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OverviewFrom Ars To Arte To Beaux-arts

The transformation of the image from an efficacious to a reflective space is coincident with the rise of the very idea of the "arts." Before the era of art, the word art had much broader meaning than it does today. The Latin ars (and the Greek technē) referred to almost any branch of human endeavor—the work of the farmer, the shipwright, the military commander, the magician, the cobbler, the poet, the flute player, the vase painter, all were included in the general category of the "arts" so long as their endeavors were executed with a certain degree of skill. In the Ethics (book 6), Aristotle distinguished between two spheres of action—praxis, doing, or moral or political conduct, and poiesis, making, producing, or performing. The intellectual virtue attendant to poiesis is techne—art, technique, skill, and know-how—"the trained ability of making something under the guidance of rational thought" (1140.9–10). Aristotle further distinguishes between the liberal and servile arts. The liberal arts are those that work with the intellect, including the verbal arts of grammar and rhetoric and the mathematical arts of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The servile arts are those associated with physical labor and, generally, work for pay. Thus the work of the farmer and the cook were more or less equivalent to that of the architect, the sculptor, and the painter. As John Boardman puts it in his Greek Art, "'Art for Art's sake' was virtually an unknown concept; there was neither a real Art Market nor Collectors; all art had a function and artists were suppliers of a commodity on a par with shoemakers" (p. 16).

Even by Vasari's time, things had hardly changed. He does not use the Italian artista to refer to "the artist," but rather artifice, "artificer." "What a happy age we live in!" he wrote, reacting to the sight of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes. "And how fortunate are our artists [ artifice ] who have been given light and vision by Michelangelo and whose difficulties have been smoothed away by this marvelous and incomparable artist [ artifice ]." Indeed, the word artista was more generally used to refer to those who studied the more intellectual liberal arts, particularly rhetoricians. Furthermore, the Italian word arte, which in modern usage means simply "art," was in medieval times and throughout the Renaissance, the word for "guild," including, in Florence, the Arte della Lana, the wool guild; the Arte di Seta, the silk guild; and the Arte di Calimala, the cloth merchants' guild. Thus art remained simply making, skill, and know-how. The bankers had their arte, and so did the lawyers—perhaps because of their rhetorical skill the lawyers' was the most prestigious of all.

Not until the middle of the eighteenth century did the arts separate themselves off from other fields of endeavor into their own exclusive area of expertise. In what is one of the best surveys of the history of the arts as an idea, Larry Shiner points to two crucial texts—Charles Batteux's Les beaux arts réduit à un même principe (The fine arts reduced to a single principle), published in 1746 in France and translated into English three years later as The Polite Arts; or, A Dissertation on Poetry, Painting, Musick, Architecture, and Eloquence, and the 1751 edition of Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert's Encylopédie.

Batteux claimed there are actually three classes of arts: those that simply minister to our needs (the mechanical arts); those whose aim is pleasure (the beaux-arts par excellence); and those that combine utility and pleasure (eloquence and architecture). Batteux also used two other criteria for separating the beaux-arts from the rest: genius, which he calls "the father of the arts," because it imitates beautiful nature, and taste, which judges how well beautiful nature has been imitated.… The Encyclopédie now grouped all five fine arts (poetry, painting, sculpture, engraving, and music) under the faculty of Systême Figuré des Connoissances Humaines (Table of Human Knowledge; 1751), a diagram of the arts by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert. Researchers did not begin to classify the arts into their own separate field of study until the eighteenth century, when several groundbreaking texts on the subject were published. ANNENBERG RARE BOOK AND MANUSCRIPT LIBRARY, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA imagination as one of three main divisions of knowledge, splendidly isolated from all other arts, disciplines, and sciences. (pp. 83–84)

Nevertheless, as Shiner points out, Diderot's article "Art" in the Encyclopédie ignores the new category of "beaux-arts" altogether and concentrates exclusively on the mechanical arts, representations of which constitute almost the entirety of the Encyclopédie's illustrations. It would be another twenty-five years before an article on the "beaux-arts" would finally find its way into a supplement to the Encyclopédie. According to d'Alembert, the category of the beaux-arts—the term that the English world would translate first as the "polite arts" and then as the "fine arts"—consisted of any works that have pleasure for their aim and that rely on the imagination (inventive genius) as opposed to memory (history) or reason (philosophy). The cult of originality and imagination inaugurated by Vasari in his Lives reached its ultimate conclusion here.

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