There is no Chinese encyclopedia of the arts. Nor a European encyclopedia, let alone a Norwegian one. And yet we live with a strange classification of the arts across Europe and beyond – even stranger than Borges’s Chinese example. Instead of animals divided into fourteen curious categories – like the “fabulous” and the “frenzied”– we live with the idea that there are two fundamentally different forms of art: fine arts and applied arts.
At first glance, this division – between the fine arts and the applied arts – would appear to be more rational, even more natural, than, say, the distinction between the animals “belonging to the Emperor” and the ones “that from a long way off look like flies” in Borges’s Chinese list. Indeed, the existence of two separate academies in Oslo and in other cities around the world – one for studying fine arts and one for studying applied arts – would appear to justify the division. Some academies have placed both categories under one roof with a broader notion of design, from Geneva’s Haute École d’art et de design to Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. Yet the students and the faculty in these institutions remain separate: artists here, designers there. Arts here, crafts there. However the divisions are manifest, this encyclopedia is just as irrational and unnatural as the Chinese one.
Explaining the emergence and the separation of fine arts and applied arts involves a consideration of the epistemology of art history: how art history has constructed its objects of study and our knowledge about them. And a bit of philology: how language itself has developed. I defer here to the Polish philosopher Władysław Tatarkiewicz, in particular his Dzieje sześciu pojęć (History of Six Ideas: Art, Beauty, Creativity, Mimesis, Aesthetic Expericence, Warsaw, 1976) which shows that fine arts and applied arts – arts and design, or arts and crafts – were not always separate, let alone antagonistic, as they often appear to be today. As Tatarkiewicz explains, the term “art” comes from the Latin “ars,” which is itself a translation from the Greek “techne.” Indeed, ars and techne are much closer to each other than both are to the contemporary understanding of art. From Antiquity to the Renaissance, both of these terms were associated with skill, virtuosity, proficiency. “All of these skills were named arts,” writes Tatarkiewicz, “one spoke of the art of the architect, the sculptor, the potter, the tailor, the strategist, the geometrician, the orator.” Moreover, skill was linked with the knowledge and the mastery of rules. No rules? No art. Each practitioner – from architect to orator – followed an established set of rules for making a particular form of art, whether a building or a speech. In this constellation, there were no categories to distinguish between fine arts and applied arts, between the sculptor and the potter, between grammar and logic, between a painting and a dress.
This constellation, which lasted for centuries, explains why there is no Muse for any of the contemporary fine arts, from sculpture to painting to even photography, nor for any of the contemporary applied arts, from ceramics to weaving to even architecture, design and jewelery. The Muses were a source of inspiration; mere mortals who relied upon rules – again: no rules, no art – would and could never need a Muse; for this reason, the Greeks did not consider poetry to be an art. The nine Muses and their domains reflect this constellation: Calliope (epic poetry); Clio (history); Euterpe (flutes, lyric poetry); Thalia (comedy and pastoral poetry); Melpomene (tragedy); Terpsichore (dance); Erato (love poetry); Polyhymnia (sacred poetry); and Urania (astronomy). No painting, nor weaving there. Moreover, what we call fine art and applied art could never be separated from each other; being grounded by rules, both were much closer to each other and to science than to poetry. Yet as Tatarkiewicz notes, under Scholaticism in the Middle Ages, a new division emerged: between artes liberales (liberal, free arts), which involved only mental effort, and artes vulgares (common, mechanical arts), which required physical exertion. Yet even this new division – however reminiscent of our own contemporary separation between fine art and applied art – did not distinguish the sculptor from the potter, the painting from the dress, since all of these practices involved physical effort and were thus placed all together under artes vulgares (common or mechanical arts). What this division achieved was essentially a separation between the arts of thinking and the arts of doing.
The Medieval era counted only seven free arts: Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, Music. Again: no painting, nor weaving. These free arts were taught in a facultas artium, not in terms of skills, nor beauty and its appreciation, but rather as theoretical knowledge (in this case, music was not about learning how to play instruments but about mastering the theory of harmony). Yet again, as Tatarkiewicz notes, another distinction emerged. Since there were seven artes liberales, there were attempts to isolate seven artes vulgares, which gave rise to another kind of Chinese encyclopedia. In the 12th century, Radulfus Ardens lists ars victuaria (nutrition), lanificaria (clothing), architectura (shelter), suffragotaria (transportation), medicinaria (healing), negotiatoria (exchange) and militaria (defense). Hugo von Saint Victor’s mechanical arts are lanificium, armatura, navigatio, agricultura, venatio, medicina and theatrica. Once again: no painting, nor weaving, but a mention of theatre, although this term does not cover plays but describes public amusement, such as competitions, races and circuses. Paintings and sculptures do not feature because they were not considered useful. Ditto for weavings and ceramics; while somewhat more utilitarian than paintings and sculptures, they are certainly not as essential as clothing or architecture and thus did not make the list of the top seven mechanical arts.
