What Do We Mean by Art, Artists, Culture, and Industry?

The evolution of meaning in relation to changing patterns of work

Ann M. Galligan

As we, individually or collectively, set out to make a case for the many ways the arts have relevance in today's world of economic turmoil and change, it's helpful to be clear what we mean by terms like “art,” “culture,” and “industry” and also to understand what the same terms might mean to others. The words we use are telling. Their use has a history that says much about where the work we call “art” resides in our collective lives from one period to the next. Or perhaps, depending on your own interests, you might think of “the arts” or “culture” or “music” or “painting” or “literature” or … The relationship among art, culture, work, and society has evolved over time and is always in flux. The following article takes up the question of how these terms have evolved during and after the Industrial Revolution and as a result of the recent technological revolution. This article was written in 2007. How are the terms used in your world now? Will we see a shift in meaning again as a result of current turmoil and the changes it will bring? Will actions we take now affect the understanding of the arts going forward?

There are few words as controversial and lacking in concise meaning as those of art, artist, and culture. Yet academics and policymakers often gloss over this when discussing and framing art and cultural policies, including those surrounding workers in the arts and cultural sector. Although a number of important studies on the sector and its creative industries have been released in the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada, and elsewhere, few share a common definitional framework nor include the same occupational groups or industrial classifications in their counts. One of the reasons why this is true may be a lack of understanding of the historical evolution of these terms and their impact on arts- and culture-related employment, and on workplace and inter-industry dynamics.

The roots of modern usage can be found in the Industrial Revolution.

An early scholar who attempted to take definitional stock of these terms from a historical perspective was sociologist Raymond Williams, the founding father of the New Left (1921-1988). Williams traced how modern understanding of terms such as culture has evolved over time and how this has paralleled the changes in related words such as art, artist, industry, democracy, and class, from 1770 to the mid-1950s. A key organizing principle in Williams's argument is that both the idea of culture and the word art itself, in general modern usage, came into English thinking in the period of the Industrial Revolution. As a result of changes in the ways people worked, other aspects of their lives also went through radical realignments—politically, socially, and economically.

For example, before the Industrial Revolution, most people worked primarily with their bodies, not their minds, in agrarian settings. At that time, the term culture described the tending of natural growth and, by analogy, a process of human training. Culture then slowly evolved from describing a process of cultivating something to culture as a thing in and of itself. It also began to have ties to habits of the mind, human perfection, and intellectual development and became associated with the body of the arts (painting, sculpture, music, literature, poetry, and dance), then a whole way of life—material, intellectual, spiritual. During the Industrial Revolution, people began moving to cities, and work became tied to a machine-oriented environment. Williams surmises that the meaning of the word culture became concentrated at this time because of the great historical changes occurring in industry, democracy, art, and class.

So how has the meaning of terms such as art and, by association, artist, evolved as a result? From its original sense of a human attribute or skill, Williams traces how art moved into being recognized as a kind of institution or a set body of activities—the Arts. In addition, he asserts that the term art moved from referring to any human skill to one that came to signify a particular group of skills relating to the “imaginative” or “creative arts.”

Likewise, around the end of the 18th century, the term artist also began changing. Previously, artist had meant a skilled person across all walks of life, as reflected by the term artisan, but the term started evolving to describe the skills associated with the imaginative and creative arts, and the notion of class became a factor. As Williams adds, art came to stand for a special kind of imaginative truth and artistic and cultured appeared in polite society. The romantic view of the role of the artist as a different kind of person began to emerge.

The concept of industry, too, underwent a major realignment during the Industrial Revolution. Like art, industry went from being closely tied to individual behavior and describing a human trait—such as an industrious person—to one referring to a collective group or an institution—a thing in and of itself. Industry also began to be seen as a general word for manufacturing and other forms of production. Williams states that Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (1776) was one of the first to use the term in this new way and that Industry, as an institution, soon came to be capitalized. The driving force, of course, was the introduction of machinery and the new industrial processes for production. This major technological revolution changed the way people worked and organized their daily and collective lives as well as how society around them operated.

