On Art

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


The word “art” has a range of meanings which may be obscured by the current disposition to use the word in an extremely restricted sense. In contemporary thought, art is most readily associated with beauty; yet its historic connections with utility and knowledge are probably more intimate and pervasive.

The prevalent popular association reflects a tendency in the 19th century to annex the theory of art to aesthetics. This naturally led to the identification of art with one kind of art — the so-called “fine arts,” “beaux arts” or “Schone Kunste” (arts of the beautiful). The contraction of meaning has gone so far that the word “art” sometimes signifies one group of the fine arts — painting and sculpture — as in the common phrase “literature, music, and the fine arts.”

This restricted usage has become so customary that we ordinarily refer to a museum of art or to an art exhibit in a manner which seems to assume that the word “art” is exclusively the name for something which can be hung on a wall or placed on a pedestal.

A moment’s thought will, of course, correct the assumption. We are not unfamiliar with the conception of medicine and teaching as arts. We are acquainted with such phrases as “the industrial arts” and “arts and crafts” in which the reference is to the production of useful things. Our discussions of liberal education should require us to consider the liberal arts which, however defined or enumerated, are supposed to constitute skills of mind. We recognize that “art” is the root of “artisan” as well as “artist.” We thus discern the presence of skill in even the lowest forms of productive labor. Seeing it also as the root of “artifice” and “artificial,” we realize that art is distinguished from and sometimes even opposed to nature.

The ancient and traditional meanings are all present in our daily vocabulary. In our thought the first connotation of “art” is fine art; in the thought of all previous eras the useful arts came first. As late as the end of the 18th century, Adam Smith follows the traditional usage which begins with Plato when, in referring to the production of a woolen coat, he says: “The shepherd, the sorter of the wool, the woolcomber or carder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser, with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production.”

In the first great conversation on art — that presented in the Platonic dialogues — we find useful techniques and everyday skills typifying art, by reference to which all other skills are analyzed. Even when Socrates analyzes the art of the rhetorician, as in the Gorgias, he constantly turns to the productions of the cobbler and the weaver and to the procedures of the husbandman and the physician. If the liberal arts are praised as highest, because the logician or rhetorician works in the medium of the soul rather than in matter, they are called arts “only in a manner of speaking” and by comparison with the fundamental arts which handle physical material.

The Promethean gift of fire to men, which raised them from a brutish existence, carried with it various techniques for mastering matter — the basic useful arts. Lucretius, writing in a line that goes from Homer through Thucydides and Plato to Bacon, Adam Smith, and Rousseau, attributes the progress of civilization and the difference between civilized and primitive society to the development of the arts and sciences. “Ships and tillage, walls, laws, arms, roads, dress, and all such like things, all the prizes, all the elegancies too of life without exception, poems, pictures, and the chiseling of fine-wrought statues, all these things practiced together with the acquired knowledge of the untiring mind taught men by slow degrees as they advanced on the way step by step.”

At the beginning of this progress Lucretius places man’s discovery of the arts of metalworking, domesticating animals, and cultivating the soil. “Metallurgy and agriculture,” says Rousseau, “were the two arts which produced this great revolution” — the advance from primitive to civilized life.

The fine arts and the speculative sciences come last, not first, in the progress of civilization.

The fine arts and the speculative sciences complete human life. They are not necessary — except perhaps for the good life. They are the dedication of human leisure and its best fruit. The leisure without which they neither could come into being nor prosper is found for man and fostered by the work of the useful arts. Aristotle tells us that is “why the mathematical arts were founded in Egypt; for there the priestly caste was allowed to be at leisure.”

There is another ambiguity in the reference of the word “art.” Sometimes we use it to name the effects produced by human workmanship. We elliptically refer to works of art as art. Sometimes we use it to signify the cause of the things produced by human work — that skill of mind which directs the hand in its manipulation of matter. Art is both in the artist and in the work of art — in the one as cause, in the other as the effect. What is effected is a certain ennoblement of matter, a transformation produced not merely by the hand of man, but by his thought or knowledge.

The more generic meaning of art seems to be that of art as cause rather than as effect. There are many spheres of art in which no tangible product results, as in navigation or military strategy. We might, of course, call a landfall or a victory a work of art, but we tend rather to speak of the art of the navigator or the general. So, too, in medicine and teaching, we look upon the health or knowledge which results from healing or teaching as natural. We do not find art in them, but rather in the skill of the healer or teacher who has helped to produce that result. Hence even in the case of the shoe or the statue, art seems to be primarily in the mind and work of the cobbler or sculptor and only derivatively in the objects produced.

