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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
2 occurrences of Ancients and Moderns in the Eighteenth Century
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2 occurrences of Ancients and Moderns in the Eighteenth Century
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2. The Objective Conception of Beauty in Artistic
Representation.

Inasmuch as beauty is considered to
be the result of artistic achievement, it is subjective;
but inasmuch as the artist does not express his individ-
ual, personal feelings and ideas, but follows a model
and applies criteria established independently of him,
beauty is objective.

We find a striking example of this conception of
objective beauty in the ars poetica of seventeenth-
century French classicism, which influenced classicism
in Europe and can thus be chosen as a model structure.
Some of its criteria (proportion, harmony, perfection,
form, and the idea of the model) were derived directly
or indirectly from the speculations on beauty discussed
in our first section. Beauty is considered to be the object
or aim of art; in order to achieve it the artist must
imitate nature and follow the rules. Nature is not
understood to be the sum of sensuous data, but “general
nature” or ideal nature, selected, ordered, arranged by
reason. Philosophically speaking, nature is an order of
Being, manifest in eternal, fundamental laws. The rules
which the artist follows are also ultimately founded
on reason and must be justified by reason. René Bray
expressed succinctly this interrelationship of the con-
cepts in the doctrine classique:

... eternal reason, universal beauty, unchanging rules, the
three terms are closely linked. The perennity of reason
imposes that of beauty, since if beauty were to change,
reason, which is the judge of beauty, would change also.
It imposes likewise the permanence of the rules, of which
it is the foundation

(Bray, 1927).

To the modern historian it is obvious that the norms
of classicism are in part not timeless and universal, but
related to a specific intellectual, historical, and social
structure; however, as far as the classical theory is
concerned, this relativity does not affect their norma-
tive value and hence the objective character of beauty.

The rules or norms are also related to the literary
or artistic genres; if the rules are satisfied, the genre
attains perfection, and the work is beautiful. One might
say that it is ultimately the link with the idea of per-
fection and the conception of beauty which explains
the great value attributed to rules and genres in classi-
cal literary and art theory.

The rules, most of which were derived from Aristotle
(or his Renaissance interpreters) and Horace, are
moreover sometimes justified by the model character
of classical antiquity; the rational and the historical
justification are generally linked together.

The works of classical antiquity are also considered
to be by themselves a guarantee of the objectivity of
beauty. They were said to be close to nature or to
represent the major and most probable occurrences of
life and the fundamental aspects of human nature.
Their perfection and beauty, their presentation of what
is essential and lasting had been tested by the unani-
mous judgment of centuries. In the domain of plastic
arts J. J. Winckelmann's (1717-68) enthusiastic and
eloquent praise of the exemplary beauty achieved in
Hellenic art (it embodied the very norm of beauty)
is a famous instance of the founding of beauty on the
art works of classical antiquity, an instance which was
all the more influential as Winckelmann wrote an
epoch-making history of the art of that period. His
perceptive, novel, and ingenious interpretations be-
came justly famous, and the two criteria “simplicity
and serenity,” which he added to the already estab-
lished norms of beauty, were still echoed in nine-
teenth-century classicism. It was Nietzsche who later
opposed the Dionysian element in Greek art to
Winckelmann's Apollonian vision; and the expression
of profound, universal emotion, as well as the sublime,
to the beauty of appearance and illusion.


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