similar to how I've always felt ... to me it's a mainly a term to describe a "style" of photographic art, but the extrapolation of "fine" seems to always mean superior or better than other forms. That's been a lively debate for a long time, and there is no answer -
Yes, a lively debate, a can of worms, and a conundrum all in one thought!
The term 'fine' could be interchanged with 'refined' in the sense of having more work done on it, rather than as more exalted. Doing art is work, and to put it crudely an artist may specialise in sunsets (!) because he likes them. Then you could have a fine artist who specialises in sunsets because he likes them, but he would be able to go on and say why
he likes them. It is an intellectual jump from an artists gut feeling to a fine artist knowing what their images are about and being able to communicate that with other people. Ask a fine artist 'what are you working on' and they will launch into a lecture, ask an artist and they may say they are waiting for inspiration. That is the crude definition.
But a real world example. Somebody said Sally Mann wasn't a landscape photographer, yet the body of work she called 'Deep South' is entirely landscape. She is a good example whether you think it landscape or not. She uses an difficult technical process with a difficult camera not because she has been on a course or read an A-Z of being an artist, but because it matches the ideas she wants to communicate. Other artists may paint or sculpt for the same reason. In her case the fragility of the wet collodion process, the wastage, the mistakes that are embraced, the length of the exposures, the viewpoint in many photographs of emptiness and a half seen subjects, all evoke the idea. And that is of the South, the civil war battlefields, death in the landscape of both men and buildings, an historical landscape that endures but isn't triumphant. It is very different from a commercial landscape photograph, with a graduated tobacco filter and the rules of composition strictly applied. It is very different from how many people would photograph that landscape, because she ran with the idea, refined it, and made something unique, nobody can place their tripod in the same holes that her tripod made.
And it is the metorphorical tripod holes that makes the difference. Has an artist got an idea, how much have they worked on it, and is it carried out with some style. And before saying of any photograph 'I could do that' ask 'but did I have the idea?'. Points 1-16 allow you to put your tripod into the marks left by the photographer that went before, and make something that looks artistic. You may be an artist if you sell the work you
want to sell without commercial pressures of assignments. But a fine artist will plough through any barriers and only do what they want, how they want to do it, without immediate commercial pressures, and with intellectual skill
. That is the traditional definition and I think that is how it should stay. Gentleman amateurs and commercial landscapists are not necessarily fine artists irrespective of the technical skill in making the image. The term 'fine' should not be devalued.