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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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7 occurrences of Dictionary_of_the_History_of_Ideas
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IV. MODERN TIMES

In about the second half of the eighteenth century
there was only one major controversy (chiefly in Ger-
many) concerning the arts: whether or not poetry
belongs to the fine arts. Some writers contrasted beaux
arts
with belles lettres, considering them as two differ-
ent fields of human endeavor. Still, Moses Mendelssohn
in 1757 called for a common theory of both. This was
done first by J. G. Sulzer in his Allgemeine Theorie der
schönen Künste
(1771-74). The agreement was not
general. Goethe in his review of Sulzer's book (1772)
ridiculed the linking of two things which, for Goethe,
were very different (Kristeller [1951-52]).

By now new problems of classification arose and had
to be solved. First, how is all human activity to be
classified and what place do fine arts occupy in it? The
classical solution was prepared by Francis Hutcheson
and the Scottish thinkers such as James Beattie and
David Hume, and eventually formulated in 1790 by
Kant: there are three major human activities: the cog-
nitive, the moral, and the aesthetic; fine art is the
product of aesthetic activity.

The second problem was how to classify the nar-
rower field of fine arts. Let us again take Kant as an
example; he suggested that there are as many kinds
of fine arts as there are ways of expressing and trans-
mitting thoughts and feelings. There are three different
ways, he said, and likewise there are three fine arts:
using words, plastic images, or tones. The first way is
used by poetry and oratory, the second by architecture,
sculpture, and painting, the third by music. Kant sug-
gested other classifications as well: he distinguished
(following Plato) the arts of truth and the arts of ap-


461

pearance, architecture being an art of truth and paint-
ing an art of appearances. On the other hand, he
divided fine arts into those which, like sculpture, deal
with objects existing in nature and those which, like
architecture, deal with objects possible only through
art.

Classifications of the arts were continued in the
nineteenth century. While the ancients attempted to
classify arts in the broad sense of the word, the nine-
teenth century classified only fine arts. It did this in
various and ingenious ways. It distinguished not only
“free” and “reproductive” arts, but also “figurative”
and “nonfigurative”; arts of motion and motionless arts;
spatial and temporal arts; arts which require a per-
former (like music) and those which do not (like paint-
ing); arts evoking determinate associations (as painting
or poetry do) and evoking indeterminate associations
(as do music or architecture). These different principles
lead after all to a similar classification of the arts. This
result is demonstrated in Max Dessoir's table (1905):

     
Spatial arts
Motionless arts
Arts dealing
with images 
Temporal arts
Arts of motions
Arts dealing
with gestures
and sounds 
SCULPTURE
PAINTING 
POETRY
DANCE 
Reproductive arts
Figurative arts
Arts with
determinate
associations 
ARCHITEC-
TURE  
MUSIC  Free arts
Abstract arts
Arts with
indeterminate
associations 

Dessoir, the most expert aesthetician at the turn of
the twentieth century, ended his review of art classifi-
cation, however, with a pessimistic conclusion: Es
scheint kein System zu geben das allen Ansprüchen
genügte
(“there appears to be no system that satisfies
all claims”).

Hegel's well-known division of the arts into sym-
bolic, classical, and romantic had a different purpose:
it did not differentiate branches of arts, poetry, paint-
ing, music, etc., but diverse styles of poetry, painting,
music, etc. In classifying styles the nineteenth century
was not less ingenious than in classifying arts.

In summary we may say that the meaning of the
classification of arts has changed; in antiquity the clas-
sification of arts was a division of all human abilities;
during the Middle Ages it was a division between
purely intellectual (artes liberales) and mechanical arts;
in the Renaissance attempts were made to divide arts
into “fine arts” and others; since the eighteenth century
it has been a division among fine arts themselves.

The problem seemed to have been settled, but in
the twentieth century unexpected difficulties emerged.
The established classification was based on three as-
sumptions: (1) there exists a closed system of arts; (2)
there is a difference between arts and crafts and sci-
ences; (3) the arts are distinguished by the fact that
they seek and find beauty. It took a long time and much
effort to get this system accepted but eventually it
seemed to be firmly established. However, we must
observe that: (1) new arts were born—photography and
cinema—which had to be included in the system. The
same applied to those arts which have been practiced
before but were not covered by the system, like town
planning. Moreover, the character of arts included in
the system has changed: a new architecture, abstract
painting and sculpture, music in a twelve-tone scale,
and the anti-novel have appeared. (2) Doubts arose
whether one really ought to contrast crafts with arts.
As recently as the end of the nineteenth century
William Morris argued that there can be no nobler
art than good craft. And ought one to contrast science
with art? Indeed, many twentieth-century artists regard
their work as cognitive, similar to science, or even
science itself. (3) Finally, is it correct to assume that
seeking beauty is essential in art and represents its
differentia specifica? Is not the concept of beauty too
vague to be useful in defining art? One can say of many
works of art that beauty was not their objective. What
one can say of them rather is that the reason for their
creation was the artist's need of expression or his desire
to excite and move other men.

Everything seems to speak for the need to define
anew the concept of art. And, consequently, for the
need to start afresh the classification of arts.