine art paintings must have some fundamental technical skills to be called an artist. If not, he is not an artist and then it makes no sense to call his work a work of art.

The problem with this path is: Who is to define such a thing as "fundamental technical skills" - or for that reason any other objective criteria you might think of? There is no such "God of Art", no such authority that every single art critic may agree with.

The subjective concept of art

On this path the criteria is defined by the subject. Actually it concists in two different paths:

1) The defining subject is the artist himself. If a man creates an object and after having done so states: "This is a work of modern wall art" - then this object is a work art, according to this point of view.

Again there are some serious problems with this. First, what if the man was a carpenter, working at a furniture factory. If he, after having finished table no. 167 of a given model, states: This is a work of art - is this a fair statement? Can you call a mass produced object a work of art?

And what if nobody except the artist himself acknowledge the object as a work of art. Does it then make sense to label the object a work of art?

2) The defining subject is the spectator, listener or whatever you may call him, that is, the subject who is enjoying the works of famous modern artists ( if he likes them! ). According to this point of view the object is a work of art only if it is a work of art to me so to speak. That ís, only the individual may qualify the objects as works of art, no matter how famous those artists may be.

The problem here is: That a given object is not a work of art to me does not automatically exclude that it may be a work of art for others. Many people don't like modern wall art, but isn't it possible - or even plausible - to qualify a work as a work of art in recognition that at least other people like this work and would certainly label it a work of art?

A third path

None of the above mentioned attempts are in my opinion satisfying. But insn't it possible to find a third path? I think so, though this might have some weaknesses too.

What if we qualified art within a context of communicative consensus?

I think that if a qulification as a work of art is to make sense there must be a consensus between artist and spectator/listener. Both artist and spectator/listener must qualify an object as a work of art if a meaninful communication is to take place.

But this commucation can indeed only take place in a context of consensus. This means - on the other hand - that an objective or universal qualification is not possible, because there may always be a group of people, many or few, who will state, that "this isn't art to me". Nevertheless, at this third path it makes sense to recognize the individual element while at the same time make room for a meaningful communication, that is, within the group of people, many or few, who qualify a given object as a work of art.

But as I've alredy said, this is a very difficult subject. So give me your opinion among the comments below. I'd really appreciate that!


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