Art is a broad category of human creations that are often difficult to define. It can be used for utilitarian, decorative, therapeutic, or communicative purposes and may also function as a way to express ideas or beliefs. Some works of art are considered fine or high art while others are considered decorative arts or craft. The definition of art can be disputed because it is based on personal preferences and the opinions of individuals.
An important goal of art history is to educate students about the cultural contexts in which works of art were produced. The field studies the evolution of styles and trends in various media, from paintings to jewelry to architectural structures. An understanding of art is essential to developing an appreciation for culture and history, and enables people to compare different cultures throughout the world.
Some historians specialize in the study of a particular time period or cultural area, such as ancient Egypt or 1920s America. Others focus on a specific medium such as painting, sculpture, or architecture.
The most common forms of art are painting, drawing, and sculpture. Painting is a two-dimensional medium that uses pigments on a surface such as cotton canvas, linen, or wood. The surface of a work can also be metal or plastic. Sculpture, on the other hand, involves three-dimensional objects and is typically made of clay or stone. Decorative arts include basketry, enamelwork, furniture, glassware, and other materials that use design elements to add aesthetic value to utilitarian items such as bowls or chairs.
One of the challenges of art criticism is that it is sometimes driven by ideology or polemics, and can be biased towards particular artists. For example, some critics have an ax to grind against modernist art or the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, while others have an agenda such as reforming the art market.
Critics of traditional definitions of art argue that such definitions are overly restrictive and stifle creativity. They also note that the concept of art is fluid and changes over time, shifting to a greater emphasis on form or expression, for example, in the modernist movement.
A third approach, called cladistic, considers a work of art to be fine or high art if it satisfies some criteria, such as excellence of skill and achievement in realizing significant aesthetic goals, or if it is part of an artistic tradition recognized by the general public. This approach has gained in popularity due to the recent emergence of artworks that seem to defy traditional definitions of art. Nevertheless, many experts in the field of art history remain skeptical of this new definition of art. They are concerned that such a definition could easily be applied retroactively to formerly rejected works.