Jed Perl warns in the August 25 issue of the New Republic of a new threat to the arts. Art for art’s sake has been displaced by a view of “art as a comrade-in-arms to some more supposedly stable or substantial or readily comprehensible aspect of our world.” Art is losing its “purposeful purposelessness” and is becoming a bondservant to “some more general system of social, political, and moral values.” It’s hardly news, Perl knows, when art is enlisted for some extra-artistic cause. The new danger is that many have drawn the conclusion that “art has no independent life.”

Today’s “erosion of art’s imaginative ground” is coming from “the very heart of the liberal, educated, cultivated audience.” This is dangerous to the arts, but also suicidal for liberalism. Art’s “unruly richness” is a necessary counter to liberalism’s stress on public reason, which otherwise can turn into a tidy-minded obsession with data that “threatens to explain away what it cannot explain.” Lacking “faith in art’s autonomy and power,” liberals are killing art and are a menace to liberalism itself.

Perl’s eloquent lament is finally unpersuasive. He never defends his claim that the arts, by definition, form an autonomous sphere of life. He merely asserts it. Worse, Perl’s argument is incoherent. His complaint about yoking the arts to politics relies on an understanding of both art and of politics that undermines the force of his own argument. To see how, we need to ask where the notion of an autonomous sphere of “fine arts” came from.

This side of the Enlightenment and Romanticism, the “fine arts” look like a fact of nature, but for thinkers in the high middle ages, “fine” and “practical” arts formed a single continuum of craftsmanship. Hugh of St. Victor’s Didascalion included “mechanical” arts among the divisions of philosophy, divided into seven groups in imitation of the seven liberal arts. In his treatise “On Diverse Arts,” the writer known as Theophilus Presbyter 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.” Elegantly constructed furniture, cutlery, pottery, a beautifully carved wooden clock—these deserve to be called “art” as much as a painting or a statue.

According to Paul Kristellar, Abbe Batteux’s Les beaux arts redduits & un meme principe (1746) was the first book to codify “the modern system of the fine arts.” Batteux “separates the fine arts which have pleasure for their end from the mechanical arts.” Batteux’s theory won out. Once a broad category that encompassed the whole range of skillful human making, “art” became an honorific applied to a small slice of craftsmanship.

As Eric Gill observed in a 1939 lecture, “the word art is now almost exclusively associated, at least in fashionable literary circles, with the fine arts.” Art becomes a matter of “aesthetics,” what Gill calls “beauty mongering.”

“Politics,” too, has narrowed over the past several centuries. For Aristotle and other classical writers, politics was the effort to organize a civic community for the sake of virtue. The end of politics is to achieve the highest good of human nature. Politics is now understood as the practice of gaining and retaining power, with violence (according to Weber) as its distinguishing instrument.

Perl is well aware that the category of “fine arts” has a history, but he doesn’t grasp the havoc this does to his argument. It is dangerous for art to be politicized if one assumes that politics is about partisanship and power. If we take the classical view that politics answers the question, “How ought we to live together?” then the arts are inherently political insofar as they advance the health of a political community in all the ways Perl mentions—by challenging the imperialism of reason, by nourishing imagination, by preserving “the difficulty of beauty in a world dominated by . . . measurements and statistics.”

What Perl offers is in large measure a political case against the politicization of the arts, but because he accepts the modern narrowing of art and politics, he subverts his own case. If art is autonomous, why should it interfere with my measuring and my statistics? If art gets to be free from politics, why can’t politics be free from art? Let the arts stay in the museum and concert hall where they belong, and stop trying to pretty up the real world.

The separation of art and politics creates the conditions for the kind of politicization that Perl rightly condemns, and for the perversion of art that follows from it. Perl would be more convincing and coherent if he offered a lament over the divorce of art and life, but in that case he would have to question rather than defend the modern settlement of arts-and-politics that served up the divorce papers in the first place.

Peter J. Leithart is president of Trinity House. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here

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