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Memories of the 28th Century

Art and Arts

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It has come to our attention that most people do not know what art is. In its broadest sense art is anything that is not natural, but many people seem to think that only the fine arts are art; all else is something else. That use of the word “art” is less than two and a half centuries old. Just reading the etymology tells most of the story.

From Online Etymological Dictionary
art (n.)
early 13c., "skill as a result of learning or practice," from Old French art (10c.), from Latin artem (nominative ars) "work of art; practical skill; a business, craft," from PIE *ar-ti- (cf. Sanskrit rtih "manner, mode;" Greek arti "just," artios "complete, suitable," artizein "to prepare;" Latin artus "joint;" Armenian arnam "make;" German art "manner, mode"), from root *ar- "fit together, join" (see arm (n.1)).

In Middle English it was usually used with a sense of "skill in scholarship and learning" (c.1300), especially in the seven sciences, or liberal arts. This sense remains in Bachelor of Arts, etc. Meaning "human workmanship" (as opposed to nature) is from late 14c. Sense of "cunning and trickery" first attested c.1600. Meaning "skill in creative arts" is first recorded 1610s; especially of painting, sculpture, etc., from 1660s. Broader sense of the word remains in artless.

Fine arts, "those which appeal to the mind and the imagination" first recorded 1767. Expression art for art's sake (1824) translates French l'art pour l'art. First record of art critic is from 1847. Arts and crafts "decorative design and handcraft" first attested in the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, founded in London, 1888.

From Merriam Webster Online
1: skill acquired by experience, study, or observation <the art of making friends>
2 a: a branch of learning: (1): one of the humanities (2) plural: liberal arts
b archaic: learning, scholarship
3: an occupation requiring knowledge or skill <the art of organ building>
4 a: the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects; also: works so produced
b (1): fine arts (2): one of the fine arts (3): a graphic art
5 a. archaic: a skillful plan
b: the quality or state of being artful
6: decorative or illustrative elements in printed matter

In the future, when you use the word “art” remember that it may mean something other than what you intend. If there is the slightest doubt, then add a modifier. There’s nothing wrong with writing or saying “fine art” when that’s what you mean, and when you mean visual art, you probably would be safer to say visual arts. I remember one time when a young woman commented to me that she was going to show off some of her art. Rather than being snarky, I just asked “Which art is that?” She gave me a look that seemed to indicate what else, as she said, “Painting.” But there was something in her look that accepted the fact that I had no way to know that she wasn’t a sculptress or something else.

To generalize, Humpty-Dumpty’s attitude is not useful. Words mean what people at large understand them to mean, and there’s a lot of breadth in the possibility of meaning. Or, to paraphrase Humpty: When I use a word it means whatever someone thinks it might mean.


  1. PeterL's Avatar
    I just started working on a piece regarding a particular art for my next post.