Aristotle, in defining art as a “capacity to make, involving a true course of reasoning,” identifies it with making as distinct from doing and knowing.

Though art, like science and moral action, belongs to the mind and involves experience and learning, imagination and thought, it is distinct from both in aiming at production, in being knowledge of how to make something or to obtain a desired effect. Science, on the other hand, is knowledge that something is the case, or that a thing has a certain nature. Knowledge is sometimes identified with science, to the exclusion of art or skill; but we depart from this narrow notion whenever we recognize that skill consists in knowing how to make something.

“Even in speculative matters,” writes Aquinas, “there is something by way of work; e.g., the making of a syllogism, or a fitting speech, or the work of counting or measuring. Hence whatever habits are ordained to suchlike works of the speculative reason, are, by a kind of comparison, called arts indeed, but liberal arts, in order to distinguish them from those arts which are ordained to works done by the body, which arts are, in a fashion, servile, inasmuch as the body is in servile subjection to the soul, and man as regards his soul is free. On the other hand, those sciences which are not ordained to any suchlike work, are called sciences simply, and not arts.”

The discussion of medicine in the great books throws light on the relation of art and science, in their origin as well as their development. Hippocrates writes of medicine as both an art and a science.

In his treatise on Ancient Medicine, he says, “It appears to me necessary to every physician to be skilled in nature, and strive to know — if he would wish to perform his duties — what man is in relation to the articles of food and drink, and to his other occupations, and what are the effects of each of them on every one. And it is not enough to know simply that cheese is a bad article of food, as disagreeing with whoever eats of it to satiety, but what sort of disturbance it creates, and wherefore, and with what principle in man it disagrees …. Whoever does not know what effect these things produce upon a man, cannot know the consequences which result from them, nor how to apply them.”

As a science, medicine involves knowledge of the causes of disease, the different kinds of diseases, and their characteristic courses. Without such knowledge, diagnosis, prognosis, and therapy would be a matter of guesswork — of chance, as Hippocrates says — or at best the application of rule-of-thumb in the light of past experience.

But the scientific knowledge does not by itself make a man a healer, a practitioner of medicine. The practice of medicine requires art in addition to science — art based on science, but going beyond science in formulating general rules for the guidance of practice in particular cases. The habit of proceeding according to rules derived from science distinguishes for Galen the artist in medicine from the mere empiric.

The antithesis of artist and empiric — suggesting the contrast between operation by tested rule and operation by trial and error — parallels the antithesis between scientist and man of opinion.

It has seldom, if ever, been suggested that an art can be originally discovered or developed apart from some science of the subject matter with which the art deals. This does not mean that an individual cannot acquire the habit of an art without being taught the relevant scientific knowledge. An art can be learned by practice; skill can be formed by repeated acts. But the teacher of an art cannot direct the learning without setting rules for his pupils to follow; and if the truth or intelligibility of the rules is questioned, the answers will come from the science underlying the art.

According to Kant, “every art presupposes rules which are laid down as the foundation which first enables a product if it is to be called one of art, to be represented as possible.” In the case of “fine art,” which he distinguishes from other kinds of art as being the product of “genius,” Kant claims that it arises only from “a talent for producing that for which no definite rule can be given.” Yet he maintains that a “rule” is still at its basis and may be “gathered from the performance, i.e., from the product, which others may use to put their own talent to the test.”

Granting that there is no art without science, is the reverse true, and is science possible without art? The question has two meanings. First, are there arts peculiarly indispensable to the development of science? Second, does every science generate a correlative art and through it work productively?

Traditionally, the liberal arts have been considered indispensable to science. This has been held to be particularly true of logic. Because they were intended to serve as the instrument or the art for all the sciences, Aristotle’s logical treatises, which constitute the first systematic treatment of the subject, deserve the title Organon which they traditionally carry. Bacon’s Novum Organum was in one sense an effort to supply a new logic or art for science, and to institute a renovation of the sciences by the experimental method.

As an art, logic consists of rules for the conduct of the mind in the processes of inquiry, inference, definition, and demonstration, by which sciences are constructed. Scientific method is, in short, the art of getting scientific knowledge. In the experimental sciences, there are auxiliary arts — arts controlling the instruments or apparatus employed in experimentation. The experiment itself is a work of art, combining many techniques and using many products of art: the water-clock, the inclined plane, and the pendulum of Galileo; the prisms, mirrors, and lenses of Newton.