A real transformation occurs during the early Renaissance – at a moment when what we would call artists gained greater visibility for their exceptional creations. According to Tatarkiewicz, this transformation took place in two steps. First, handwork and science were gradually removed from the category of art – free and mechanical – while poetry was added (namely through the newly discovered translations of Aristotles Poetics). The first signs of today’s division between fine art and applied art emerged when artists – in this case, painters, sculptors and architects – started to position themselves above the mere artisans (because the artists believe that their works had more value) and closer to scientists (paradoxically, because the artists’ works manifest the knowledge of rules). The assertion of this hierarchy runs from Piero della Francesca to Leonardo da Vinci who mastered drawing (a free form of expression) as superbly as mathematics (a skill perfected by mastering rules, such times tables). Second, what remained after these additions and these substractions from artes liberales and vulgares gradually came be considered as its own larger, special category of the so-called beautiful arts – what we would call fine arts today. But what could possibily link them together? What could the painting and the sculpture share with each other to make them part of one category – and position them apart from and high above the ceramic or the woven work?
This process was not easy. Paintings and sculptures did not really share the same materials. Indeed, the term sculptores was initially understood to be associated with forms made with wood only (as opposed to those made with stone, metal, clay or wax) before all of these materials came to be grouped under sculpture. One important factor in uniting painting, sculpture and even architecture was “design” which was understood as both a plan and a drawing. In short: a creation involving a mental effort (as in the sciences) and a very light physical effort (although it’s clear that actually producing a painting, sculpture or building would involve much more physical effort than drawing the designs for these creations). Yet another challenge was posed by the inclusion of music, poetry and theatre, which were fused with painting, sculpture and architecture in various efforts. For example, in 1492, Marsilio Ficino, director of the Platonic Academy in Florence, believed that these media and others were all grounded in music. “It’s music that inspires creators: rhetoricians, poets, sculptors and architects.” In Ficino’s eyes, music was not only an art but also the basis for all arts: a kind of glue that held them all together in one category, despite their material differences and the very different skills needed to make them. Although there were never any Muses for painting or sculpture or even for all music, the proximity of the two words – music, Muse – served to consolidate the idea that activities such as painting, sculpting, composing or designing buildings could break away from rules and be freely inspired, as poetry once was in Antiquity. The beautiful arts began to be associated with Muse-like inspiration, although there was no specific godly guardian to watch over these human creations.
But that doesn’t explain how these various combinations of arts – from painting to music – managed to rise above weaving, ceramics or even textiles. As Tatarkiewicz notes, one fatal contribution was made by Lodovico Castelvetro in his tract Coretione from 1572. Castelvetro separates handcrafts, which humans need and use, from arts like painting, sculpture and poetry, which are only for remembering objects and events. Significantly, these arte commemorative della memoria do not include architecture, which continues to waver between the fine arts and the applied arts today. But with his “commemorative arts” Castelvetro makes a fundamental and an irreversible division between fine arts and applied arts. His effort is followed by various others that articulate a common ground for diverse practices like painting and sculpture while placing them above handcrafts: from the pictorial arts (inspired by Horace’s ut pictura poesis, or “in painting as in poetry”) to the noble arts. The most decisive and lasting contribution here comes from the French philosopher Charles Batteux’s Les beaux arts réduits à un même principe from 1747 (The beautiful arts reduced to one same principle). In contrast to the title’s suggestion, these beautiful art or fine arts share several principles, which evoke some discourses of the past centuries while adding some new concepts. According to Batteux, art requires a mastery of rules to produce things that are beautiful in and of themselves and that imitate nature and manifest genius. Yet Batteux’s encyclopedia includes only five arts: painting, sculpture, music, poetry and dance.
The final blow is delivered by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant whose third Critique of Judgment (1790) builds upon Batteux’s arguments, ableit without offering a definition of art. In short, Kant does not write up his own encyclopedic list of arts but offers guidelines for what might be included in such a list. His main term – Darstellung or presentation – is broad enough to include anything or anyone that presents itself for human perception, from a flower to a painting to a ceramic. And yet to be judged as truly beautiful, a given Darstellung cannot be useful or used; it must display what Kant calls “a purposefulness without a specific purpose” and be contemplated by the judging person with “distinterested pleasure.” This qualification forever separates the flower and the painting from the ceramic – what we call the fine arts from the applied arts. Applied arts – presentations that are useful and used – can never be beautiful but only pleasing. The only beautiful part of a given presentation can be found in its useless elements: framing, decoration, guilded edges. Kant consolidates the hierarchy between fine arts and applied arts, without mentioning the artisan. Moreover, he introduces an irreparable division in the artisan object itself, which is split between its use and its beauty, its functional parts and its decorative parts.
Of course, as Borges wrote – and as Foucault was quick to realize and to celebrate with laughter – the Chinese encyclopedia is a prison made of words and paper, not metal bars and cement. The animals may be classified into curious categories, but that doesn’t make them belong to these categories forever (or prevent them from joining other groups). By extension, the fine arts and the applied arts are also only words on paper – albeit ones that have been built as separate academies in cement. Despite this prison, there is no reason that fine and applied arts might join forces again and mix together, as they once did so many centuries ago. Certainly when the artists leaves the academies, whatever their practices, they are free to roam and let their creations loose in the wild.