A no-fear fine arts primer

Are you totally unfamiliar with the fine arts? Uninitiated, per se? Or maybe it’s been a hot sec since you saw a play, played in high school band, or painted a picture.

Never fear! This is your worry-free guide to getting started with the fine arts.

But – first things first. There is no wrong way to talk about, or engage with, the fine arts. There are tools, terminology, and conventions to learn FOR SURE. But – you will bring your own ears, eyes, and heart to what you’re experiencing… so you should also bring your own mind and voice. Say what you think, and don’t be afraid! Art is for you, just as much as it’s for the critic or scholar.

Alrighty-roo – with that said, let’s dive in!


I talk a lot about “the fine arts”… but what does that encompass, exactly? Well, generally speaking, that covers music, dance, theatre, and the visual arts. “But,” you might be thinking… “like, all dance? And all music??”

In a nutshell – no. You’ve likely heard the term “popular music” before, right? That would be what you’d hear on most radio stations: basically – pop, rock, and country. Under “fine arts,” we would have all of music, MINUS those genres. So, jazz, for example, stays in under “fine arts,” and Cardi B does not (sorry, girl).

Now, do the same thing for each larger umbrella under “fine arts”: music, dance, theatre, and visual arts. You can probably think of some types of dance which might be analogous to pop music. You might also think of some types of visual art which may or may not quite be considered “fine art” (for example, stuff your aunt might order on Wayfair, which my mom calls “faux art”, or “fart” for short).

Often, mass produced ≠ art. And, unfortunately, things produced for mass consumption (like dance on TV, or music on the radio) generally also ≠ fine art (with some wonderful exceptions, which we can get into another time.)


Before I start, let me say one HUGE caveat: there is an enormous amount of nuance in fine arts history and terminology. As with any important and MASSIVE topic, the deeper you go, the more accurate you can be in your word choice, discussion, and understanding. Because I’m assuming you’re new here (Hiii!), let’s start at the top level, and as you learn more with me, we can work our way deeper.

OK – wait, ONE MORE CAVEAT: for the moment, we’re talking about what people call the Western traditions/history of these art forms, since that makes up the basis of today’s popular canon (which means: the stuff you’re most likely to encounter). In general, that means art almost exclusively from Western Europe and the countries those countries colonized. We (in “Western” cultures) are only now starting to come out from under several hundred years of focus on only those countries (and the white patriarchal privilege that accompanies them) to learn more about art from all over the world, art made by people other than cisgender white men, and art that was stolen, suppressed, and appropriated over centuries. Bear with me while you learn the popular basics as they stand today, then we’ll expand our knowledge/understanding/awareness together.



When people say “classical music,” they’re generally referring to the giant bucket of “fine art music that isn’t jazz.” That can include Early Music (which usually means music from 500AD-1600AD, but, like most fine arts stuff, it’s a whole thing), Contemporary Music (which generally means fine arts music post-1950, but, again, there’s a lot of nuance), and Experimental Music (you might currently know this as “a lot of weird sounds I don’t understand but the musician seems really serious about”, but you’ll come to love it).

What I can tell you is that Classical Music DEFINITELY means, in everyday conversation, art music written between 1600 and today, that trained musicians perform, either as soloists, small groups, or large ensembles (like orchestras and choirs). It also includes Opera.

There are a few major periods within that window I just mentioned, and you should know their names. Fun fact: these periods are basically applicable to ALL art forms. Convenient!


EARLY MUSIC (approx. 500-1600)

The term “Early Music” is a bit misleading, since we know cultures around the world made music way before the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, Early Music generally means music of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, and sometimes also lumps in the Baroque period (which you’ll learn about in a sec). The particularly cool thing about Early Music is that the music itself and its history – i.e., how it would have been performed at the time it was written – are so deeply intertwined. Early Music is generally performed on what we call “period instruments” – instruments from the era the music was written for (aka, the great-grandparents of today’s orchestral instruments). Picture: consorts (little groups of jolly Medieval musicians or singers) performing as a band of Merry Men/women/people.

THE BAROQUE PERIOD (approx. 1600-1750)

This is when Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel lived and wrote a lot of music that has a bajillion notes in it. It’s also from around when Shakespeare was writing to when our buddy Ben Franklin was inventing stuff. Think: rise of intellectualism, fascination with the solar system and forces of nature, and lots of ruffly man-blouses. Bach, the big daddy of the Baroque period and God-like figure to musicians everywhere, died in 1750, marking the end of the period. The industrial revolution started soon thereafter, cementing the end of the period no later than 1760.

