1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Art

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ART, a word in its most extended and most popular sense meaning everything which we distinguish from Nature. Art and Nature are the two most comprehensive genera of which the human mind has formed the conception. Under the genus Nature, or the genus Art, we include all the phenomena of the universe. But as our conception of Nature is indeterminate and variable, so in some degree is our conception of Art. Nor does such ambiguity arise only because some modes of thought refer a greater number of the phenomena of the universe to the genus Nature, and others a greater number to the genus Art. It arises also because we do not strictly limit the one genus by the other. The range of the phenomena to which we point, when we say Art, is never very exactly determined by the range of the other phenomena which at the same time we tacitly refer to the order of Nature. Everybody understands the general meaning of a phrase like Chaucer’s “Nature ne Art ne koude him not amende,” or Pope’s “Blest with each grace of nature and of art.” In such phrases we intend to designate familiarly as Nature all which exists independently of our study, forethought and exertion—in other words, those phenomena in ourselves or the world which we do not originate but find; and we intend to designate familiarly as Art all which we do not find but originate—or, in other words, the phenomena, which we add by study, forethought and exertion to those existing independently of us. But we do not use these designations consistently. Sometimes we draw an arbitrary line in the action of individuals and societies, and say, Here Nature ends and Art begins—such a law, such a practice, such an industry even, is natural, and such another is artificial; calling those natural which happen spontaneously and without much reflection, and the others artificial. But this line different observers draw at different places. Sometimes we adopt views which waive the distinction altogether. One such view is that wherein all phenomena are regarded as equally natural, and the idea of Nature is extended so as to include “all the powers existing in either the outer or the inner world, and everything which exists by means of those powers.” In this view Art becomes a part of Nature. It is illustrated in the familiar passage of Shakespeare, where Polixenes reminds Perdita that


“Nature is made better by no mean,

But nature makes that mean: so, over that art

Which, you say, adds to nature, is an art       

That nature makes.” ...                                

                                “This is an art

Which does mend nature, change it rather, but

The art itself is nature.”                                  


A posthumous essay of John Stuart Mill contains a full philosophical exposition and defence of this mode of regarding the relations of Nature and Art. Defining Nature as above, and again as a “collective name for all facts, actual and possible,” that writer proceeds to say that such a definition

“is evidently inapplicable to some of the modes in which the word is familiarly employed. For example, it entirely conflicts with the common form of speech by which Nature is opposed to Art, and natural to artificial. For in the sense of the word Nature which has thus been defined, and which is the true scientific sense, Art is as much Nature as anything else; and everything which is artificial is natural—Art has no independent powers of its own: Art is but the employment of the powers of Nature for an end. Phenomena produced by human agency no less than those which, as far as we are concerned, are spontaneous, depend on the properties of the elementary forces, or of the elementary substances and their compounds. The united powers of the whole human race could not create a new property of matter in general, or of any one of its species. We can only take advantage for our purposes of the properties we find. A ship floats by the same laws of specific gravity and equilibrium as a tree uprooted by the wind and blown into the water. The corn which men raise for food grows and produces its grain by the same laws of vegetation by which the wild rose and the mountain strawberry bring forth their flowers and fruit. A house stands and holds together by the natural properties, the weight and cohesion of the materials which compose it. A steam engine works by the natural expansive force of steam, exerting a pressure upon one part of a system of arrangements, which pressure, by the mechanical properties of the lever, is transferred from that to another part, where it raises the weight or removes the obstacle brought into connexion with it. In these and all other artificial operations the office of man is, as has often been remarked, a very limited one; it consists of moving things into certain places. We move objects, and by doing this, bring some things into contact which were separate, or separate others which were in contact; and by this simple change of place, natural forces previously dormant are called into action, and produce the desired effect. Even the volition which designs, the intelligence which contrives, and the muscular force which executes these movements, are themselves powers of Nature.”

