Art has been characterized in terms of mimesis, expression, communication of emotion, or other values. During the Romantic period, art came to be seen as "a special faculty of the human mind to be classified with religion and science". Though the definition of what constitutes art is disputed and has changed over time, general descriptions mention an idea of human agency and creation through imaginative or technical skill.
The nature of art, and related concepts such as creativity and interpretation, are explored in a branch of philosophy known as aesthetics.
By a broad definition of art, artistic works have existed for almost as long as humankind: from early pre-historic art to contemporary art; however, some theories restrict the concept to modern Western societies. The first and broadest sense of art is the one that has remained closest to the older Latin meaning, which roughly translates to "skill" or "craft." A few examples where this meaning proves very broad include artifact, artificial, artifice, medical arts, and military arts. However, there are many other colloquial uses of the word, all with some relation to its etymology.
20th-century Rwandan bottle. Artistic works may serve practical functions, in addition to their decorative value.
In medieval philosophy, John Chrysostom held that "the name of art should be applied to those only which contribute towards and produce necessaries and mainstays of life." Thomas Aquinas, when treating the adornment of women, gives an ethical justification as to why: "In the case of an art directed to the production of goods which men cannot use without sin, it follows that the workmen sin in making such things, as directly affording others an occasion of sin; for instance, if a man were to make idols or anything pertaining to idolatrous worship. But in the case of an art the products of which may be employed by man either for a good or for an evil use, such as swords, arrows, and the like, the practice of such an art is not sinful. These alone should be called arts." Aquinas held that art is nothing else than "the right reason about certain works to be made," and that it is commendable, not for the will with which a craft man does a work, "but for the quality of the work. Art, therefore, properly speaking, is an operative habit." Aristotle and Aquinas distinguish it from the related habit of prudence.
The second and more recent sense of the word art is as an abbreviation for creative art or fine art and emerged in the early 17th century. Fine art means that a skill is being used to express the artist's creativity, or to engage the audience's aesthetic sensibilities, or to draw the audience towards consideration of the finer things.