Western Classification Between Fine Art And Design (Or Applied Art)

I was reading a material for one of my class, “Art, Authenticity, and the Baggage of Cultural Encounter” by Ruth B. Phillips and Christopher B. Steiner about the western view of non-western art. The paper points out a lot of reasons why I think the western separation between what fine art and applied art is dangerous.

I’ve always thought that the way western society define and separate fine art and design is weird and problematic in many ways. The western idea of “art for the art’s sake” being seen as the highest form of art while utilitarian art is deemed the lowest is elitist. So many artists who create utilitarian art (as westerners love to call as “craft” or “kitsch”) are not considered to be “artist” by art critics and theorists. This deconstruction devalues people’s art, especially of those who came from minority groups. For example, in the paper I mentioned before focuses on, the indigenous community.

I will draw my favorite example from an art piece created by my colleague, Emary Parisi, who wrote a piece about the interactions that happened during a previous art piece of hers, “Reclaim Your Time (With My Time)”.


(Screenshot from “(this is) A Theoretical Analysis / section to I am all I have” By Emary Parisi, 2018)

I chose this piece as an example because it is something that I, as an artist, have witnessed first hand where an art critic directly questioned the authenticity of an artist by asking her why she was in an art school rather than being in other field such as journalism or anthropology.

What is art and who gets to decide who is to be called an “artist”? If there is anything that I learned from my undergraduate art school is that no one really gets to define what art is. This is very fundamental to me, as I think, it should to everyone else.

“Although the objects under discussion originated in such diverse times and places as mandarin China circa 1850, the American Plains circa 1880, and Kenya circa 1994, they are all equally difficult to contain within the binary schema of art and artifact. In some instances, where the fact of commoditization could be hidden, the objects have been accorded a place in one of the other category. In others, where their commoditized nature has been all too evident, they have most often fallen into the ontological abyss of the inauthentic, the fake, or the crassly commercial. A particularly dense aura of inauthenticity surrounds objects produced for the souvenir and tourist trades because they are most obviously located at the intersection of the discourses of art, artifact, and commodity.

What exactly separates art, artifact, and commodity? What makes these objects an intersection of all those things? To understand this reading better I searched for the pieces that are discussed in the book along with Oxford Dictionary definition for “art”, “artifact”, and “commodity”.


noun: art; plural noun: arts; plural noun: the arts
  1. 1.
    the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
    “the art of the Renaissance”
    fine art, artwork
    creative activity
    • works produced by human creative skill and imagination.
      “his collection of modern art”
      fine art, artwork, creative activity
    • creative activity resulting in the production of paintings, drawings, or sculpture.
      “she’s good at art”
  2. 2.
    the various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance.
    “the visual arts”
  3. 3.
    subjects of study primarily concerned with the processes and products of human creativity and social life, such as languages, literature, and history (as contrasted with scientific or technical subjects).
    “the belief that the arts and sciences were incompatible”
  4. 4.
    a skill at doing a specified thing, typically one acquired through practice.
    “the art of conversation”
noun: commodity; plural noun: commodities
  1. a raw material or primary agricultural product that can be bought and sold, such as copper or coffee.
    “commodities such as copper and coffee”
    item, material
    • a useful or valuable thing, such as water or time.
      “water is a precious commodity”
noun: artefact; plural noun: artefacts; noun: artifact; plural noun: artifacts
  1. 1.
    an object made by a human being, typically an item of cultural or historical interest.
    “gold and silver artifacts”
  2. 2.
    something observed in a scientific investigation or experiment that is not naturally present but occurs as a result of the preparative or investigative procedure.
    “widespread tissue infection may be a technical artifact”

“We aim, in particular, to add to the dichotomy of art and artifact a third, pivotal category, the commodity, and, further, to discuss how some aspects of the discourses surrounding all three were complementary and mutually reinforcing while others were intersecting, contingent, and contradictory.”

Another reason why I think this is a good book (that I might actually buy because apparently our school doesn’t have full access to this on Jstor) is this point. By the western definition themselves, art and artifact seem to overlap each other. And the belief that commodity cannot be considered as art is, I think, ignorant, as art takes many forms in our daily life. Igor Kopytoff wrote in “Cultural Biology of Things” that, “A commodity is a thing that has use value and that can be exchanged in a discrete transaction for a counterpart, the very fact of exchange indicating that the counterpart has, in the immediate context, an equivalent value.” In the modern day, what to be considered to be a “high art fine art” is also commonly commoditized as an exchanged value between art collectors and institutions.

Banksy’s attempt to destroy the painting after it was bought at an auction rendered futile as it was kept being commoditized at even a higher value than it was before the painting got shredded.

To be represented as “art,” in other words, the aesthetic objects of non-Western people had to be transposed into the Western system of classification of the fine and applied art. Feminist and Marxist art historians have revealed how this system reinforces hierarchies of gender and class. Its hegemonic implication for race have, however, been less clearly set out, in large part because the highly selective promotion of non-Western art by modernist artists has constructed the illusion that a universalist inclusiveness has been achieved.

I’m a firm believer of the notion that nothing in this world is universal, and that everything was created and defined within context of one another (Deleuze and Guattari’s Rhizome). Dissecting the work of indigenous culture through the western lens based on the classification of fine art and applied art, cherry-picking on what fits into the Oxford definition of fine art (“in a visual form such as painting or sculpture”) to represent to the rest of the world of what counts as indigenous art, ignores the indigenous systems of value and meaning that are attached to the objects, is a flawed and ignorant practice.

“The nineteenth-century critical historians of art also grounded their work in a Hegelian notion of progress in which the increased freedom of the artist and the greater incidence of fine art become signs of advanced civilization.

With that, if you connect the dots, believing in the classifications of what fine art and applied art mean could simply mean believing that western civilization is more advanced in comparison to indigenous civilization. And that is why I think the dichotomy between fine art and design (applied art) is a dangerous belief.

But still, I am guilty of this practice too, by constantly calling myself an “artist and designer” I am actively submitting to the belief. Why have I not changed my title to just “an artist”? As a creator, I have the autonomy to decide what my creations mean to my community, but I think I should still be aware of setting a context for myself and other people. This is both a question and a call out for myself.