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Fine Arts

Updated on January 11, 2010

Fine arts have a purely aesthetic function as their basic purpose. The fine arts are usually said to include painting, drawing, sculpture, architecture, landscape architecture, literature, and musical composition. These arts are called "fine" because they provide beauty apart from any useful purpose they may serve. A painting or a sonnet may be enjoyed for itself alone, and even a beautiful building, although functional, gives aesthetic pleasure. The fine arts may also be described as those arts that satisfy an artist's need to create beauty.

The fine arts are generally distinguished from the performing arts, such as dancing, acting, singing, and playing a musical instrument. This distinction is made because the performing arts are considered more interpretive than creative. The fine arts are also distinguished from the decorative or applied arts, such as ceramics, interior decorating, jewelry design, and rug weaving. This distinction is made because the applied arts usually depend more on manual dexterity or technique than on creative originality. They are in fact, often referred to as crafts, rather than as arts.

The distinction between artist and craftsman existed in ancient Greece and Rome. Sculptors, architects, and poetic dramatists were revered because their work was associated with sacred temples and religious festivals. Gem engravers and vase painters, although respected, were regarded as being on a lower level because they worked with useful or decorative objects employed in the home or marketplace.

During the Middle Ages no such distinction was made between artist and craftsman. The same artist might be asked to do a painting or to design a tournament banner. Even in the Renaissance, when the artist achieved a more glorified position, a master, such as Raphael or Holbein, might design tapestries or jewelry, as well as execute paintings, for his patron.

In the 18th century the rise of the academies of painting and sculpture coincided with a tendency to assign a higher status to painters and sculptors than to decorators. Only "pure" artists, such as easel painters and sculptors, were elected to the academies. The first known use of the term "fine arts" in English was in 1767, a year before the Royal Academy was established. The equivalent French term, beaux arts, also came into use about that time.

Today, the academic distinction that sets the fine arts apart from the other arts is still generally observed. However, the painter Jean Lurcat has also  made sketches for tapestries, while Picasso has created designs for pottery, and Dufy has created designs for textiles. In addition, many actors, dancers, and concert performers contend that their work is as creative as that of any artist.

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