THE CLASSICAL PERIOD (I know, it’s confusing. This is approx. 1730-1820)

Here’s something important to know – the periods overlap! That’s because everyone didn’t just decide to move on to a new period of music (see also: every other art form). Periods are things we notice after the fact, based on shifts in culture, style, politics, and philosophy. In a nutshell, the Classical Period is Mozart (and his contemporaries, who pale in comparison), then Beethoven (and everyone he hated). To picture the world of the Classical Period, think Hamilton, Les Misérables, and, obviously Amadeus. It’s all about structure, precision, and perfection.

THE ROMANTIC PERIOD (19th century)

If the Romantic Period had an alternative name, it would be “People Trying To Get Over How Awesome Beethoven Was.” Beethoven ushered in the Romantic period (he didn’t die until 1827, and his entire body of work basically sums up the movement from the tightly-wound Classical to the free-spirited Romantic). Picture Pride & Prejudice, Gone with the Wind, and Wuthering Heights and you’ve grounded yourself squarely in the Romantic Period, which was all about the exploration of human emotions. (Also: FYI, Romantic does not just mean lovey-dovey. Don’t mix that up.)


Each of these eras has multiple sub-periods, but perhaps none more so than post-1900. With dramatic shifts in culture (largely centred around the two World Wars) and huge advancements in technology, there are bound to be some epic artistic periods afoot. Generally speaking, there was a major movement from ~1898-1918 (at the end of WWI), which was the era of Debussy, Strauss, and Ravel, who expanded on the ideas from the Romantic Period. We often call the work of this period Impressionism (which you’ll also hear about in visual arts). Then we have even MORE “modern” approaches after WWI, with young composers who wanted to shake things up and totally reconfigure how and why classical music was written. This is where some of the less lyrical (i.e., harder to hum along to) classical music started, and we call this Expressionism. Then, after WWII, technology rapidly transformed pretty much every decade, which meant increasing use of electronics in music composition and production, wilder and wilder sounds and concepts (like merging performance art with music, or randomly generating sound using computers), and, likely, more and more music that you might think is cool or scary or unsettling but you’re not sure why (yet). Post-WWII we have the Modern period, Post-Modernism, and, of course, the music of today, which we refer to as Contemporary.

We’ll get deeper and deeper into the periods as we go through the different art forms that follow.


Aria: A big solo song in an opera. As in, for one person. Solo.

Cadenza: A flashy bit at the end of a movement of a concerto (see below) or aria (you already know that one!) where the orchestra stops playing and the soloist plays or sings some really hard music alone for like, 30 seconds. It’s usually right before the big finish. Historically, these were improvised, but today, most musicians will play a famous cadenza, or a mixture of cadenzas from the past, or something they’ve written themselves.

Chamber Music: Music written for a small group of musicians, where each part is equally important. A few common “chamber groupings” are the string quartet (two violins, a viola, and a cello), woodwind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and – surprise! – french horn), and piano trio (usually piano, violin, and cello). The pairing of a classical singer and pianist is also common. Sometimes slightly larger groups (which are still much smaller than an orchestra) are also considered Chamber Music, and the term can also refer to the style of playing where musicians listen closely to one another to figure out how and when to play, rather than watching a conductor for that information.

Concerto: A piece written for a solo instrument + orchestra. This is usually the second piece on an orchestra concert, and it’s most commonly a violinist, cellist, or pianist (though certainly not always!). Plural is Concerti, not Concertos, but people say it wrong all the time, and it’s no biggie.

Conductor: The person at the front of an ensemble (group) of musicians who waves their arms around to create the tempo (speed) of the music, the balance between the instruments (which sound should pop out the loudest), and the emotion of the music. Orchestras and opera companies often have a primary conductor (known as the Music Director) and an assistant conductor (someone employed by the company who does lots of concerts, too, but who isn’t on the posters). Guest Conductors are gigging conductors without a home base, or visiting conductors from other ensembles.

Encore: An extra piece played after the main performance because the audience is so fired up. Famous solo musicians may have famous encores, and there are also favourite encores for every instrument (they’re usually short crowd-pleasers).

