by Margo Machida
Whereas all human societies have developed visual idioms, the idea of Art (with a capital “A”) is elusive, much debated, and often closely entwined with social and class hierarchies, and subjective matters of value, taste, and sensibility. Its historic application as a cultural category and definitions of what constitutes visual art have varied significantly from culture to culture, across different historic periods, and according to the background, position, and perception of the viewer. Especially in the modern West, distinctions have typically been drawn between “high” or “fine” art, and crafts or applied arts. “Fine” art has been conceived as a specialized, elevated focus of aesthetic activity with its own intellectual history, professional principles, standards of judgment, and notions of individual “genius.” By contrast, crafts, design, and vernacular practices deemed as “tribal,” “primitive,” “folk,” or “outsider” art were often treated as lesser. While the Western tradition of visual art once referred mainly to painting, sculpture, drawing, and graphics, the invention of groundbreaking technologies—photography, film, television, the computer—and the appearance of new practices including video, digital, mixed media, web-based, conceptual, installation, performance, body, land, and earth art have repeatedly enlarged and complicated the ways in which visual artistic activity is understood and utilized. Moreover, as distinctions continue to erode between the realms of the “fine” arts, visual and material culture, and everyday life, it is more commonplace for artists to draw upon and integrate methods and materials from a range of sources, including craft, commercial, and industrial processes.