I've always been shy to refer to any of my work as "fine art"... preferring instead to call it "still life". But I recently had an interesting conversation with an Art History major who said that my work wasn't in fact "still life" because there were no people in it, and that to be "still life" it needed to be of people or animals in their daily life activities. Instead she says my work is "fine art". So what is it that actually defines "fine art"? Is it the content? Is it the style? Is it the presentation?

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    I think your art history friend is confused. A still life is a composition with an arrangement of inanimate objects.
    – mattdm
    Apr 14, 2011 at 17:07
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    I would also add that still life does have a specific meaning, and that fireworks probably doesn't fall under it, and that generally, pictures of flowers in nature don't either. The arrangement is important.
    – mattdm
    Apr 14, 2011 at 17:29
  • @mattdm you'll note I said "major" and not "graduate". I agree she's a wee bit off base, but haven't found a very satisfying definition. Hence the question.
    – cabbey
    Apr 14, 2011 at 17:52

7 Answers 7


There are really two rather different ways "fine art" is used.

One is to refer to a category of photography. Here what matters isn't necessarily the quality of the photograph, but the intent.

Consider, for example, another possibility. If my primary intent in taking a picture is to document a newsworthy event, then I'm going photojournalism, even if I don't work for a newspaper/TV station/magazine/whatever. If my pictures are good enough, I might be able to get them published; if they're poor, I probably won't. Their later publication or lack thereof, doesn't change the fact that what I'm doing is photojournalism though.

Likewise, if I take a picture with the intent that people will look at it and like it simply because I've taken a beautiful picture, then I'm going fine art photography, even if my result is an abject failure.

By this usage, the intent when taking the picture is (at least primarily) what places it in one category or another. Whether it succeeds in that intent or not is an entirely separate question. By this standard, I think it's fair to say that essentially all still lifes, landscapes, nature photography, etc., falls under the category of "fine art" photography, regardless of how good or poor it might be.

The other usage is what (at least IMO) others have commented on: the actual quality of the photograph in question. I'd tend to agree with what I see as the essence of the opinions already expressed: this falls into the domain of opinion and taste, not fact. Not to put it too crassly, but from this perspective, "fine art" tends to be whatever you can manage to sell -- and the higher price you can sell it for, the "finer" it is. Yes, there are "authority figures" whose opinions on what constitutes fine art tend to be trusted. These can have a huge effect on prices -- but in all honesty, I (for one) consider them mostly self-fulfilling prophecies; when they commend something as great art, the price goes up, largely because of investors (who often either don't have, don't trust, or just don't care about taste of their own) who pay a lot for the work, in the expectation that it'll become valuable because of what the authority figure has said.

  • I wonder if there's a badge for having the accepted answer that no one else has voted for? I've come back to this question many times since asking it, and this one really resonates with me. It answers the asked and unasked question very well.
    – cabbey
    May 4, 2011 at 6:53
  • Two, actually: "Tenacious" and "Unsung Hero" -- though I don't think I'm anywhere close to qualifying for either. May 4, 2011 at 13:18
  • This definitely addresses the question in the most accurate manner. I, for one thing, consider a photograph "fine art" if it expresses some significant artistic intent.
    – bwDraco
    Apr 22, 2013 at 17:35

Fine arts are to be contrasted with Useful arts.

Fine arts were originally understood to mean visual things created primarily for aesthetic purposes and judged for its beauty and meaningfulness whereas Useful arts were decorative work or craftwork such as tapestry etc. They appealed to the 'finer senses' and also reflected social distinctions (some would say social pretensions).

Now Fine Arts are split into Visual Arts, Auditory Arts and Performance Arts.

The defining characteristic of Fine Arts is the purity of the discipline in its pursuit of aesthetic beauty without reference to usefulness or truthfulness..

1. Fine Art (Wikipedia)
2. What is visual art?
3. Fine art: definition and meaning

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    Usefulness, okay. Truthfulness, though? Care to elaborate on that?
    – mattdm
    Apr 14, 2011 at 17:45
  • The question of fine art and beauty is also an interesting (albeit highly academic) one, and arguably one the biggest question in art in the last century.
    – mattdm
    Apr 14, 2011 at 17:47
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    @mattdm. truthfulness in this case means it need not more or less accurately depict any thing or any event. For example product photography, family photography or photojournalism are required to be, in some sense, truthful. Fine art does not have these constraints, it pursues aesthetic beauty regardless. Or to put it another way, the aesthetic beauty of the result takes precedence over truthfulness.
    – labnut
    Apr 14, 2011 at 18:45
  • In other words, Beauty with a capital letter, but not concerned with lower-case truth.
    – mattdm
    Apr 15, 2011 at 12:13
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    "All art is quite useless." Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Grey, Preface.
    – TRiG
    Oct 27, 2012 at 0:23

It turns out that there is an entire Wikipedia article simply about different disputes about the classification of art. That has a paragraph which I think is useful to this discussion:

The second, more narrow, more recent sense of the word “art” is roughly as an abbreviation for creative art or “fine art.” Here we mean that skill is being used to express the artist’s creativity, or to engage the audience’s aesthetic sensibilities. Often, if the skill is being used in a lowbrow or practical way, people will consider it as craft rather than art. Likewise, if the skill is being used in a commercial or industrial way, it will be considered design instead of art. On the other hand, crafts and design are sometimes considered applied art. Some thinkers have argued that the difference between fine art and applied art has more to do with value judgments made about the art than any clear definitional difference (Novitz, 1992).

