July 23, 2013

What is Art…and what is Fine Art?

2006-9-20 Ingrid Surrounded - Final 10-27-2006

How would I define art or fine art? My short answer is: I wouldn’t. 

I mean, who cares? There will never be a definition that everyone agrees upon and it doesn’t matter to me what someone else thinks about it anyway. If I love an image and then find out that it’s not considered fine art, do I love it any less? 

The only thing that I concern myself with is this: Do I love the image and would I hang it on my wall?

I have a friend who looked at my image above and said: “this is not fine art because people don’t smile in fine art.” This image may or may not be fine art but I don’t think it has anything to do with the girl smiling! 

Another friend told me that work created for money cannot be fine art.  I’m not sure what a person’s motives have to do with it, shouldn’t it be about the image?

I choose not concern myself with such distractions.  I simply know if I like something or I don’t and I figure that if  I’m creating the piece, then my opinion is the only one that counts.


P.S.  For those who know me a bit might ask why the seeming inconsistency between my rhetoric above and my actions?  Three examples:

1.  Go to Google and type in “Fine Art Photography” and see what you get.  I’ve worked hard to be number 1 out of 143,000,000 hits.

2.  If you were to overhear someone ask me “what do you do?” you’d then hear me say “I’m a fine art photographer.”

3.  I am president of “The Center for Fine Art Photography.”

Despite how I might feel about defining “fine art” there is reality: we use words to describe things.  

I target the term fine art with Google because that’s the phrase people use when they are searching for my type of images.

In the past when I told people that I was a photographer, I’d then spend the next 10 minutes explaining that I don’t do portraits, weddings or Bar Mitzvah’s.  

And believe me, we have agonized over the term “fine art” over at the “Center” and wish we could find a better one.  

The reality is that when I use the phrase “fine art photography” people generally know what I’m talking about.  This is why I hate the term, but also use it.

29 thoughts on “What is Art…and what is Fine Art?

  1. Good point,Cole. I think that art,especially photography and music,gets divided up in to so many little niches that it’s easy to forget that there are other styles out there. Maybe nothing you’d be very interested in, but valid nonetheless. It’s funny how people get so up in arms about their favorite style of…whatever. Maybe we should just remember that it’s all art and leave it at that.

  2. Hi Cole,
    I agree with your statement, the same could be said for the term “award winning” photographer. Should I love and image more because it won an award? Is an award winning photographer better than a non winning one?


  3. Hi Cole,
    I completely agree with you in that we should not care about labels, and we should not care much either about what others think of our work, or how they label our work. As you say, if one likes a photograph, who cares how the author labels it? And if one is happy with a photograph he/she has created, who cares how others label that photograph?

    It is actually because of the above that I find irritating the use of the “fine art” concept that many photographers do. It is common these days to see many uprising photographers sell themselves as fine art photographers. And I get the feeling that many of them call themselves as such in an attempt to differentiate their work from the rest, that is, as an attempt to quantify and guarantee the quality of their work. I personally dislike that. For me, quality is not decided by the word “art” or “fine”, but by the viewer. It is me and you, as viewers, who decide whether we like a photograph (i.e., has quality) or not, and whether we like it more or less than another one (i.e., has higher or lower quality). that is why I believe the fine art concept is misused nowadays. But, of course, that is because I understand fine art as “a visual art considered to have been created primarily for aesthetic and intellectual purposes and judged for its beauty and meaningfulness”.

    From the above definition, your photography in this post, and all your work in general, is fine art if, as I believe, it was created for aesthetics. Quality, money, smiles and other aspects do not play any role in deciding whether a photograph is fine art or not.

    To finish, I would just like to point out that since you call yourself a fine art photographer in this site, then, you should probably have a definition for “fine art” 😛


  4. Totally agree. Too much labeling and not enough appreciating. I love the image whatever description is attached to it. If the word fine is taken to be a corruption of ‘fin’ or end as I have been informed it should then all it means is that the picture is the end product in it’s own right with no other purpose such as advertising etc. So if we take it that it’s not the word fine we need to define but fin maybe things could be a little less ‘snobby’ as we Brits say. The thing I really like in this photograph is the look on the face of the cow to the far right – a great image all round but that cow makes me want it on my wall.

  5. “I don’t know if it’s art but I like it!”

    I don’t remember where I heard this line, movie or TV, but I think it sums up what you’re saying.

    Nice art, Cole!