Movement: Big classical works like symphonies and sonatas are divided into smaller parts called Movements. Each one has its own flavour, and they might even have different themes or stories. You’ll see in a concert program how many movements there are, and they’re usually titled with the tempo (speed) markers that appears at the start of the movements. Hot tip: that’s a fun way to get to know the different words for musical tempi (pl. of tempo), and to make sure you don’t clap too early (we don’t clap between movements).

Opera: A long piece of music+theatre, like a musical, but with louder, more hardcore singing, and an orchestra. It’s a play (usually a dramatic one, but definitely not always), but with classical singing. In some operas, everything is full-on sung – ain’t no talking. In others, there’s a mixture of singing with very enunciated speaking (sometimes in another language, usually German), and in lots and lots of famous operas, there’s a cool hybrid thing the singers do that sounds like half-singing, half-talking called Recit (reh-SIT), or recitativo, and it comes in-between the arias and ensembles to move the plot along.

Oratorio: Same as an opera, but without the acting or costumes. The singers stand along the front of the stage (there’s usually just a few soloists, rather than a whole cast), the orchestra plays behind them, and then a choir sings at the back. The stories and text are usually from the Bible (but not always), and the most famous oratorio is Handel’s Messiah, which you hear usually at Christmas (featuring the “Hallelujah Chorus” you’ve probably heard in commercials and movies).

Orchestra: A big group of musicians who play a standard set of instruments (the five string instruments: violin, viola, cello, bass, and harp; the woodwinds: oboe, clarinet, flute, and bassoon; the brass: trumpet, trombone, french horn, and tuba; and percussion: timpani, piano, and all the many drums, cymbals, triangles, and other things you can hit). Sometimes called a Symphony Orchestra, or Philharmonic Orchestra (or “Symphony” or “Phil”, for short).

Recital: A solo concert. If given by a pianist, it’s often just piano; if given by an instrumentalist or singer, there’s often piano accompaniment (and we generally call these glorious humans “collaborative pianists” now, and not “accompanists,” unless that’s what they prefer). And yes – musicians often say they “give” a recital. To you. You’re welcome.

Symphony: A large-scale (i.e., usually about an hour long) piece of music written for orchestra. That’s why some orchestras call themselves a “Symphony Orchestra” (and why some orchestras are just called Symphonies, which, I know, is confusing). The second half of most orchestra concerts is one symphony. There’s a surprisingly manageable list of the greatest symphonies ever written (a few by each of the most famous composers), so we’ll get to know them together.

“Toi toi toi!” and “Break a leg!”: “Toi toi toi” is the standard “good luck!” wish for opera singers (the sound is meant to imitate spitting three times to ward off bad juju), while the classic “break a leg!” or even just a good ol’ “have a great show!” is more common for instrumentalists.



For the time being, as we did with Classical Music, we’re just going to focus on what you might think of as the Western dance tradition. I do this only to ground your knowledge of what is currently the “popular canon” – i.e., what you’re most likely to see if you go buy a ticket or go on YouTube or turn on PBS.

That being said, this is the extremely “in a nutshell” history of dance (or, at least, the types of dance you’re most likely to encounter at the moment) and some starter terminology. Take note, first and foremost, that dance history is incomplete, due to its wonderfully ephemeral nature; one moment a piece of choreography is here and known by humans, and the next, known only by the infinite wisdom of the universe. AKA, we didn’t always have videocameras.

Alrighty – let’s do it.


COURT DANCES & VARIETY SHOWS (approx. 1400-1670)

Ok, so they weren’t called Variety Shows… but that’s basically what they were. But first, the court dances. You know the parts in Shakespeare in Love or Romeo + Juliet where they very slowly dance and touch hands and walk in circles? That’s court dancing, and the nobility of the middle ages and Renaissance were totally into it. Part social activity, part performance, court dances were a major form of entertainment for a couple hundred years, and they’ve only fairly recently found revival, particularly in performances alongside musicians playing instruments from that era. The “variety shows” (actually called a whole bunch of different names that you don’t need to learn right now) were fancy shows for the nobility that included skits, musical performances, and, yes, dances.

EARLY BALLET (approx. 1670-1800)

In 1670, the Paris Opéra opened, which basically started professional ballet. In the 1700s, noble lords and ladies would frequent the Opéra to see lavish – I’m talking, outRAGEously lavish – shows filled with staging and loosely-held-together plots usually based in mythology. Dancers from this time were much closer to actors than musicians – meaning, their primary job was to create and convey characters and emotions. Movements of the period were a lot like those from court dances: measured, stately, and generally not super fun or sexy. Cue some influential dance masters in the late 1700s who ushered in tighter, stretchier costumes and ballet slippers so that dancers could move naturally and emotively, and, eventually, en pointe. Hallelujah.