The second question — whether all sciences have related arts and through them productive power — raises one of the great issues about the nature of scientific knowledge.

For Francis Bacon, and to some extent Descartes, art is the necessary consequence of science. At the beginning of the Novum Organum, Bacon declares that “knowledge and human power are synonymous since the ignorance of the cause frustrates the effect; for nature is only subdued by submission, and that which in contemplative philosophy corresponds with the cause, in practical science becomes the rule.” The distinction Bacon makes here between the speculative and practical parts of knowledge corresponds to the distinction between science and art, or as we sometimes say, “pure and applied science.” He opposes their divorce from one another. If science is the indispensable foundation of art and consists in a knowledge of causes, art in Bacon’s view is the whole fruit of science, for it applies that knowledge to the production of effects.

His theory of science and his new method for development are directed to the establishment of man’s “empire over creation” which “is founded on the arts and sciences alone.”

Just as the present state of the arts accounts for “the immense difference between men’s lives in the most polished countries of Europe, and in any wild and barbarous region of the new Indies,” so further advances in science promise the untold power of new inventions and techniques.

On Bacon’s view, not only the value, but even the validity, of scientific knowledge is to be measured by its productivity. A useless natural science — a science of nature which cannot be used to control nature — is unthinkable. With the exception of mathematics, every science has its appropriate magic or special productive power. Even metaphysics, in Bacon’s conception of it, has its “true natural magic, which is that great liberty and latitude of operation which dependeth upon the knowledge of forms.”

The opposite answer to the question about science and art is given by Plato, Aristotle, and others who distinguish between speculative and productive sciences. They differ from Bacon on the verbal level by using the word “practical” for those sciences which concern moral and political action rather than the production of effects. The sciences Bacon calls “practical” they call “productive,” but under either name these are the sciences of making rather than doing — sciences which belong in the sphere of art rather than prudence. But the significant difference lies in the evaluation of the purely speculative sciences which consist in knowledge for its own sake, divorced from art and morals, or from the utilities of production and the necessities of action.

In tracing the history of the sciences, Aristotle notes that those men who first found the useful arts were thought wise and superior. “But as more arts were invented, and some were directed to the necessities of life, others to recreation, the inventors of the latter were naturally always regarded as wiser than the inventors of the former, because their branches did not aim at utility. Hence, when all such inventions were already established, the sciences which do not aim at giving pleasure or at the necessities of life were discovered, and first in the places where men first began to have leisure . . . So that the man of experience is thought to be wiser than the possessors of any sense-perception whatever, the artist wiser than the man of experience, the master-worker than the mechanic, and the theoretical kinds of knowledge to be more of the nature of Wisdom than the productive.”

That the theoretic sciences are useless, in the sense of not providing men with the necessities or pleasures of life, is a mark of their superiority. They give what is better than such utility — the insight and understanding which constitute wisdom.

The Baconian reply condemns the conception that there can be knowledge which is merely contemplation of the truth. It announces the revolution which, for John Dewey, ushered in the modern world. The pragmatic theory of knowledge had its origin in a conception of science at every point fused with art.

The ancients, trying to understand the natural phenomena of change and generation, found that the processes of artistic production provided them with an analytic model. Through understanding how he himself worked in making things, man might come to know how nature worked.

When a man makes a house or a statue, he transforms matter. Changes in shape and position occur. The plan or idea in the artist’s mind comes, through his manipulation of matter, to be embodied and realized objectively. To the ancients a number of different causes or factors seemed to be involved in every artistic production — material to be worked on; the activity of the artist at work; the form in his mind which he sought to impose on the matter, thus transforming it; and the purpose which motivated his effort.

In the medical tradition from Aristotle through Galen to Harvey, there is constant emphasis upon the artistic activity of nature. Galen continually argues against those who do not conceive Nature as an artist. Harvey consciously compares the activity of nature in biological generation to that of an artist. “Like a potter she first divides her material, and then indicates the head and trunk and extremities; like a painter, she first sketches the parts in outline, and then fills them in with colours; or like the shipbuilder, who first lays down his keel by way of foundation, and upon this raises the ribs and roof or deck: even as he builds his vessel does nature fashion the trunk of the body and add the extremities.”

Of all natural changes, the one most closely resembling artistic production appears to be generation, especially the production of living things by living things. In both cases, a new individual seems to come into being. But upon further examination, artistic production and natural generation reveal significant differences — differences which divide nature from art.