  6. I reluctantly use “fine art” as a marketing term, as in “Nature, Stock, and Fine Art photography.” Other than that, never. I hardly ever use the word, “art.: and never refer to myself as an “artist.” All of these terms are what others use to define and pigeon hole. Me? I’m just a working stiff who happens to use a camera as my tool of choice.

  7. Thank goodness! The only thing worse than “what is art?” arguments on forums I’ve seen are the “What is photography?’ arguments.
    just do your thing. Let the chips fall where they may.

  8. Have to agree with all that’s being said here. It really is just plain silly to try and define such things. But… people will try anyway.

    So allow me to jump into that futile fray.

    My definition of ART is any human endeavor that demonstrates passion in it’s creation. You can love or hate whatever that endeavor produced… but, if you can see the PASSION that went behind making it… then, for me, that’s art.

    Fine Art!?! …as opposed to what… Coarse Art?

  9. I’ve always felt that anyone can create pretty much anything they want and call it art, and no one reasonably can say that it’s not. On the other hand, everyone is entitled to their own opinion as to whether said art is any good or not, and no one reasonably can dispute the validity of that opinion.

  10. The US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote an opinion saying he couldn’t define “pornography”, but he knew it when he saw it.

    As a lawyer in a former life, I always thought that was an intellectual cop out. If you “know pornography when you see it”, that says -by definition -there is some standard in your head, even at the subconscious level by which you define and judge it.

    I think defining “art” is even harder than defining “pornography”, as well as a lot less fun. So, I agree with Tony Sweet and others, that the term is so subjective that it has no meaning, except perhaps as a descriptive term to help people understand how passionate we are about the power of photography. What we produce will speak for itself.

  11. Agree completely – not a fan of the term but reluctantly accept it’s necessity. I would guess this might be rooted in an argument as old as photography itself – is it art? No one ever asks that of someone who paints or sculpts.

  12. Cole, Completely forgot to mention, I freakin’ love the posted image. In my book it’s “art”, whatever that is. It’s universal, engaging, ambiguous, and the contrast of black and white, beauty and the bovines, plus the setting, plus her jesture and expression make this one timeless.

  13. My enjoyment in photography comes in the process of creating my images (80%)and experiencing them through the eyes of others (20%). Although I do like winding up with an image that I personally like, it is not necessary to me that that happen. I do a lot of experimenting. And for the 20% enjoyment that I get from seeing my images through the eyes of others…it is not important to me if they like or dislike them. What I do want to hear is if an image affected them or not, and if it did how it did.
    Is my work fine art? Who knows and who cares. I, for want of a better term, use the term as a shorthand way to describe what I do. That tends to rule out several other possibilities, but does not help very much in describing what it is that I actually do. Or the quality of it for that matter.

  14. Cole you are 100% correct.
    Fine Art is what is seen through the eyes of the viewer.
    There is no real definition to what makes a Photography or painting fine art.
    The viewer is the only one who can define it.
    And life experiences define how each of us view things.


  15. I agree wholeheartedly with the previous comments but I feel that an important factor in defining fine art is intent. In this I mean the intent of the artist to create an image purely to be viewed for what it is as opposed to fulfilling a communicative role such as commercial or documentary photography. Interesting thread by the way…

  16. Addressing Lee Gilby’s comment above…

    Lee, I understand when you say that intent plays an important factor when trying to define art.

    However, I don’t think you can exclude commercial and documentary photography as a form of art. The works of Avedon, Newton and Scavullo are undeniably accepted as art… even though, their work is also defined as commercial fashion photography. This list goes on and on in each and every one of the different commercial photography genres.

    ART at it’s very core is simple communication… one person’s thoughts and feelings communicated to another, expressed in the medium of their choosing.

  17. Laird, all true but what I was trying to say (i wish i had a better vocabulary) was the difference between fine art and art (if there really is such a thing) is how the artist intended the image to be viewed. Avedon was originally intending to sell frocks for Harpers Bazaar but his skill as an artist resulted in his images crossing over the boundaries of definition. I think that was his intention. I think your definition of art is about as close as you can get to the truth. At a more basic level maybe buyers of art prefer the sound of the term fine art as it somehow is better than plain old art?

  18. Lee, I appreciate your response and further clarification. Please don’t think I was making any attempt at a lecture. I wasn’t… the only reason I responded to your comment was because I was a commercial photographer for many years and was just coming to it’s defense.

    Having been on both sides of the track… I’m aware that a great deal of effort and passion is required of commercial photography. Is it the same as that required for fine art photography? I’m not sure how this can be judged. All I do know, is that in my experiance… they are equally difficult.

    Wishing you good light!

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