The same shift had an impact on political vocabulary. The term democracy as currently perceived only came into real usage around the time of the American and French revolutions. Before that, it was more an abstract concept as demos, or “government by the people,” as used by the early Greeks. Williams suggests that this is around the same time that the concept of national identity, and of culture and class as we now know them, began to take hold. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, culture began to be understood as a whole new, interconnected, albeit less organic, way of life. Work, too, became less tied to nature, and employment became a new concept tied to major cities.

What are the parallels today?

In many ways, society is undergoing a similar realignment with the fast-moving technological revolution (or what had previously been called the postindustrial revolution and the age of information). It has changed the way we work, live, and collectively organize, just as happened during the Industrial Revolution three centuries before. Today's technologies have led to shifting patterns in the nature of work—of production, employment, and social organization. In turn these changes challenge previous definitions of the terms culture, art, artist, and industry.

In the past two decades, digital technology has radically changed the way in which people work, communicate, socialize, and are educated. Its impact on local, national, and global culture cannot be underestimated. Marshall McLuhan's quaint notion of the global village has come and gone. In the digital age, people communicate with iPods, not voices. More people do their work mediated by some form of electronic technology than with their bodies alone—brains, not brawn, is the new mantra. Social interaction (particularly among young people) happens more often online and on a daily basis than ever before. Work can be done alone at home or in teams across the globe. Even the concept of what we mean by work has been revolutionized by technology and globalization: Xs and Os instead of horses and hoes, millebytes, not mills, rule the day.

The historical cycle of understanding what it is to be an artist is turning again as well. Whereas artisans worked at real-life tasks and an art was considered doing something well, the next cycle of artists after the Industrial Revolution were not involved in the day-to-day, but rather focused on the sublime qualities of the imagination and the creative vision in search for truth, beauty, and meaning. They were also romanticized as special, with gifts of genius not shared by other mortals. Creativity became an individual gift, not a collective trait.

Today, artists run the gamut from the sublime, individual genius to the commercially oriented worker, but for most it is clearly back to the doing-it-well over the sublime. In the United States alone, there are almost 2.5 million artists, according to recent census figures.1 Hardly all are geniuses, but most—probably all—are creative or innovative in some respect. In many ways, the technological revolution of the past two decades has brought the idea of the artist's role back to a more collective, team-based concept, particularly in design fields (and interestingly, we still refer to occupations as working in respective fields). Although some studio and performing artists still work more like past generations, digital artists do not. And digital artists are part of the fastest growing groups in the United States and world economies (Galligan and Alper, 2000), and are also in the vanguard of the recently dubbed “Creative Industries.”

So, how does this have an impact on our current understanding of the terms art, artists, culture, and industry?

When viewed from an employment perspective, the evolution becomes more apparent. In many ways, art is moving back to a lowercase noun. It is less an exercise of discovering truth and more one of producing creative goods and intellectual property—the fertile workplace fields of today.

As in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, history is still in the making, and a full understanding of the effects of the technological revolution has yet to be realized. We cannot truly measure the Creative Industries because we have yet to understand their scope or find the right vocabulary or frameworks to describe them. This is not to deny the importance of the studies that have attempted this to date, nor to diminish the role that either the commercial arts or the fine arts play in the present-day arts and cultural sector. Rather, it is to suggest that we are still in a major period of flux and transition. Plus ça change.

Ann M. Galligan is an associate professor and cooperative education coordinator at Northeastern University in Boston and an executive editor for the Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society. Previously she served as senior associate scholar at the Center for Arts and Culture in Washington, DC. Copyright ©2008 Heldref Publications. An earlier version of this commentary was presented at the 33rd Conference on Social Theory, Politics and the Arts, held at New York University on October 11-13, 2007.

  1. Not everyone agrees that the census is a good baseline for counting artists. For a more in-depth discussion of the topic, see, “The Career Matrix: The Pipeline for Artists in the United States,” by Ann Galligan and Neil Aper, 2000.


  • Galligan, Ann, and Neil Alper. 2000. “The Career Matrix: The Pipeline for Artists in the United States.” In The Public Life of the Arts, ed. Joni Cherbo and Margaret J. Wyszomirski, 173-201. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  • McLuhan, Marshall, 1964. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Smith, Adam, 1776. Wealth of Nations. Edinburgh: n.p.
  • Toffler, Alvin, 1970. Future Shock. New York. Random House.
  • Williams, Raymond. 1958. Culture and Society, 1780-1950. New York: Columbia University Press.