THE ROMANTIC PERIOD (again!) (19th century)

Yay! You already know this one! Remember – this is when musicians started capturing and conveying human emotions through their work. Surprise surprise, same for dance. The dance world also picked up on other themes of the Romantic period (which are echoed across all mediums, from literature to music to visual arts), including mysticism (exploration of the supernatural/magical/mystical), exoticism (fascination with far-off places and cultures), and explorations of dreams and fantasies. In dance, this led to the development of pointe. By lifting the ballerina up, she became more magical, otherworldly, or even supernatural. And, spoiler alert, “woman rises up en pointe and becomes mythical creature” is a really common ballet plot. FYI: this era is when most of the famous ballets you’ve heard of are from (Swan Lake, Giselle, The Nutcracker, etc. etc. etc.), and, confusingly, this era is what people are generally referring to when they refer to “Classical Ballet.”

BIRTH OF MODERN DANCE (approx. 1900-1960)

You know the song in White Christmas where Danny Kaye is wearing a beret and does the song “Choreography” with all the female dancers in the long dresses? That’s inspired by this period of dance history, which, like music history, was all about “modernism” (and what, exactly, that meant). Many choreographers of the period sought to break down earlier conventions of beauty, gender, and “perfection” and create new expressions of individualism, convey more raw human emotions, and explore pure movement (as opposed to telling stories through gesture). This era of modern dance involves people in very stretchy unitards doing lots of angular movements, and badass choreography by women for women. Meanwhile, George Balanchine basically crafted American ballet as we know it through his Neoclassical technique and choreography. This is also when we saw the development of amazing broadway dancing on stage and in film, including jazz, tap, and modern styles.

THE CONTEMPORARY ERA (approx. 1960-present)

From modern dance, to classical ballet, to tap, jazz, ballroom, and hip hop… dance has generally turned into one big exciting melting pot of different styles, influences, and niches. From the postmodern minimalism that emerged following the previous period of exuberant experimentation (when choreographers and dancers rebelled against the idea that dancers need to move or look a certain way) to the current emphasis on lyrical styles/emotive movement (see: every episode of So You Think You Can Dance), dance continues to evolve and respond to the times in which it is created. Just like every art form.


As with the previous history section, I’m going to stick mostly to ballet for the time being, just to get you started.

Balletomane: A person who loves ballet; a ballet enthusiast. Pronounced: bah-LET-ah-main.

“Chukkas!” or “Chookas!”: “Good luck!” / “have a good performance” for ballet dancers. Apparently it means “chickens!”, as in, let’s sell enough tickets to get a nice chicken dinner later. Anywho, let’s leave the leg-breaking to the actors and musicians, shall we?

Corps de Ballet: The chorus. AKA, the people in the ballet who aren’t soloists, usually just called The Corps (pronounced “Core”, like the Marine Corps). It also means, more broadly, the people who make up the “body” (corps = body) of the ballet company.

En pointe: Where the ballerina (and very very rarely but delightfully, the male ballet dancer) wears the fancy ballet slippers that have block-shaped, firm toes made of stiff fabric and glue (pointe shoes), and dances alllll the way up on their tippy-toes. Which they break. A lot.

Fouetté: I’m not going to get into all the ballet terms, because we’ll be here all day. But people who like ballet know this one, so you may as well know it, too (since you’re about to be someone who likes ballet, if you aren’t already). This is the move where the dancer stays up on one set of toes while using the other leg to kick out to the side and “whip” around in a circle (it means “to whip”). They usually do a set of them without putting their foot down, then everyone claps, because it’s hard. See: Center Stage and Black Swan.

Mixed Rep: There are basically two types of ballet productions you can go to: a story ballet, like Sleeping Beauty, which is like a play but danced; and mixed repertory productions (or “mixed rep”) which are usually three or four short ballets, which may or may not have their own little stories, put together into one evening. Also called a triple bill (when there are three short ballets together). Ballets that aren’t stories are called, simply, plotless ballets.

Pas de deux: A ballet duet. (Perhaps unsurprisingly there’s also Pas de trois for three, and Pas de quatre for four).