Aquinas considers both and distinguishes them in his analysis of divine causation. In things not generated by chance, he points out that there are two different ways in which the form that is in the agent is passed on to another being. “In some agents the form of the thing to be made preexists according to its natural being, as in those that act by their nature; as a man generates a man, or fire generates fire. Whereas in other agents the form of the thing to be made preexists according to intelligible being, as in those that act by the intellect; and thus the likeness of a house preexists in the mind of the builder. And this may be called the idea of the house, since the builder intends to build his house like to the form conceived in his mind.”

Thus in biological procreation the progeny have the form of their parents — a rabbit producing a rabbit, a horse, a horse. But in artistic production, the product has, not the form of the artist, but the form he has conceived in his mind and which he seeks to objectify.

Furthermore, in generation, and in other natural changes as well, the matter which undergoes change seems to have in itself a tendency to become what it changes into, as for example the acorn naturally tends to become an oak, whereas the oaken wood does not have in itself any tendency to become a chair or a bed. The material the artist works on is entirely passive with respect to the change he wishes to produce. The artistic result is in this sense entirely of his making.

The realm of art, or of the artificial, is then opposed to the natural and differentiated from it. Kant, for whom art is distinguished from nature “as making is from acting or operating in general,” claims that “by right, it is only production through freedom, i.e., through an act of will that places reason at the basis of its action, that should be termed art.” Consequently, art is that which would not have come into being without human intervention.

The man-made object is produced by man, not in any way, but specifically by his intelligence, by the reason which makes him free.

Animals other than man are apparently productive, but the question is whether they can be called “artists.” “A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells.

But,” according to Marx, “what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.

“At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realizes a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which must subordinate his will.”

Some writers, like Montaigne, attribute the productivity of animals to reason rather than instinct. Art then ceases to be one of man’s distinctions from the brutes.

But if man alone has reason, and if the productions of art are works of reason, then those who refer to animals as artists speak metaphorically, on the basis of what Kant calls “an analogy with art . . . As soon as we call to mind,” he continues, “that no rational deliberation forms the basis of the labor, we see at once that it is a product of their nature (of instinct), and it is only to the Creator that we ascribe it as art.”

This in turn leads to the question whether nature itself is a work of art. “Let me suppose,” the Eleatic Stranger says in the Sophist, “that things which are said to be made by nature are the work of divine art, and that things which are made by man out of these are the work of human art. And so there are two kinds of making and production, the one human and the other divine.”

If we suppose that the things of nature are originally made by a divine mind, how does their production differ from the work of human artists, or from biological generation? One answer, given in Plato’s Timaeus, conceives the original production of things as a fashioning of primordial matter in the patterns set by the eternal archetypes or ideas. In consequence, the divine work would be more like human artistry than either would be like natural reproduction. The emanation of the world from the One, according to Plotinus, and the production of things out of the substance of God in Spinoza’s theory, appear, on the other hand, to be more closely analogous to natural generation than to art.

Both analogies — of creation with art and with generation — are dismissed as false by Christian theologians. God’s making is absolutely creative. It presupposes no matter to be formed; nor do things issue forth from God’s own substance, but out of nothing.

Thus Augustine asks: “How didst Thou make the heaven and the earth?” And he answers: “It was not as a human artificer, forming one body from another, according to the discretion of his mind, which can in some way invest with such a form, as it seeth in itself by its inward eye . . . Verily, neither in the heaven, nor in the earth, didst Thou make heaven and earth; nor in the air, or waters, seeing these also belong to the heaven and the earth; nor in the whole world didst Thou make the whole world; because there was no place where to make it, before it was made, that it might be . . . For what is, but because Thou art? Therefore Thou spakest, and they were made, and in Thy Word Thou madest them.” According to this view, human art cannot be called creative, and God cannot be called an artist, except metaphorically.

But here we must observe that, according to the view we take of the similitude between human and divine workmanship, the line we are able to draw the between the realms of art and nature becomes shadowy or sharp.

The discussions of art in the great books afford materials from which a systematic classification of the arts might be constructed, but only fragments of such a classification are ever explicitly presented.

For example, the seven liberal arts are enumerated by various authors, but their distinction from other arts, and their ordered relation to one another, do not receive full explication. There is no treatment of grammar, rhetoric, and logic (or dialectic) to parallel Plato’s consideration of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy in the Republic; nor is there any analysis of the relation of the first three arts to the other four — traditionally organized as the trivium and the quadrivium. However, in Augustine’s work On Christian Doctrine we have a discussion of these arts as they are ordered to the study of theology. That orientation of the liberal arts is also the to theme of Bonaventura’s Reduction of the Arts to Theology.

