4 minute read

Classification of Arts and Early Modern Sciences

Early Modern Classification In The Arts

A number of transformations in the arts took place during the early modern period. What constitutes art, how one ought to classify its various subfields, and even how one ought to judge works of art all underwent bold revisions. The nature and number of the changes is considerable, but it is worth sampling some of the more significant developments.

The concept of invention in art (in the sense of a creative process) altered in the period and would ultimately change how people think about what constitutes art. The old view (even espoused by Leon Battista Alberti, an important Italian theorist of art, as late as the fifteenth century) is that an inventive artist is one that preserves tradition, communal values, and accepted ways of thinking. By the eighteenth century, however, the artist as a solitary figure committed to breaking or superseding traditional norms and artistic methodologies was firmly entrenched. Thus a new intellectual tool developed for categorizing within art and for what counts as art. As the humanist movement took root, artists increasingly redefined their discipline and the standards of quality within their work.

I do not know why you and your associates always want to make virtues, truths and species depend upon our opinion as knowledge. They are present in nature, whether or not we know it or like it.

SOURCE: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, New Essays on Human Understanding, p. 327.

How one identifies and classifies beauty also underwent substantial change as the early modern period unfolded. Prior to the eighteenth century beauty was an objective feature of things in the world. For the followers of Plato beauty was a transcendental property, a "Form" in which beautiful things participated. For others beauty was more immanent and empirical but nonetheless present in a thing. Thus classifying things as beautiful depended on isolating features in the objective world. In this sense, classifying objects in the world of art was similar to classifying things in the sciences. The world comes pre-jointed, and peoples' task as aesthetes is to learn to recognize those divisions.

Starting with the work of Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746) in the early 1700s and best displayed in the work of David Hume (1711–1776) later in the century, theorists of art shifted the concept of beauty away from an external objective standard to an internal standard. This shift did not necessarily signal the abandonment of objectivity in beauty, but it moved the focus of attention away from the natural world to the person making aesthetic judgments. Both Hutcheson and Hume developed theories of "taste," theories of artistic sensibilities that classify on the basis of perceiving subjects and not objects.

In a similar vein, the concept of the sublime became elevated as an independent kind of experience. The sublime (roughly a lofty, elated feeling), especially in the work of Edmund Burke (1729–1797), now becomes a separate class quite distinct from beauty. Interestingly, earlier seventeenth-century discussions of the sublime apply the concept only to certain arts such as rhetoric and poetry; no mention is made of the sublime with respect to the visual arts. Jonathan Richardson (1665–1745) was one of the first to apply sublimity explicitly to the visual arts, marking yet another important step in the increasing stratification and complication of artistic categories.

In general the middle of the eighteenth century witnessed the birth of modern theory of art. In 1750 Alexander Baumgarten (1714–1762) published Aesthetica and established aesthetics as an independent field studying sensual cognition. Later in the same decade Denis Diderot began publishing his biennial critical reviews of the salons, effectively launching serious art criticism. With criticism comes classification, not only of quality but of many other features. It should thus be expected that during this time there would be a conceptual explosion of classification in the arts to support all of this innovation in theory of art. The expectation is not disappointed.

Perhaps the most prominent example of this classificatory explosion is seen in the work of Gérard de Lairesse (1641–1711), a Dutch painter and author who published several lengthy volumes at the inception of the eighteenth century about the visual arts. After distinguishing art (a production of the mind) from manner (a manual execution of a skill), he divides the arts into various kinds. Though divisions based on the content of what is painted had been already present for centuries, Lairesse is important because he shifted his classificatory scheme from content to modes of representation. Instead of sorting paintings and painters by their pictorial genres (landscapes, still lifes, portraits, and so forth), he advocated a system based on how the artist seeks to represent the content of the work. Kinds of brush strokes and implicit symbolizations became at least as important as the superficial object depicted. Even still lifes could have allegorical meaning, thus altering how the nature and kind of the work ought to be viewed.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Chimaeras to ClusterClassification of Arts and Early Modern Sciences - Aristotelian Background, Medieval Academia, Early Modern Context, Early Modern Classification In The Arts, Early Modern Classification In The Sciences