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Monday, April 23, 2018

On the Notion of Art in Ancient Times

Paul Oskar Kristeller
In his essay, “The Modern System of Fine Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics, Part I,” (Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 12, No. 4, Oct., 1951), Paul Oskar Kristeller argues that the modern notion of “art” was essentially an invention of the eighteenth century, and that the pre-eighteenth century world lacked any comparable notion of “art.” He points out that the term which the ancient Greeks (and the Romans) used for “art” did not connote “fine art” in the modern sense, rather it applied to all the crafts and sciences.

Kristeller notes in his article that during the ancient period the social and intellectual prestige of the artists was quite low. Here’s an excerpt from his article:
When we consider the visual arts of painting, sculpture and architecture, it appears that their social and intellectual prestige in antiquity was much lower than one might expect from their actual achievements or from occasional enthusiastic remarks which date for the most part from the later centuries. It is true that painting was compared to poetry by Simonides and Plato, by Aristotle and Horace, as it was compared to rhetoric by Cicero, Dionysius of Halicarnassus and other writers. It is also true that architecture was included among the liberal arts by Varro and Vitruvius, and painting by Pliny and Galen, that Dio Chrysostom compared the art of the sculptor with that of the poet, and that Philostratus and Callistratus wrote enthusiastically about painting and sculpture. Yet the place of painting among the liberal arts was explicitly denied by Seneca and ignored by most other writers, and the statement of Lucian that everybody admires the works of the great sculptors but would not want to be a sculptor oneself, seems to reflect the prevalent view among writers and thinkers. The term [Greek word], commonly applied to painters and sculptors, reflects their low social standing, which was related to the ancient contempt for manual work. When Plato compares the description of his ideal state to a painting and even calls his world-shaping god a demiurge, he no more enhances the importance of the artist than does Aristotle when he uses the statue as the standard example for a product of human art. When Cicero, probably reflecting Panaetius, speaks of the ideal notions in the mind of the sculptor, and when the Middle Platonists and Plotinus compare the ideas in the mind of God with the concepts of the visual artist they go one step further. Yet no ancient philosopher, as far as I know, wrote a separate systematic treatise on the visual arts or assigned to them a prominent place in his scheme of knowledge. 
The ancients believed that art, like any craft, can be taught and learned, whereas modern aesthetics stresses that art cannot be taught or learned. In the Middle Ages too, art was seen as a lowly craft. The term “artista” coined in the Middle Ages stood for either a craftsman or a student of liberal arts. Kristeller says that neither Dante nor Aquinas have used the term “art” in the sense that we do today. For Aquinas shoemaking, cooking, juggling, grammar, and arithmetic were as artistic as painting, sculpture, poetry, and music.

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