Another mode of thought, in some sort complementary to the last, is based on the analogy which the operations of forces external to a man bear to the operations of man himself. Study, forethought and exertion are assigned to Nature, and her operations are called operations of Art. This view was familiar to ancient systems of philosophy, and especially to that of the Stoics. According to the report of Cicero, Nature as conceived by Zeno was a fire, and at the same time a voluntary agent having the power or art of creating things with regularity and design (“naturam esse ignem artificiosum ad gignendum progredientem via”). To this fire not merely creative force and systematic action were ascribed, but actual personality. Nature was “non artificiosa solum, sed plane artifex.” “That which in the works of human art is done by hands, is done with much greater art by Nature, that is, by a fire which exercises an art and is the teacher of other arts.” This conception of Nature as an all-generating fire, and at the same time as a personal artist both teaching and including in her own activity all the human arts, on the one hand may be said, with Polixenes and J. S. Mill, to merge Art in Nature; but on the other hand it finds the essence of Nature in the resemblance of her operations to those of Art. “It is the proprium of art,” according to the same system, “to create and beget,” and the reasoning proceeds—Nature creates and begets, therefore Nature is an artist or Demiurgus. A kindred view is set forth by Sir Thomas Browne in the Religio Medici, when he declares that “all things are artificial; for Nature is the Art of God.”

But these modes of thought, according to which, on the one hand, the processes of Art are included among processes of Nature, or on the other the processes of Nature among the processes of Art, are exceptional. In ordinary use the two conceptions, each of them somewhat vague and inexact, are antithetical. Their antithesis was what Dr Johnson had chiefly in his mind when he defined Art as “the power of doing something which is not taught by Nature or by instinct.” But this definition is insufficient, because the abstract word Art, whether used of all arts at once or of one at a time, is a name not only for the power of doing something, but for the exercise of the power; and not only for the exercise of the power, but for the rules according to which it is exercised; and not only for the rules, but for the result. Painting, for instance, is an art, and the word connotes not only the power to paint, but the act of painting; and not only the act, but the laws for performing the act rightly; and not only all these, but the material consequences of the act or the thing painted. So of agriculture, navigation and the rest. Exception might also be taken to Dr Johnson’s definition on the ground that it excludes all actions of instinct from the genus Art, whereas usage has in more languages than one given the name of Art to several of those ingenuities in the lower animals which popular theory at the same time declares to be instinctive. Dante, for instance, speaks of boughs shaken by the wind, but not so violently as to make the birds forgo their Art—


                  “Non però dal lor esser dritto sparte

Tanto, che gl’ augelletti per le cime

Lasciasser d’ operar ogni lor arte.”


And Fontenelle, speaking in the language not of poetry but of science:—“Most animals—as, for instance, bees, spiders and beavers—have a kind of art peculiar to themselves; but each race of animals has no more than one art, and this one has had no first inventor among the race. Man, on the other hand, has an infinity of different arts which were not born with his race, and of which the glory is his own.” Dr Johnson might reply that those properties of variety and of originality or individual invention, which Fontenelle himself alleges in the ingenuities of man but not in those of the lower animals, are sufficient to make a generic difference, and to establish the impropriety of calling a honeycomb or a spider’s web a work of Art. It is not our purpose to trespass on ground so debateable as that of the nature of consciousness in the lower animals. Enough that when we use the term Art of any action, it is because we are thinking of properties in the action from which we infer, whether justly or not, that the agent voluntarily and designedly puts forth skill for known ends and by regular and uniform methods. If, then, we were called upon to frame a general definition of Art, giving the word its widest and most comprehensive meaning, it would run thus:—Every regulated operation or dexterity by which organized beings pursue ends which they know beforehand, together with the rules and the result of every such operation or dexterity.

