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Arts, The

  Art (Latin ars) originally meant any innate skill or learned ability: speaking well, hairdressing, riding, acting. In Roman times ‘work’ was something done by slaves or people of the lower classes, and people with any opinion of themselves were eager to dissociate themselves with the term. As one (aristocratic) poet put it, ars est celare artem, ‘the skill is in concealing the skill’—an early example of a ‘gentlemen and players’ snobbery about both arts and crafts, which is still quite widespread today.

In a somewhat narrower sense, the ‘arts’ later became what aristocratic children learned. They were ultimately derived from the subjects sponsored by the Muses in myth (astronomy/astrology, comedy, dance, history, music, poetry and tragedy), and were regarded as enhancements of life, adornments, as opposed to practical skills such as calculating, cooking or surveying, which were not the concern of the aristocratic employer and need therefore not be learned. This distinction was preserved in medieval Europe. Alcuin, the 8th-century scholar who devised for the emperor Charlemagne a syllabus for education throughout the Holy Roman Empire, based it on what he called ‘the seven liberal arts’ which together consistuted ‘learning’. The trivium or ‘triple road’, the preliminary course, consisted of grammar, logic and rhetoric; the quadrivium or ‘fourfold road’, the advanced course, consisted of arithmetic, astronomy, geography and music. Once again, all these subjects were taught not as practical skills, but as those of the mind: servants existed to see to mundane matters, leaving the scholar free to let his, or more rarely her, mind roam at will—as Alcuin put it, ‘like someone wandering in a beautiful garden, tending a plant here, savouring a scent there, plucking a bouquet of delight for his own and others\' delectation’. This was not entirely snobbery. It was in keeping with the monastic idea that seclusion from worldly cares was helpful, if not essential, if one were to concentrate one\'s mind on ‘higher things’.

Alcuin\'s classifications, astonishingly, were matched in other cultures which had no possible connection with or dependence on European ideas. In ancient China, for example, literature and music were regarded as ‘cultivated arts’, that is, skills reserved for people of sensibility, and were separated from more mundane skills such as painting or playing instruments or running households. The distinction was not one of brainpower: many mundane skills required high intellectual ability. It is, indeed, hard at this distance to see quite what the distinction was. Possibly it had something to do with a characteristic preoccupation of Chinese philosophers at the time, the idea that beauty was something which could be categorized, that there were hierarchies of ‘the beautiful’. Most ancient Babylonian and Egyptian aristocrats, by contrast, left all intellectual matters to trained professionals, contenting themselves with enjoying the results (music and painting were to them commodities, to be bought like any others) and reserving their education for more practical upper-class skills, such as hunting and the observation of etiquette. Strikingly, mathematics was regarded as the highest ‘art’ in both societies, chiefly because it was essential for astrology and other forms of religious numerology. But it was a sacred and not a secular art, and was also utterly divorced from such practical number-based activities as surveying or commerce, placed on a much lower social plane.

Traditions such as these, which have more to do with social position than with the actual subjects of study or interest, are characteristic of all ancient societies, dependent on slave labour or on a rigid hierarchical structure. The higher your status, whether in sacred or secular circles, the more you needed to ‘understand’ the world, and the less you needed to know about how it was actually run. In the East, this was no barrier to the advancement of knowledge, since what we would now think of as science was an important study by educated people who were not aristocrats. In the West, by contrast, Alcuin\'s categories, and the implacable opposition of the Christian Church to any form of scientific enquiry which might contradict the teaching of the Bible, meant that practical learning remained stalled for centuries, being based on precedent rather than investigation, and that people devoted their creative energies to other matters. Humane letters (classics and philosophy) and theology were the principal subjects studied in most universities, with mathematics as a somewhat grudgingly admitted fourth.

Thus, when rational scientific explanation began at the time of the Renaissance, the gulf between practical and non-practical matters was centuries-old, and few people on either side saw any need to bridge it. The Renaissance also sponsored enormous interest in ‘beauty’ as a philosophical concept which could be discussed and compartmentalized, and this in turn led to the idea that creators of beautiful things—musicians, painters, poets—were working on some kind of abstract scale of excellence, that they could reach the heights. Thus, two developments coincided: the notion that ‘science’ was a separate study from ‘the liberal arts’, and the idea that the artistic creator was matching his or her effort against some kind of abstract ideal, that perfection was quantifiable and could be pursued.

Thus we come, in 18th-century Europe, to what might be called the modern idea of ‘the arts’ and ‘the artist’. Diderot and the other Encyclopedists devoted much ink to assessing what these were, and how they related to ‘science’ and to ‘craft’. The Arts, by and large, were such things as music, painting, poetry and theatre—bluntly put, entertainment with pretension. Artists were people who possessed not merely skill (as the root meaning of the word might suggest) but ‘genius’, innate sensibility of a higher order than that given to the rest of us. (Craftsmen and craftswomen had skill but no creative genius. Artistes were performers who had skill but no high aesthetic aspiration: a tragic actor or an orchestral cellist was an artist, a juggler or a clown was an artiste.) Drawing, engraving, painting and sculpture even formed a sub-category of their own, ‘fine arts’, as opposed to ‘useful arts’ (those crafts with a practical application).

Such categories have bedevilled the Arts for centuries, and continue to inform (or perhaps one should say deform) our attitudes today. The gulf between arts and science seems as wide as it has always been, with practitioners on each side being openly contemptuous of the other. The complexity of modern science, and the rise of what used to be called ‘the practical arts’ (that is, technology), have encouraged scholars and critics of the fine arts to adopt ever more pretentious and abstruse language to describe what creative people do in their field. For the ordinary person, who wants chiefly to be guided to enjoyable, stimulating, challenging, uplifting, ‘great’ literature, music, painting and so on, this Babel can seem as daunting as it is pointless. The Arts are still, as they have always been, hostages to critical scholasticism, gravestones of words. They are actually simple, among the most remarkable manifestations of the human intellect and human spirit, and available for the excitement, uplift and satisfaction of everyone who approaches them. KMcL

See also art and craft; criticism; drama; performing arts; sculpture; two cultures.



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