Pirouette: Ok, one more ballet technique term. A spin. There, wasn’t that easy?!

Positions: Ballet has five basic positions of the feet (plus two kind of add-ons, for a total of seven), called First Position, Second Position etc..

Port de bras: “Movement of the arms.” Like the positions of the feet, ballet is also built up of five basic positions of the arms.

Principal: Remember the Corps? Dance companies have ranks. That means that a young dancer aspires to move up from the Corps to Soloist to First Soloist to, perhaps one day, Principal. As Soloist, you do featured short solos or minor roles; as Principal, you get to be the title character.

Spotting: That thing ballet dancers do where they whip their head around really quickly while they do turns so they only ever look at one spot. It’s so they don’t get dizzy. Cuz that would be bad.



Again, we’re going to focus on Western history, even though theatre has held an important place in culture around the world for thousands of years. We’ll get there.

We could have started any of these sections in Classical Antiquity (ancient Greek & Roman cultures) and built our knowledge base from there, but instead you might have noticed we started in the Middle Ages for both Dance and Classical Music. However, for Theatre and Visual Arts, we pretty much have to go allllll the way back to ancient Greece and Rome to find our footing.



I’m gonna go out on a pretty sturdy limb and say that the VAST majority of the 19th and 20th century plays we know and love are either direct or indirect descendants of Greco-Roman theatre. Athenian Tragedies (which people often refer to as “Greek Tragedies”) were like early musicals, merging movement and choral singing to tell the stories of Greek mythology. The Greeks were also fans of comedies (especially ones with moral undertones) and variety shows merging different art forms including speech, dance, and musical performances. As the Roman empire became Big Dogs of the continent, so too did their dramatic styles and conventions become increasingly refined, profesh, and closer and closer to what we know today as Theatre.


In the early Middle Ages, we get the first plays that are truly plays as we know them today. They were mostly religious in theme (like everything else at the time), and that trend continued right up until one very important style emerged from Italy: Commedia dell’arte (komm-MAY-dee-yuh dell-AR-tay). These were troupes of performers who would play “stock” roles (there were always a pair of lovers, an idiot doctor or lawyer, and a comedic servant, among others), and then improvise plays as those characters. Like the characters and conventions of Greek and Roman theatre, aspects of Commedia dell’arte can be found throughout theatre history from that point forward. So, we’ll spend some time on it at some point. But for now, on to…


You know this part already (thanks, high school!). Shakespeare, Marlow, Johnson, and a handful of other buddies dominated English theatre for about 80 years. As you no doubt remember from Shakespeare in Love, plays were kind of a big deal under Elizabeth I. You will also recall from Gwyneth Paltrow’s terrible wig that women weren’t allowed to be actors, so men played all the roles. Thank god that’s over. Anywho, obviously Shakespeare’s plays continue to be staples of the canon, so you should get to know all three types of them – tragedies, histories, and comedies.

RESTORATION (1660-1710)

So, after Elizabeth I went all out on, well… everything, the Puritans came into power in England for a hot sec and shut down all the fun, which included theatre. Because theatre = fun. But then, in 1660, England got a king again, the theatres reopened, and a period called the Restoration happened, which included an important kind of theatre called Restoration Comedy (or Comedy of Manners). These are funny, clever, sometimes very bawdy plays which FINALLY included women playing women who, like many of Shakespeare’s women, were quick-witted, outspoken, and strong-willed. There are also a lot of lewd jokes, crass themes, and cross-dressing. Good times.

NEOCLASSICISM (18th century)

Basically for all the arts in the 1700s, think elegant, perfect, amazing simplicity, unity, and coherence (think: Mozart, but for every art form). Pretty much everything from this era is based on philosophies of Greek antiquity, which emphasized maintaining perfect structure and balance in the arts. But then, over top of that, you need to also layer a lot of gold, satin, ruffles, powdered wigs, and general fanciness. When you think of the “Classical” or “Neoclassical” era (aka, the 18th century), just think: “god-like perfection.” That oughta get you where you’re going.


Remember this one… it’s the Romantic Era! In theatre, as in music and dance, this meant a wide-ranging exploration of subjects related to the human psyche, our dreams and desires, and, most of all, the spectrum of emotions. Playwrights approached these themes differently, with works spanning from subtle realism to over-the-top melodrama. This was also a golden age of opera (unsurprising, given all the feels flying around) and its lighter, funnier cousin operetta. And as with music and dance, you will recognize the names of a lot of artists and their works from this era, as they make up a HUGE part of the canon (think: Ibsen, O’Neill, Wilde, and Shaw, amongst many others).


