Visual arts are generally divided into categories that make distinctions based on the context of the work. For example, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa does not fall into the same category as, say, a poster for a rock concert. Some artworks can be placed in more than one category.

During the time of the Italian Renaissance, c. 1500, painting was considered the equal of great poetry or literature as they both could affect human conduct (“ut pictura poesis”). These works were highly praised and collected and displayed in great museums like the Louvre (Paris) and the National Gallery (London). These paintings had an attained a certain pedigree and were often called “old masters” or fine art. The museum paintings had a definite finish to them and revealed subjects of a serious nature, often based on literature. When the French Impressionists began painting pictures of the countryside, without stories and of a sketchy appearance, these work were not allowed for exhibition in the Louvre. The paintings had to be displayed in private galleries as pictures of everyday life or popular culture. A third type of art appeared in the late 19th-century where designers like William Morris in England began designing items for the mass market such as decorative wall papers. This applied or decorative art flourish under the Art Nouveau banner, but had various names c. 1900 and after.


Fine art

This category includes drawings, paintings, sculptures, photographs, and, in the last decade, new media that are in museum collections and sold through commercial art galleries. Fine art has a distinction of being some of the finest examples of our human artistic heritage. Here is where you will find the Mona Lisa, and ancient sculpture, such as the Gandhara figure from India (see the following image), and stunning ceramics from different cultures and time periods.


Popular culture

Street side handbills, Puducherry

This category contains the many products and images we are exposed to every day. In the industrialized world, this includes posters, graffiti, advertising, popular music, television and digital imagery, magazines, books, and movies (as distinguished from film, which we’ll examine in a different context later in the course). Also included are cars, celebrity status, and all the ideas and attitudes that help define the contemporary period of a particular culture.

Public mural, Liverpool

Handbills posted on telephone poles or the sides of buildings are graphic, colourful, and informative, but they also provide a street level texture to the urban environment most of us live in. Public murals serve this same function. They put an aesthetic stamp on an otherwise bland and industrialized landscape.


Decorative arts, or crafts

Ceramic bowl, Mexico. Date unknown. Painted clay. Anahuacalli Museum, Mexico City.

Sometimes called crafts, this is a category of art that shows a high degree of skilled workmanship in its production. Crafts are normally associated with utilitarian purposes but can be aesthetic works in themselves, often highly decorated. This Mexican ceramic vessel is an example. Handmade furniture and glassware, fine metalworking, and leather goods are examples of crafts.

Bamboo basket making


Analyze a Work of Art

Using the course Art Resources and/or any art links or resources of your choice, find a work of art from any culture or time period and use it to answer the following questions:

  • What is the source of your chosen work of art?
  • What is the title, date, and artist’s name?
  • What medium is used (painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, photograph or digital image, video, installation, or performance)?
  • Give a short description of your chosen work of art.
  • What does it depict? What colours are used?
  • What category does it fall under?