As I mentioned in a comment above, some of what you do is probably indeed still life, and some of it might not be. Some photography certainly falls into a practical realm; product photography, family snapshots, journalism. Art is a slippery term no matter how one tries to define it, and certainly some work within those frameworks can wear the label comfortably. But some doesn't, and that's okay too. There's some interesting discussion on this on popular photo blog The Online Photographer — Why Is It (Not) Art?. If you're interested in this, it's worth reading that and the surrounding articles and comments.

Most of my photographs aren't taken with art in mind. They're taken to be photographs. I'm happy with that — although I wish I had more time to devote to working on making art intentionally, as well.

  • One of the comments you referenced said this 'For me the primary criteria for art is that it must convey a meaning, emotion or idea that transcends the subject of the piece'. Agreed. But remember the adjective 'Fine' conveys the idea of excellence. So Fine Art is art that strives for (or achieves) excellence in the way that it 'conveys a meaning, emotion or idea'. Specifically that excellence is recognised as aesthetic beauty.
    – labnut
    Apr 14, 2011 at 19:23
  • I think there's a lot of room to argue over what exactly "fine" implies. I'm good with the definition you give, but I think it might be too narrow to encompass everything one might find hung on the walls of a "museum of fine art" or a "gallery of fine art".
    – mattdm
    Apr 14, 2011 at 20:30
  • there is much to be said about "making art intentionally", and whether some photos are art or not. I'd say everything can be art; maybe not good art, but still art. Consciousness is rather relative, here: i doubt the prehistoric folks were very conscious of the artness of the drawings they made on cave walls :) Apr 15, 2011 at 0:28
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    @JoséNunoFerreira, in my region where we do a lot of mountain hiking we see many examples of rock art. There is intense debate about their meaning and in my opinion the matter is still not understood. But what is striking is that for the most part we agree that these simple paintings are stylistic representations of surprising artistic quality. Did they see it that way? Or is this wishful projection on our part? We have no way of knowing but I find myself wanting to believe that these hard hunters in a rugged landscape saw beauty and felt the need to reproduce it.
    – labnut
    Apr 15, 2011 at 12:01
  • I've heard 'fine' art used to distinguish it from other arts, such as literature, language, etc. As to whether art must be beautiful, I disagree. Even accounting for variety in taste, as beauty is a subjective concept, there is plenty of fine art that is created with anything but beauty in mind. The whole genre of shock art is an example. Photographs can be fine art with no attempt at capturing a beautiful image. I think the distinction that others have drawn about reportage vs art is more significant than beauty.
    – Richard A
    May 4, 2011 at 10:03

This is the answer a friend gave during the above referenced conversation. I provide it here as the low bar for future answers to shot to overcome.

Fine art is like pornography, I can't tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it.

  • Awesome -- a pre-set low bar!
    – D. Lambert
    Apr 14, 2011 at 15:54

I can't tell you what fine art is in photography, even though I suspect this definition is not dependent on the subject, but on the techniques used.

One thing I can tell you: no way still life is related with people or animals! from wikipedia:

A still life (plural still lifes) is a work of art depicting mostly inanimate subject matter

sure, what you do is still life.

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    Although I'd be loathe to characterise fireworks as inanimate!
    – fmark
    May 17, 2011 at 16:18
  • @fmark - well, that's... uh. I thought about it. Common sense says you're right, but "inanimate" could be seen as "not alive" or "not moving willingly". like, leaves are inanimate objects, they can be blown by the wind and still be considered inanimate, see my point? maybe it can't be called still life... Flowers and fruits, instead, strictly speaking are alive, but they make for some great still life. Maybe "fireworks photography" is a dignified form of art in itself ;-)
    – MattiaG
    May 17, 2011 at 16:33

I'll take a shot at "low bar, part II".

Beyond the literal definition (art for art's sake), I've heard that it's "fine art" if someone will pay money for it -- presumably if they didn't commission the work to begin with (ie, a paid portrait).

I think the idea here is that you've seen something you consider art-worthy, captured it with your camera, and presented it to others in a form that makes at least some of them agree that it's art-worthy. The "pay for it" part is merely an indication that the appreciation rises above "meh".


I think that a photograph to be classified as fine art must awaken a deep emotion in the heart and mind of the observer. It must move us. The emotion could be love, pity, tenderness, joy, admiration, awe, etc. Or the emotion could be contempt,hatred, fear,indignation etc. The deeper the emotion or the impact that the image awakens in the observer the greater the art. If the image doesn't move us or awaken an emotion then it's not fine art. A truly fine art image must be indelibly impressed on the mind of the observer so it won't be soon forgotten.

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