As with dance and classical music, 20th century theatre had a crapload of mini-movements within it. Coming out of the development of realism in the 19th century, many 20th century playwrights moved further and further into the realm of the abstract – through symbolism (plays full of mist and moody lighting and metaphors and symbols about the deeper meaning of life, mostly coming out of France and Russia), to expressionism (non-realistic, really wild plays from Germany and America, usually about individualism and people’s darker impulses), to avant garde (creative re-thinkings of what theatre is and how the actors and audience interact). Meanwhile, playwrights in England said “y’all do your thing, we’ll basically just keep living in the 19th century”, and kept writing realistic, romantic-style theatre for another hundred or so years. Something for everyone.


“Break a Leg!” or “Merde!”: “Good luck!” / “have a great performance!” for actors (and yes, “merde” means “shit” in french). For all the performing arts, we do NOT say “good luck” in the theatre/venue. Or in general. There’s no luck involved, and performers would prefer not invite that kind of juju in…

Close/Closing: The end of a show’s Run (see below). AKA, you can’t see it anymore after it closes. As in, it’s closed. Closed!

Curtain Call: Where all the actors come out at the end of the play and bow. Curtain call order usually goes from smallest role to largest, then sometimes the director and, on opening night, other important people, like the set and costume designers and maybe even the playwright (if they’re alive and stuff).

Entrance: The first time an actor walks on stage in the show. If you happen to be in London or New York to see some very famous people in a play, the audience may applaud at an actor’s entrance out of the sheer joy of seeing them.

Epilogue: A wrap-up/summary, usually in the form of a speech or poem delivered by a narrator.

Extended/Held Over: Sometimes, if a show has been wildly popular, it will get “extended” or “held over”. That means there are a few more performances that get tacked on after the original Close date. If a play gets extended, you should definitely go see it.

Finale: The big finish, in musicals and operas.

Fourth Wall: The imaginary wall that separates the stage from the audience. In most plays, the actors don’t ever interact with the audience (i.e., they pretend you’re not there). Sometimes, especially in comedy and avant garde theatre, an actor will “break the fourth wall”, meaning they’ll talk directly to you.

Intermission or Interval: Break time between Acts of the play/musical/opera/whatever. A very good time for wine or coffee.

Open/Opening Night: The first night of a play’s Run (aka, the first “real” performance).

Preview: Before a play “opens” (meaning: before the official Opening Night), it often has a string of performances called Previews. These are like dress rehearsals that are open to the public, and they seem pretty much like a normal performance. Only difference is that, if you went a couple nights in a row, you might notice small changes, since this is the time the actors and backstage teams fine-tune the show.

Prologue: Same as Epilogue, but at the beginning of the play to set the scene.

Run: The time during which the show will be performed. I.e., “it’s a 10-show run”, or “On Golden Pond runs from November 3rd to 23rd at the Shubert Theatre.”

Understudy/Cover: Being an actor is one hell of a grind, so it’s no surprise that they get sick all the time. To make sure the show will go on, actors have Understudies or Covers: people who know the part that can step in at a moment’s notice to play that role. In a musical, these are often members of the chorus who may cover several roles in one production. They’ll let you know before a show starts if any of the roles will be played by understudies/covers.



Ah, the history of visual art. Where does one even start? Art has been essential to us since the DAWN OF TIME, so if you aren’t already a fan, you really should be.

Visually capturing what it means to be human has been our birthright for thousands and thousands of years, but art of the early peoples of the world is an ENORMOUS subject… and there are really big, important, scholarly debates amongst art historians as to when exactly one should start when discussing the history of the last few centuries of art. For simplicity and consistency, let’s start where we did for theatre: with our buddies, the ancient Greeks and Romans.



You’ve probably noticed that, a few times throughout fairly recent history, we’ve all looked back at the ancient Greeks and Romans and thought: “huh, those guys were really onto something.” The Classical and Neoclassical movements in all of the fine arts (remember those from earlier?) refer back to the perfection that was – in particular – Greek art and philosophy. The Greeks and Romans were all about capturing and expressing ideals: hence, the very heavy emphasis on gods and god-like (aka, smokin’ hot) human forms. Painted stories on pottery (like in Disney’s Hercules), and nude marble sculptures (that will make you wonder when clothes were invented) are the main works you’ll encounter.


