Once upon a time, “the arts” did not exist. Of course, from the beginning people painted figures, shaped rock and wood into statues, played or sang melodies, added decorative flourishes to their homes. But for much of human history, these activities were not thought to be in a separate category called “fine arts.” Anything done or made could be made or done artfully. For much of human history, art has been seen, in Eric Gill’s pithy formula, as “human skill in making” or “the well making of what needs making.”

For Old Testament writers, the Hebrew tob meant both good and lovely (cf. Genesis 24:16; 26:7; Psalm 25:8). Plato had no words to distinguish “beauty” from “goodness.” The Greek kalos covered both. In the Politics , Aristotle included music and drawing in his sketch of a proper education but saw them on a par with grammar and arithmetic. Greek thought recognized a hierarchy of arts, based on the Greek suspicion of physical nature. Liberal arts – all intellectual – were superior to the servile arts that that required wrestling with recalcitrant matter.

Early on, medieval Christians followed the Greek view that intellectual arts were superior to bodily ones, but that changed in the high middle ages. Hugh of St. Victor included “mechanical” arts among the divisions of philosophy in his Didascalion , and he divided the mechanical arts into seven groups in imitation of the seven liberal arts. His seven mechanical arts were fabric-making, commerce, agriculture, hunting, medicine, theatrics, and armament (though he cheated by including work with stone, wood, metal, sand, and clay under the heading of “armament”). Following Hugh’s example, the writer known as Theophilus Presbyter offered guidelines for glass-making, enameling, metallurgy, pigment manufacture and other crafts in his treatise “On Diverse Arts.” Theophilus cited Exodus 31 to show that God “filled [the masters of crafts] with the spirit of wisdom and understanding and knowledge in all learning for contriving and making works in gold and silver, bronze, gems, wood, and in art of every kind.”

It wasn’t until the eighteen century that anyone systematized the distinctions that are second nature to our way of thinking. Abbe Batteux’s Les beaux arts redduits & un meme principe (1746) was the first treatise devoted exclusively to the fine arts. As Paul Kristeller says, “Batteux codified the modern system of the fine arts almost in its final form, whereas all previous authors had merely prepared it. He separates the fine arts which have pleasure for their end from the mechanical arts, and lists the fine arts as follows: music, poetry, painting, sculpture and the dance.” Fine arts are arts with no purpose beyond their sheer existence and the aesthetic experience they offer. As soon as something becomes useful, it ceases to be art.

Things change, and so do words. Change is hardly an evil. Still, it should give us some pause that for most of history, including most of church history, everyone got along fine without a category of “fine arts.” Maybe that category is not as obvious and natural as we think it is. Maybe the development of that distinction is not an innocent as it might appear. In fact, I don’t think it’s innocent at all. The creation of the category of “fine arts” has damaged everyone, the “artist” as much as the “non-artist.”

Gill’s 1939 lecture on “Sacred and Secular in Art and Industry” hints at what is lost on both sides. As long as we define are as “the well making of what needs making,” then we can speak reasonably of the “arts of the cook and the dentist, of the smith and the carpenter and all such common arts,” as well as the “less common arts, the so-called fine arts, of the painter and poet, of the sculptor, the musician and the architect.” All human making is dignified by the term “art.”

Since industrialization, much of what used to be produced by “common arts” is mass produced. Decent clothing is cheaply available at the WalMart and pre-prepared food lines our grocery shelves. In these conditions, work and art go their separate ways. As Gill notes, the factory laborer and the artist are similar in many ways: “Both are normally engaged in making things. Both are normally workers with their hands. Both are normally paid for what they do and not paid if they don’t do it . . . . Both are commonly instructed as to what is required of them before they begin working.” They differ, however, in their degree of responsibility: “The artist is responsible for the form and quality of what his deeds effect; he is the responsible workman; he has responsibility and would be insulted if he were denied it.” By contrast, the laborer “neither has responsibility nor does he now desire it.”

As a result of these shifts in the way work works, “the word art is now almost exclusively associated, at least on fashionable literary circles, with the fine arts.” Painters and poets have “no ordinary job of work to do,” and come to “use the word art to mean, not human skill in making things, but the ability of certain special people, specially trained or specially gifted, to exhibit in paint or stone, or word or sound, their special sensibilities and fine feelings.” Art is linked with “aesthetics,” which Gill defines as “beauty mongering.” I think Gill is wrong to restrict this definition of art to “fashionable circles.” Working class people think of the fine arts in a similar way, and mock the elite artistes. The category of “fine arts” damages artists by encouraging them to think of themselves as prophets; it damages others because it discourages them from thinking of their own making as artistic.

The proper response to this situation is not to jettison the industrial system, impossible in any case. The key is to reinvest what we think of as “non-artistic” work with the values associated with art. That involves looking for creative ways to give laborers more responsibility for their products. It means finding fresh ways to enhance the creative potential of all labor, so that it becomes drudgery divine. It also means recognizing the artfulness, and the beauty, that is always already there in any field of human endeavor. There is music in a humming engine; there’s a choreography to a well-orchestrated factory floor; the janitor can take aesthetic satisfaction from the cleanliness and order he leaves behind; mothers in the home are sculpting children; there’s beauty in skillful manipulation of a backhoe.

As Gill says, all men, because they are made in the image of God, are called to “collaborate with God in creating, to make all things good, that is to say beautiful, that is to say holy.” All men, not only the “artist,” are called to be and make the art of God. In Christ, the Father’s inspired Poem, Christians discover this artistic vocation.

More on: Art

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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