Here it will be well to consider very briefly the natural history of the name which has been given to this very comprehensive conception by the principal branches of civilized mankind. Our own word Art the English language has taken, as all the Romance languages of modern Europe have taken theirs, directly from the Latin. The Latin ars, according to the prevailing opinion of philologists, proceeds from a root AR, of which the primitive signification was to put or fit things together, and which is to be found in a large family of Greek words. The Greek τέχνη, the name both for arts in the particular and art in the abstract, is by its root related both to τέκ-των and τέκ-νον, and thus contains the allied ideas of making and begetting. The proprium of art in the logic of the Stoics, “to create and beget,” was strictly in accordance with this etymology. The Teutonic Kunst is formed from können, and können is developed from a primitive Ich kann. In kann philology is inclined to recognize a preterite form of a lost verb, of which we find the traces in Kin-d, a child; and the form Ich kann thus meaning originally “I begot,” contains the germ of the two several developments,—können, “to be master,” “to be able,” and kennen, “to know.” We thus see that the chief Indo-European languages have with one consent extended a name for the most elementary exercise of a constructive or productive power, till that name has covered the whole range of the skilled and deliberate operations of sentient beings.

In proportion as men left out of sight the idea of creation, of constructing or producing, “artificiosum esse ad gignendum,” which is the primitive half of this extended notion, and attended only to the idea of skill, of proceeding by regular and disciplined methods, “progredi via,” which is the superadded half, the whole notion Art, and the name for it, might become subject to a process of thought which, if analysed, would be like this:—What is done by regular and disciplined methods is Art; facts are observed and classified, and a systematic view of the order of the universe obtained, by regular and disciplined methods; the observing and classifying of facts, and obtaining a systematic view of the order of the universe, is therefore Art. To a partial extent this did unconsciously take place. Science, of which the essence is only in knowledge and theory, came to be spoken of as Art, of which the essence is all in practice and production. Cicero, notwithstanding his citation of the Stoical dictum that practice and production were of the essence of Art, elsewhere divides Art into two kinds—one by which things are only contemplated in the mind, another by which something is produced and done. (“Quumque artium aliud eiusmodi sit, ut tantummodo rem cernat; aliud, ut moliatur aliquid et faciat.”—Acad. ii. 7.) Of the former kind his instance is geometry; of the latter the art of playing on the lyre. Now geometry, understanding by geometry an acquisition of the mind, that is, a collected body of observations and deductions concerning the properties of space and magnitude, is a science and not an art; although there is an art of the geometer, which is the skill by which he solves any given problem in his science, and the rules of that skill, and his exertion in putting it forth. And so every science has its instrumental art or practical discipline; and in as far as the word Art is used only of the practical discipline or dexterity of the geometer, the astronomer, the logician, the grammarian, or other person whose business it is to collect and classify facts for contemplation, in so far the usage is just. The same justification may be extended to another usage, whereby in Latin, and some of its derivative languages, the name Art came to be transferred in a concrete sense to the body of rules, the written code or manual, which lays down the discipline and regulates the dexterity; as ars grammatica, ars logica, ars rhetorica and the rest. But when the word is stretched so as to mean the sciences, as theoretical acquisitions of the mind, that meaning is illegitimate. Whether or not Cicero, in the passage above quoted, had in his mind the science of geometry as a collected body of observations and deductions, it is certain that the Ciceronian phrase of the liberal arts, the ingenuous arts, both in Latin and its derivatives or translations in modern speech, has been used currently to denote the sciences themselves, and not merely the disciplines instrumental to them. The trivium and the quadrivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric—geometry, astronomy, music and arithmetic) have been habitually called arts, when some of them have been named in that sense in which they mean not arts but sciences, “only contemplating things in the mind.” Hence the nomenclature, history and practical organization, especially in Britain, of one great division of university studies: the division of “arts,” with its “faculty,” its examinations, and its degrees.

In the German language the words for Art and Science have in general been loosely interchanged. The etymology of the word for Art secured a long continuance for this ambiguity. Kunst was employed indiscriminately in both the senses of the primitive Ich kann, to signify what I know, or Science, and what I can do, or Art. It was not till the end of the 17th century that a separate word for Science, the modern Wissenschaft, came into use. On the other hand, the Greek word τέχνη, with its distinct suggestion of the root signification to make or get, acted probably as a safeguard against this tendency. The distinction between τέχνη, Art or practice, and ἐπιστήμη, knowledge or Science, is observed, though not systematically, in Greek philosophy. But for our present purpose, that of making clear the true relation between the one conception and the other, further quotation is rendered superfluous by the discussion the subject has received at the hands of the modern writer already quoted. Between Art, of which we practise the rules, and Science, of which we entertain the doctrines, J. S. Mill establishes the difference in the simplest shape, by pointing out that one grammatical mood is proper for the conclusions of Science, and another for those of Art. Science enunciates her conclusions in the indicative mood, whereas “the imperative is the characteristic of Art, as distinguished from Science.” And as Art utters her conclusions in her own form, so she supplies the substance of her own major premise.