Ok, giant fast forward. Most of the art you’re going to see from this era is religious in nature, including illuminated manuscripts (big ass books and scrolls full of beautiful calligraphy and pictures), stained glass, mosaics, and frescoes (paintings done directly on plaster walls). There’s heavy use of gold – ACTUAL gold – in all different kinds of art from the period. Lots of Jesuses (Jesi?), lots of Virgin Marys, lots of angels playing trumpets, and everyone important (holy) tends to have a big ol’ round halo to help you spot them. There are several sub-periods of Medieval art, including Romanesque and Gothic.

THE RENAISSANCE (14th, 15th, 16th centuries)

Ah, the Renaissance. One of the richest eras of art history due, in part, to the renewed interest in – you guessed it! – the virtues of Classical Antiquity. Artists of the Renaissance admired and sought to emulate the beautiful human forms and mathematically perfect compositional structures of the ol’ glory days. Also, this is the era of the Ninja Turtles’ namesakes, so you know it’s gotta be good. A lot of the most famous pieces of art EVER are from The Renaissance, like the frescoes of The Sistine Chapel (including the classic “God and Adam touching fingers” moment), that painting you probably know as Venus in a Clamshell (not what it’s actually called), The Last Supper, the Mona Lisa, and the way-bigger-than-you-expect-it-to-be statue of David (he’s really tall – get your head out of the gutter). So, yeah. Kind of an important era.

THE BAROQUE PERIOD (approx. 1600-1750)

Remember this one?! Artists of the Baroque sought to put as much distance as possible between them and the generation right before, and if you’re like me, you’ll be struck by the transition between Renaissance and Baroque. In the Renaissance, people still look very two-dimensional and stylized; in the Baroque, paintings are brilliantly life-like, sensual, and even shocking. Caravaggio was the big painter of the era, and his dark, moody, hyper-realistic paintings are still museum favourites. Meanwhile, guys like Bernini were making equally life-like, dramatic sculptures. Drama, drama, drama.

ROCOCO (approx. 1730-1770)

Speaking of drama, the late part of the Baroque is called the Rococo period, which, in a nut-shell, means “highly-ornamented, gilded, with lots of curlicues.” When you think Rococo, think “holy crap, that’s a bit much”. Like, rap mansion opulence. Artists of the era used a lot of gold (again), made lots of really cool furniture (out of gold and other valuable materials), and did a lot of paintings on ceilings that look like angels in the heavens. These painters used a style called trompe l’oeil (always mispronounced by English speakers, but you’ll get close by using the American pronounciation, which is “trom-PLOY”). It means “deceive the eye” – as in, make the ceiling seem like it’s not there. Rap mansion below, heaven above.

NEOCLASSICAL (approx. 1760-1830)

Ancient Greeks – we just don’t know how to quit you. After the hyper-dramatic Baroque and indulgent Rococo, artists yearned for a little simplicity. So they looked back at the OG minimalists – our buddies, the ancient Greeks and Romans. But, very few paintings survived from the period, so Neoclassical artists had to reference the next best thing: Renaissance art, which, you’ll remember, was itself a throw-back to the time of toga-wearing, math-loving philosophers. The era of over-the-top everything was pretty much over, and upheaval was just around the corner (hello, French Revolution), so artists grounded themselves in seriousness: simple forms, canvases that were perfectly smooth (i.e., no brushstrokes), and themes of self-sacrifice, rationality, and austerity. Not a super fun period for art/life, but definitely a FASCINATING one.

ROMANTIC (approx. 1800-1900)

So, the eras get a little messy around the end of the 18th/beginning of the 19th century. Sometimes, people call the entire 19th century and even beginning of the 20th the Romantic Period for visual art; sometimes people just mean approx. 1775-1850; and sometimes people are only referring to art that fits the parameters of Romanticism (to the exclusion of all other styles from the century). In any event, Romanticism generally refers to the styles that formed as a reaction to the serious Neoclassical. After all that thinking, it was time for a little feeling (notice how that pendulum swings throughout the history of all the arts?). Like with the other art forms, visual artists of the era sought to capture human thoughts, dreams, and fears. They also wanted to reconnect with nature (naturalism), give life-like but emotionally-charged depictions of people and events (realism), and discover and articulate their individual styles. The biggest style of the era that you will already know is impressionism – made famous by geniuses like Monet, Degas, and Renoir. Think: ballet dancers, soft colours, and small, visible brush strokes.


