A work of art, artwork, work or art object is a creation, such as an art object, design, architectural piece, musical work, literary composition, performance, film, conceptual art piece, or even computer program that is made and or valued primarily for an "artistic" rather than practical function. This article is concerned with the concept in the visual arts rather than music or literature, although similar issues arise in those fields.
Traditional media for visual works of art include: calligraphy, photography, carvings, gardens, ceramics, painting, prints, sculpture, drawings, photography or buildings. Since modernism, the field of fine art has expanded to include film, performance art, conceptual art, Welded sculpture and video art.
What is perceived as a work of art differs between cultures and eras and by the meaning of the term "art". From the Renaissance until the twentieth century, and to some extent still, Western art critics and the general western public tended not to define applied art or decorative art as works of art. They tended to accord them lower status than works, such as paintings, with no practical use, according to the hierarchy of genres. Other cultures, for example Chinese and Islamic, have not made this distinction so strongly.
The related terms artwork and art object, used especially in American English, came into use in the 20th century, especially to describe modern and post-modern art. It was applied to works without significant skill or craft in creating the physical object. Some contemporary works of art in conceptual art and other fields exist essentially as sets of instructions by the artist for the physical creation of the object, which is expected only to be physically created periodically—just as a piece of music or drama exists as a score or script. An example is Emergency Room by Thierry Geoffroy. Sometimes physical objects are transferred by the artist, but the work requires their arrangement in a specific form set out by the artist. In such cases, the distinction between the terms is useful; the "work of art" has no permanent physical form, but sometimes manifests as a physical "art object." Equally a work of found art may not change its physical properties, but becomes art when so presented by the artist. In contrast, a work of art may change the qualities of the materials concerned, as in An Oak Tree by Michael Craig-Martin.
The French form of "art object," objet d'art, has been used for much longer in English and usually means a work of decorative or applied art. To establish whether a work is a work of art, the concepts of attribution, artistic merit and literary merit may be invoked.
Among practitioners of contemporary art, various new media objects such as the DVD, the web page, and other interactive media have been treated as art objects; such treatment frequently involves a formalist (or "medium-specific") analysis. The formal analysis of computerized media has yielded such art movements as internet art and algorithmic art. The purpose of "new media objects" is not to replace traditional media, but to challenge old media.
An art object is a physical object that is considered to fulfill or have fulfilled an independent and primarily aesthetic function. An art object is often seen in the context of a larger work of art, oeuvre, genre, culture, or convention. Physical objects that document immaterial art works, but do not conform to artistic conventions have transubstantiated into art objects. The term is common within the museum industry.
Marcel Duchamp critiqued the idea that the objet d’art should be a unique product of an artist's labour, representational of their technical skill and/or artistic caprice. Theorists have argued that objects and people do not have a constant meaning, but their meanings are fashioned by humans in the context of their culture, as they have the ability to make things mean or signify something. Michael Craig-Martin said of his work An Oak Tree, "It's not a symbol. I have changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree. I didn't change its appearance. The actual oak tree is physically present, but in the form of a glass of water."
Some writers have long made a distinction between the physical qualities of an art object and its status as artwork. For example, a Rembrandt seventeenth-century painting has a physical existence as a painting that is separate from its identity as a masterpiece. Many works of art, such as Duchamp's famous Fountain, have been initially denied "museum quality", and later cloned as "museum quality replicas".