Ask the Art Prof: What’s the Difference between Fine Arts and Visual Arts?


Damien Hirst

“What’s the difference between Fine Arts and Visual Arts? Are they different? In what category does Damien Hirst’s shark fall?”

Whenever I want to understand something better, I always turn to the dictionary definition as a point of departure for my thinking process.

Fine art:
“Creative art, esp. visual art, whose products are to be appreciated primarily or solely for their imaginative, aesthetic, or intellectual content.”  (from Google)

Visual art: 
“Art forms that create works that are primarily visual in nature.” (from Wikipedia)


Oil painting by Monet

A prevalent opinion is that all fine art is visual art, but that all visual art is not necessarily fine art. One common point of view is that the original motivation for making the artwork is what distinguishes visual art from fine art.  Visual art encompasses everything that is visual, is extraordinarily wide in scope, and includes everything from a Monet oil painting to commercial concept sketches made for an animated movie. Many people see fine art as being generally devoted to artworks that are made purely for the sake of themselves.  Based on these opinions, most people would place Damien Hirst’s shark into both visual art and fine art.

I have certainly experienced different motivations for making art. Many years ago I worked as a portrait painter and painted a number of portrait commissions. The sole motivation for making these portrait paintings was essentially to please the client. The majority of decisions that went into making the painting were not my own.  Every part of the painting was controlled and determined by what the client desired to see.  On the other side of the spectrum, I consider the artwork that I make today to be fine art. I make these works because I am driven by an inner desire to do so, not because someone is paying me or telling me how to make the work.


Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel

However, this rudimentary premise only works if you want to see everything in black and white. Things are never that straightforward in art. In my opinion, the distinction between fine art and visual art is an artificial one, and there is no hard line between the two. At the most extreme ends of the spectrum, there is visual art that is made solely for the sake of satisfying a commercial need, and there is fine art that is made purely for the sake of itself.  What is in between these two extremes is immense.  For example, I think most of the world would agree that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is one of the greatest pieces of fine art that exists.  Yet the Sistine Chapel originated as a commission, as did many other great works of fine art throughout history.

For these reasons, I’m not a fan of categories, and I especially don’t like the act of categorizing specific works of art. People are eager to put labels on artists and to place artworks in categories because it makes things easier, and yet there are so many artworks and artists that defy categorization.  In many cases this is precisely why I find these artists and their artwork so engaging.  I think someone who is a good example of this is the contemporary artist Sarah Sze.  I look at her work and it’s not quite sculpture, not quite architecture, and not quite installation.  Her work floats between these genres and combines qualities of each, making it impossible to categorize her work.


Sarah Sze

I also think that it’s frustrating when artists are labeled.   For example, some artists are labeled as an “illustrator” whereas others are labeled as a “fine artist.” When really, there is so much blurring between the two labels.  What’s the difference between a “fine artist” who communicates narrative themes and an “illustrator” who creates self-initiated works?  Two artists who I think have a lot in common in terms of their visual styles and content are Marshall Arisman and Francis Bacon.  There are so many stylistic similarities in their work, and yet Arisman is classified as an “illustrator” while Bacon is known as a “fine artist.”


Marshall Arisman

Then you have a “fine artist” like Wayne Thiebaud who has created a number of covers in the past for the New Yorker. There is so much versatility and range within each artist that it doesn’t seem right to reduce these artists to overly simplified labels.


New Yorker cover by Wayne Thiebaud

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2 thoughts on “Ask the Art Prof: What’s the Difference between Fine Arts and Visual Arts?

  1. I agree with you, I’m not fan of labels either, especially since both apply to me, I started as fine artist and still do fine art, but my job is in the field of illustration/concept art.

    Something I’ve noticed is the eagerer an artist is to choose a label, the more prone they are to disregard the value of artists who fall in other categories. This attitude is very self restricting, because independently of your focus, there’s so much you can learn from other artists in all areas.

  2. I somehow got the idea that although Visual Art is a slightly broad term and can accommodate everything, the terms Fine art and Graphic Arts have more of a difference. It has less to do with its purpose and more to do with the way it is reproduced. For e.g. Fine artists create an artefact, a single object, and it is unique. Graphic artists create objects that can be reproduced and are subject to the limitations/freedom of these media, therefore, such as silkscreen, offset, etc.

    Visual arts would mean anything visual and even include sculpture and video. Applied/Commercial Arts would mean art for commercial purposes and subservient to selling some allied product rather than just itself (for it’s own sake).

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