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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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The history of the classification of the arts is compli-
cated for several reasons but chiefly because the idea
of art has changed. The classical idea differed from
ours in at least two respects. First, it was concerned
not with the products of art but with the act of pro-
ducing them and in particular the ability to produce
them; e.g., it pointed to the skill of the painter rather
than to the picture. Second, it embraced not only
“artistic” ability but any human ability to produce
things so long as it was a regular production based on
rules. Art was a system of regular methods of making
or doing. The work of an architect or a sculptor an-
swered to this definition, but so did the work of a
carpenter or a weaver, for their activities belonged in
equal measure to the realm of art. Art by definition
was rational and implied knowledge; it did not depend
on inspiration, intuition, or fantasy. This conception
of art found expression in works of Greek and Roman
scholars. Aristotle defined art as the “ability to execute
something with apt comprehension,” and some cen-
turies later Quintilian explained it as based on method
and order (via et ordine). “Art is a system of general
rules” (Ars est systema praeceptorum universalium),
Galen said. Plato stressed the rationality of art: “I do
not call art irrational work,” he said. The Stoics placed
greater stress on a fixed system of rules in the arts and
simply defined art as a system. Aristotle stressed the
idea that knowledge on which art is based is general

This ancient conception of art is not foreign to us,
but it appears today under other names: craft, skill,
or technique. The Greek name for art was technē, and
as a matter of fact our term “technique” suits the
ancient idea of art better than our term “art,” which
is now used as an abbreviation for fine arts. The Greeks
had no name for the latter since they did not recognize
their distinctiveness. They grouped fine arts together
with handicrafts, convinced that the essence of a
sculptor's or a carpenter's work is the same, i.e., skill.
The sculptor and the painter, working in different
media with different tools and applying different tech-
nical methods, have only one thing in common: their
production is based on skill. And so is the production
of a craftsman; therefore a general conception which
embraces fine arts cannot but likewise embrace the

The Greeks regarded both sciences and crafts as
belonging to the realm of art. Geometry or grammar
were indeed areas of knowledge, rational systems of
rules, methods of doing or making things, and so they
certainly answered to the Greek meaning of the term
“art.” Cicero divided arts into those which only com-
prehend things (animo cernunt) and those which make
them (Academica II 7, 22); today we consider the first
category as sciences, not as arts.

So “art” in the original meaning of the word em-
braced more than it does in our times, and at the same
time it embraced less: it excluded poetry. Poetry was
supposed to lack the characteristic trait of art: it
seemed not to be governed by rules; on the contrary,
it seemed to be a matter of inspiration, of individual
creativeness. The Greeks saw a kinship between poetry
and prophecy rather than between poetry and art. The
poet is a kind of bard, while the sculptor is a kind
of artisan.


The Greeks included music together with poetry in
the sphere of inspiration. First, there was a psychologi-
cal affinity between the two arts; both were compre-
hended as acoustic productions, and both were sup-
posed to have a “manic” character, i.e., to be the
source of rapture. Second, they were practiced jointly
since poetry was sung and music was vocalized, and
since both were essential elements of “mysteries.”

Before the ancient idea of art became modern, two
things were to happen: poetry and music were to be
incorporated into art, while handicrafts and sciences
were to be eliminated from it. The first happened
before the end of antiquity. Poetry and music could
indeed be considered arts as soon as their rules were
discovered. This happened early so far as music is
concerned: since the Pythagoreans found the mathe-
matical laws of acoustic harmony, music has been
considered as a branch of knowledge as well as an art.

It was more difficult to include poetry in the arts.
The initial step was made by Plato: he admitted that
there are two kinds of poetry; the poetry springing
from poetical frenzy and the poetry resulting from
literary skill, in short, “manic” and “technical” poetry.
The second is art, the first is not. Plato however con-
sidered only the first as true poetry. Aristotle made
the next step by supplying so many rules of poetry
that for him and for his successors there could be no
doubt that poetry is an art. It is an imitative art: “the
poet is an imitator just like the painter or other maker
of likenesses,” Aristotle said (Poetics 1460b 8).

On the contrary, crafts and sciences were not ex-
cluded in the classical Greek era from the realm of
the arts. Neither were they in the Hellenistic period,
in the Middle Ages, and in the Renaissance—the early,
classical idea of art survived for more than two thou-
sand years. Our idea of art is a comparatively modern

In antiquity numerous attempts were made to clas-
sify the arts; all of them classified the arts in the broad-
est sense of the word, by no means the fine arts alone.
The first classification had been originated by the
Sophists. Their work was continued by Plato and
Aristotle and by the thinkers of the Hellenistic and
Roman period.

1. The Sophists distinguished two categories of arts;
arts cultivated for the sake of their utility and those
cultivated for the pleasure they offer. In other words,
they differentiated arts into those which are necessary
in life and those which are a source of entertainment.
This classification was widely accepted. In the Hel-
lenistic epoch it appeared sometimes in a more de-
veloped form; Plutarch supplemented the useful and
pleasurable arts with a third category, that of the arts
cultivated for the sake of perfection. He regarded,
however, as perfect arts, not the fine arts, but the
sciences (e.g., mathematics or astronomy).

2. Plato based his classification on the fact that
different arts are differently related to real objects;
some produce things, as does architecture, and others
imitate them, as does painting. This opposition be-
tween “productive” and “imitative” arts became pop-
ular in antiquity and continued to be so in modern
times. Another Platonic classification distinguished arts
which produce real things, e.g., architecture, and those
which produce only images, e.g., painting. For Plato,
however, this classification was in fact the same as the
former. Imitations of things are no more than images
of them.

Aristotle's classification of the arts differed little from
Plato's; he divided all arts into those which complete
nature and those which imitate it. This was his excellent
formula for the Platonic division.