“Every art has one first principle, or general major premise, not borrowed from science, that which enunciates the object aimed at, and affirms it to be a desirable object. The builder’s art assumes that it is desirable to have buildings; architecture (as one of the fine arts) that it is desirable to have them beautiful and imposing. The hygienic and medical arts assume, the one that the preservation of health, the other that the cure of disease, are fitting and desirable ends. These are not propositions of science. Propositions of science assert a matter of fact—an existence, a co-existence, a succession, or a resemblance. The propositions now spoken of do not assert that anything is, but enjoin or recommend that something should be. They are a class by themselves. A proposition of which the predicate is expressed by the words ought or should be is generically different from one which is expressed by is or will be.”

And the logical relation of Art and Science, in other words, the manner of framing the intermediate member between the general major premise of Art and its imperative conclusion, is thus defined:—

“The Art [in any given case] proposes to itself an end to be attained, defines the end, and hands it over to the Science. The Science receives it, considers it as a phenomenon or effect to be studied, and having investigated its causes and conditions, sends it back to Art with a theorem of the causes and combinations by which it could be produced. Art then examines these combinations of circumstances, and according as any of them are or are not in human power, pronounces the end attainable or not. The only one of the premises, therefore, which Art supplies, is the original major premise, which asserts that the attainment of the given end is desirable. Science, then, lends to Art the proposition (obtained by a series of inductions or deductions) that the performance of certain actions will attain the end. From these premises Art concludes that the performance of these actions is desirable, and finding it also practicable, converts the theorem into a rule or precept.... The grounds, then, of every rule of Art are to be found in the theorems of Science. An Art, or a body of Art, consists of the rules, together with as much of the speculative propositions as comprises the justification of these rules. The complete Art of any matter includes a selection of such a portion from the Science as is necessary to show on what conditions the effects, which the Art aims at producing, depend. And Art in general consists of the truths of Science arranged in the most convenient order for practice, instead of the order which is most convenient for thought. Science groups and arranges its truths so as to enable us to take in at one view as much as possible of the general order of the universe. Art, though it must assume the same general laws, follows them only into such of their detailed consequences as have led to the formation of rules of conduct, and brings together from parts of the field of Science most remote from one another, the truths relating to the production of the different and heterogeneous causes necessary to each effect which the exigencies of practical life require to be produced.”—(Mill’s Logic, vol. ii. pp. 542-549).

The whole discussion may be summed up thus. Science consists in knowing, Art consists in doing. What I must do in order to know, is Art subservient to Science: what I must know in order to do, is Science subservient to Art.

Art, then, is defined by two broad distinctions: first, its popular distinction from Nature; and next, its practical and theoretic distinction from Science. Both of these distinctions are observed in the terms of our definition given above. Within the proper limits of this definition, the conception of Art, and the use of the word for it, have undergone sundry variations. These variations correspond to certain vicissitudes or developments in the order of historical facts and in society. The requirements of society, stimulating the ingenuity of its individual members, have led to the invention of arts and groups of arts, constantly progressing, with the progress of civilization, in number, in complexity, and in resource. The religious imagination of early societies, who find themselves in possession of such an art or group of arts, forgets the history of the invention, and assigns it to the inspiration or special grace of some god or hero. So the Greeks assigned the arts of agriculture to Triptolemus, those of spinning and navigation to Athena, and of music to Apollo. At one stage of civilization one art or group of arts is held in higher esteem, another at another. In societies, like most of those of the ancient world, where slaves were employed in domestic service, and upon the handicrafts supplying the immediate utilities of life—food, shelter and clothing—these constituted a group of servile arts. The arts of husbandry or agriculture, on the other hand, have alternately been regarded as servile and as honourable according as their exercise has been in the hands of a subject class, as under feudal institutions, or, as under the Roman republic, of free cultivators. Under feudal institutions, or in a society in a state of permanent war, the allied arts of war and of government have been held the only honourable class. In commercial states, like the republics of Italy, the arts of gain, or of production (other than agricultural) and distribution, have made good their title to equal estimation and greater power beside the art of captains. But among peaceful arts, industries or trades, some have always been held to be of higher and others of lower rank; the higher rank being assigned to those that required larger operations, higher training, or more thoughtful conduct, and yielded ampler returns—the lower rank to those which called for simple manual exercise, especially if such exercise was of a disagreeable or degrading kind. In the cities of Italy, where both commerce and manufactures were for the first time organized on a considerable scale, the name arte, Art, was retained to designate the gilds or corporations by which the several industries were exercised; and, according to the nature of the industry, the art was classed as higher or lower (maggiore and minore).

