The Renaissance inherited the first system of differentiation between arts: they were classified as Liberal Arts (consisting of Trivium - logical, grammar and rhetoric - and Quadrivium – arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy) and Mechanical Arts, which included the work of painters, sculptors and architects. The will to beat the sociological minority stigma to which this classification system confined arts led the Renaissance artists to call Fine Arts to Painting and Sculpture. A new paradigm to classify the concept of beautiful had thus been found. The beautiful is heir to the neo-Platonist relation that brought it close to the good, conferring the Art that was created up to the late 18th century an essentially ethical, moralising function. The early 19th century pre-romantic and romantic stance of wanting Art to be about Art was a reaction against this dependence from pre-determinate models.
The concept of Fine Arts was explained by Charles Batteaux (1713-80) in Les Beaux Arts réduits à un même príncipe (1746), refers to Painting, Sculpture, Music, and Poetry – Architecture, as well as Eloquence, are part of those arts that combine beauty and utility. However, roughly in the same period, (1717-83), Architecture was included among the Fine Arts in Diderot and D'Alembert’s Encyclopaedia, together with Painting, Sculpture, Poetry and Music, which Batteaux had already mentioned.
Although these classification systems have always denounced a hierarchy between arts, none was so strong as the differentiation between "Major" and "Minor Arts" created by Academia in the 17th century. Painting, Sculpture, and Drawing were deemed Major Arts, whereas Engraving, Tapestry, Ceramics and Furniture were given a minority status. The truth is that, by achieving the status of Fine Arts or "Major Arts", Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture (pejoratively connoted as Mechanical Arts in the Middle Ages) were able to overcome the long, painful minority process many of the old artistic expressions were relegated to until the late 20th century.
From the late-eighteenth century, new artistic experiments yielded a prominent place to the sensorial and the plasticity of materials, which coincided with a revision of the concept of the beautiful. The concept of Fine Arts became inappropriate and led to the term Plastic Arts, a name that stresses the prominence artists like sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) gave to the material of his artistic creations.
The concept of Plastic Arts was gradually replaced by that of Visual Arts with the coming of artistic expressions that did not fit into any traditional art form, such as body art, interactive art, video art, installation or web design. Photography itself – if we see a photograph taken by Nicéphore Nièpce in 1826 or 1827 as the first photograph ever – finally had (well over a century later) the chance to be recognised as an Art form. Cinema, deemed the 7th art since Ricciotto Canudo’s Manifesto of the Seven Arts (1911) – which included Music, Dance, Painting, Sculpture, Theatre, and Literature – continued to claim its artistic status throughout the 20th century. On the other hand, the old borders between arts became too obsolete, as proven by cinetic arts (Fig.1).
The aim of the concept of Visual Arts is thus to encompass as much as possible, so as to include all artistic expressions whose common denominator is the visual. Many degrees in visual arts from schools all over the world include several domains of artistic creation, allowing students to experiment on different forms of artistic expression from drawing to video.
Apart from Music and Literature, whose aim is not to create an aesthetical effect to be apprehended by sight, all other arts may be deemed visual arts. In this sense, plastic arts, architecture, scenic arts, as well as cinetic arts, are visual arts. The term Visual Arts itself denotes the superiority of sight in the field of the aesthetics which is latent in the Greek word Eidos, form or figure, a word akin to idea. Greco-Latin culture sowed the roots of this interdependence between sight and art: in Latin, not much different from idea, we say video (I see). In the heyday of the Renaissance, as science studied the eye, dissecting every membrane, and every nerve or thread was compared to river water, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and other Renaissance men raised their eyes to the mirror of the world and the window of the soul. For all these reasons, visuality is the name that best translates and includes all contemporary art forms and concepts, i.e., all the possibilities of image construction.