3. The classification most generally accepted in an-
cient times divided arts into “liberal” and “vulgar.”
It was an invention of the Greeks, though it is known
mainly in the Latin terminology as artes liberales and
artes vulgares. More than any other ancient classifica-
tions it was dependent on social conditions in Greece.
It was based on the fact that certain arts require physi-
cal effort from which others are free, a difference that
to ancient Greeks seemed particularly important. It
was the expression of an aristocratic regime and of the
Greek contempt for physical work and preference for
activities of the mind. The liberal or intellectual arts
were considered not only a distinct but also a superior
group. Note, however, that the Greeks considered
geometry and astronomy as liberal arts, although they
are now considered sciences.

It is doubtful whether it is possible to indicate who
was the inventor of the division of the arts into liberal
and vulgar; we know only the names of some later
thinkers who accepted it; Galen, the famous physician
of the second century A.D., was the one who developed
it most fully. Later the Greeks called the liberal arts
also “encyclic” arts. The word, almost a synonym of
the modern word “encyclopedic,” etymologically
meant “forming a circle” and signified the circle of
arts obligatory for an educated man.

Some ancient scholars added other groups of arts
to liberal and vulgar arts; for instance, Seneca added
those which instruct (pueriles) and those which amuse
(ludicrae). In doing so he fused, in fact, two different
classifications: that of Galen and that of the Sophists;
his fourfold division was more complete, but lacked

4. Another ancient classification is known from
Quintilian. This Roman rhetorician of the first century
A.D. (inspired by an idea of Aristotle's) divided the arts


into three groups. In the first group he included those
arts which consist only in studying things. He called
them “theoretical” arts giving astronomy as an exam-
ple. The second group embraced the arts consisting
solely in an action (actus) of the artist without leaving
a product; Quintilian called them “practical” arts and
gave dance as an example. The third group embraced
the arts producing objects which continue to exist when
the actions of the artist have ended; he called them
“poietic,” which in Greek means “productive”; paint-
ing served him as an example.

This classification had several variants. Dionysius
Thrax, a writer of the Hellenistic epoch, added
“apotelestic” arts, which meant “finished” or “carried
out to its end”: this was, however, only a different name
for “poietic” arts. Lucius Tarrhaeus, the grammarian,
added to the practical and apotelestic arts “organic”
arts, i.e., arts which use instruments or tools (organon
being the Greek name for tool), as playing a flute does.
In this way he enriched the classification but deprived
it of its unity.

5. Cicero used several classifications of the arts, most
of them based on the old Greek tradition, including
the one which seems to be relatively original. Taking
as the basis of the division the importance of the vari-
ous arts, he divided them into major (artes maximae),
median (mediocres), and minor (minores). To the major
arts, according to Cicero, belonged political and mili-
tary arts; to the second class belonged purely intel-
lectual arts, i.e., sciences, but also poetry and elo-
quence; to the third class belonged painting, sculpture,
music, acting, athletics. Thus he considered fine arts
as minor arts.

6. At the end of antiquity Plotinus undertook once
again the task of classifying arts. This most complete
classification distinguished five groups of arts: (1) arts
which produce physical objects, as architecture does;
(2) arts which help nature, like medicine and agricul-
ture; (3) arts which imitate nature, like painting; (4)
arts which improve or ornament human action, like
rhetoric and politics; and (5) purely intellectual arts,
like geometry. This classification, which may seem to
be lacking a principium divisionis (“principle of divi-
sion”) is in fact based on the degree of spirituality in
the arts; it forms a hierarchy, beginning with purely
(as he supposed) material architecture and ending with
purely spiritual geometry.

Let us summarize: Greek and Roman antiquity knew
at least six classifications of the arts, most of them
having several variants: (1) The classifications of the
Sophists were based on the aims of arts; (2) the classifi-
cation of Plato and Aristotle—on the relation between
and reality; (3) the classification of Galen—on
physical effort required by arts; (4) the classification of
Quintilian—on products of the arts; (5) the classification
of Cicero—on value of the arts, and (6) the classifica-
tion of Plotinus—on the degree of their spirituality.

All of these were general divisions of all human skills
and abilities; none being just a division of fine arts.
What is more, none singled out the “fine arts,” and
none divided arts in the broader sense into fine arts
and crafts. On the contrary, fine arts were distributed,
and divided into opposing categories.

(1) Thus, in the classification of the Sophists archi-
tecture was considered a useful art, while painting was
an art cultivated for pleasure's sake. (2) Plato and
Aristotle considered architecture a productive and
painting an imitative art. (3) Liberal (encyclic) arts
embraced music and rhetoric, but did not include
architecture or painting. (4) In Quintilian's classifica-
tion dance and music were “practical” arts, while
architecture and painting were poietic (apotelestic)
arts. (5) None of the liberal arts were considered by
Cicero as major arts; only poetry and rhetoric were
supposed to be median arts, and all other fine arts to
be minor arts. (6) In Plotinus' classification fine arts
were divided between the first and the third groups.

Consequently, antiquity never did face the possi-
bility that fine arts could form a distinct group of arts.
There may be a certain affinity between our notion
of fine arts and the notion of liberal arts, of arts for
entertainment's sake, of imitative arts, of “poietic” art;
however, all these ancient notions were broader than
the notion of fine arts and, at the same time, in some
respects, narrower. Some of the liberal arts, some of
the entertaining arts, and some of the productive arts,
not all of them however, belonged indeed to the group
we call “fine arts.” Neither freedom, nor entertainment,
nor imitation, nor productiveness were the properties
by which arts in the modern, narrower meaning could
be defined; imitation came relatively nearest to being
such a property. The historian is tempted to believe
that the ancients faced all reasonable possibilities of
classifying the arts except the division into fine arts
and handicrafts.