As with every other art form during the 20th century, there’s been a crapload going on in the visual arts through the 1900s all the way up to today. Blame it on the wars, blame it on the rapid rise of technology, blame it on sheer narcissism. Whatever. The 20th century was GREAT for art, just like the 19th, because there was so. damn. much. going on in the world. The 20th century “era” really begins in the late 19th, with lightweights like van Gogh, Gauguin, and Seurat. Then, we quickly get collage-fanatic Matisse and the other Fauvists, Picasso and all the lesser Cubists, the wild exploration of human emotion that is Expressionism (remember that one?), Surrealism (melting clocks, anyone?), and many other wildly disparate but equally fascinating movements and artists. Like the other art forms, we also have Modernism – here, ushered in primarily by artists like Kandinsky and Mondrian (think: paintings of shapes, like circles and squares, in interesting formations or patterns). In America, tough times sometimes lead to Social Realism (you know that one of the farm couple where the guy has the pitchfork?), and sometimes Abstract Expressionism (Pollock’s paint splatters, for example). Many of these movements – especially realism and abstract expressionism – have continued to one degree or another, with the result being an incredibly varied, complex, and rich current state, characterized by Pluralism and Individualism. What a time to be alive.


As with the earlier forms, I won’t get into too many technical terms, because you simply don’t need ‘em right now. What you need are the terms to get you started enjoying art, and those mostly have to do with the eras and movements you just learned about. Other than those, here are a few handy terms to get you going:

Abstract: Art that isn’t trying to look or seem realistic.

Curator: The art-picker-outer/experience-creator. Curators work at museums and put together exhibitions (groups of works of art) in a way that is meaningful for those who come to see them. They have input into what the museum should show, how they should show it, and what works the museum should purchase to add to their collection.

Exhibit: A single piece of art or a small group of related pieces. Commonly confused with Exhibition…

Exhibition: A larger collection of pieces of art that are related by artist, era, or theme. Like going to a play or a ballet, you go to see an exhibition at an art museum. They change through the year, and the museum may advertise their Current Exhibitions (only up for a limited time for the public to see, sometimes moving from museum to museum), versus their own Permanent Collection (which they pull from to show certain pieces at different times).

Folk Art: Art made by untrained artists (aka, ones who haven’t got an art degree or traditional technique training).

Gallery: People get art galleries and art museums mixed up. The purpose of museums is to display fine art for people to see. The purpose of galleries is to sell art. But! Fun fact – you can also wander through galleries and enjoy them like museums (you’ll just have to be ready to say you’re “just looking” when a helpful sales person asks if you are shopping for anything in particular, which is totally fine).

Installation: Installations are large, immersive pieces of art that you can generally walk right up to, or even around in. From rooms full of mirrors to giant sculptures, installation art can be inside or outside, temporary or permanent, delightful or unsettling. It’s all marvellous.

Mixed Media: Art made up of a bunch of different materials, whether it’s “found objects” (read: garbage) plus paper, or metal plus fabric, or even combinations of 2-dimensional media, like pencil, paint, and crayon. Basically, sky’s the limit.

Museum: A public building/organization created to display art to the public (that’s you!).

Opening: When a new exhibition starts up, the museum has an Opening – an event to mark the first time that people get to see everything. Galleries also have these, and if you have a friend who is an artist, you should never miss one of their Openings (for moral support and also – finger food).

Performance Art: For performance artists, their body is their medium. Performance art takes a wide variety of forms, but as a gross generalization, if frequently involves people doing shocking feats of stamina, self-mutilation, or repetition (often in the nude), and these actions, like all art, often explore deep themes about humanity, self, and culture.



Or rather, YOU did it!

You’ve taken the first step to becoming one artsy mothafucker. You’ve built the groundwork for a whole lotta enjoyment, curiosity, engagement, and – most excitingly – insight into YOU. Because ultimately, that’s what art is all about: helping you figure out you.

So where should you go next? Hop on over to the rest of the blog to learn all about the four fine arts you’re now basically a scholar of, learn how to interact with them in ways that are fun and exciting for you, and find out how to make your life a little more Artfully Guided.