The arts of which we have hitherto spoken have arisen from positive requirements, and supply what are strictly utilities, in societies; not excluding the art of war, at least so far as concerns one-half of war, the defensive half. But war continued to be an honourable pursuit, because it was a pursuit associated with birth, power and wealth, as well as with the virtue of courage, in cases where it had no longer the plea of utility, but was purely aggressive or predatory; and the arts of the chase have stood in this respect in an analogous position to those of war.

There are other arts which have not had their origin in positive practical needs, but have been practised from the first for pleasure or amusement. The most primitive human beings of whom we have any knowledge, the cave-dwellers of the palaeolithic period, had not only the useful art of chipping stones into spear-heads, knife-heads and arrow-heads, and making shafts or handles of these implements out of bone; they had also the ornamental art of scratching upon the bone handle the outlines of the animals they saw—mammoth, rhinoceros or reindeer—or of carving such a handle into a rude resemblance of one of these animals. Here we have a skill exercised, in the first case, for pure fancy or pleasure, and in the second, for adding an element of fancy or pleasure to an element of utility. Here, therefore, is the germ of all those arts which produce imitations of natural objects for purposes of entertainment or delight, as painting, sculpture, and their subordinates; and of all those which fashion useful objects in one way rather than another because the one way gives pleasure and the other does not, as architecture and the subordinate decorative arts of furniture, pottery and the rest. Arts that work in a kindred way with different materials are those of dancing and music. Dancing works with the physical movements of human beings. Music works with sound. Between that imitative and plastic group, and the group of these which only produce motion or sound and pass away, there is the intermediate group of eloquence and the drama, which deal with the expression of human feeling in spoken words and acted gestures. There is also the comprehensive art of poetry, which works with the material of written words, and can ideally represent the whole material of human life and experience. Of all these arts the end is not use but pleasure, or pleasure before use, or at least pleasure and use conjointly. In modern language, there has grown up a usage which has put them into a class by themselves under the name of the Fine Arts, as distinguished from the Useful or Mechanical Arts. (See Aesthetics and Fine Arts.) Nay more, to them alone is often appropriated the use of the generic word Art, as if they and they only were the arts κατ᾽ ἐξοχήν. And further yet, custom has reduced the number which the class-word is meant to include. When Art and the works of Art are now currently spoken of in this sense, not even music or poetry is frequently denoted, but only architecture, sculpture and painting by themselves, or with their subordinate and decorative branches. In correspondence with this usage, another usage has removed from the class of arts, and put into a contrasted class of manufactures, a large number of industries and their products, to which the generic term Art, according to our definition, properly applies. The definition covers the mechanical arts, which can be efficiently exercised by mere trained habit, rote or calculation, just as well as the fine arts, which have to be exercised by a higher order of powers. But the word Art, becoming appropriated to the fine arts, has been treated as if it necessarily carried along with it, and as if works to be called works of art must necessarily possess, the attributes of free individual skill and invention, expressing themselves in ever new combinations of pleasurable contrivance, and seeking perfection not as a means towards some ulterior practical end but as an ideal end in itself. (S. C.)