The principles of classification of the fine arts are laid down by Kant from “the analogy which art bears to the mode of expression of which men avail themselves in speech, with a view to communicating themselves to one another as completely as possible.” Since such expression “consists in word, gesture, and tone,” he finds three corresponding fine arts: “the art of speech, formative art, and the art of the play of sensations.” In these terms he analyzes rhetoric and poetry, sculpture, architecture, painting and landscape gardening, and music.

A different principle of division is indicated in the opening chapters of Aristotle’s Poetics. The principle that all art imitates nature suggests the possibility of distinguishing and relating the various arts according to their characteristic differences as imitations — by reference to the object imitated and to the medium and manner in which it is imitated by the poet, sculptor or painter, and musician.

“Color and form,” Aristotle writes, “are used as means by some … who imitate and portray many things by their aid, and the voice is used by others … Rhythm alone, without harmony, is the means in the dancer’s imitations … There is, further, an art which imitates by language alone, without harmony, in prose or in verse.” Aristotle’s treatise deals mainly with this art — poetry; it does not develop for the other fine arts the analysis it suggests.

Aristotle’s principle also suggests questions about the useful arts. Are such arts as shoemaking and house-building imitations of nature in the same sense as poetry and music? Does the way in which the farmer, the physician, and the teacher imitate nature distinguish these three arts from the way in which a statue is an imitation, or poem, or a house?

The Aristotelian dictum about art imitating nature has, of course, been as frequently challenged as approved. Apart from the issue of its truth, the theory of art as imitation poses many questions which Aristotle left unanswered. If there are answers in the great books, they are there by implication rather than by statement.

The most familiar distinction between arts — that between the useful and the fine — is also the one most frequently made in modern discussion. The criterion of the distinction needs little explanation. Some of man’s productions are intended to be used; others to be contemplated or enjoyed. To describe them in terms of imitation, the products of the useful arts must be said to imitate a natural function (the shoe, for example, the protective function of calloused skin). The imitation merely indicates the use, and it is the use which counts. But in the products of the fine arts, the imitation of the form, quality, or other aspect of a natural object is considered to be the source of pleasure.

The least familiar distinction among the arts is implied in any thorough discussion, yet its divisions are seldom, if ever, named. Within the sphere of useful art, some arts work toward a result which can hardly be regarded as an artificial product. Fruits and grains would grow without the intervention of the farmer, yet the farmer helps them to grow more abundantly and regularly. Health and knowledge are natural effects, even though the arts of medicine and teaching may aid in their production.

These arts, stand in sharp contrast to those skills whereby man produces the useful things which, but for man’s work, would be totally lacking. In the one case, it is the artist’s activity itself which imitates or cooperates with nature’s manner of working; in the other, the things which the artist makes by operating on passive materials supplied by nature imitate natural forms or functions.

For the most part, the industrial arts are of the second sort. They transform dead matter into commodities or tools. The arts which cooperate with nature usually work with living matter, as in agriculture, medicine, and teaching. The distinction seems warranted and clear. Yet it is cut across by Adam Smith’s division of labor into productive and nonproductive. The work of agriculture is associated with industry in the production of wealth, but what ever other use they may have, physicians and teachers, according to Smith, do not directly augment the wealth of nations.

If to the foregoing we add the division of the arts into liberal and servile, the major traditional distinctions are covered. This last division had its origin in the recognition that some arts, like sculpture and carpentry, could not effect their products except by shaping matter, whereas some arts, like poetry or logic were free from matter, at least in the sense than they worked productively in symbolic mediums.

But by other principles of classification, poetry and sculpture are separated from logic and carpentry, as fine from useful art. Logic along with grammar, rhetoric, and the mathematical arts, is separated from poetry and sculpture, as liberal from fine art. When the word “liberal” is used to state this last distinction, its meaning narrows. It signifies only the speculative arts, or arts concerned with processes of thinking and knowing.

The adequacy of any classification, and the intelligibility of its principles, must stand the test of questions about particular arts. The great books frequently discuss the arts of animal husbandry and navigation, the arts of cooking and hunting, the arts of war and government. Each raises a question about the nature of art in general, and challenges any analysis of the arts to classify them and explain their peculiarities.

There are two other major issues which have been debated mainly with respect to the fine arts.

One, already mentioned, concerns the imitative character of art. The opponents of imitation do not deny that there may be some perceptible resemblance between a work of art a natural object. A drama may remind us of human actions we have experienced; music may simulate the tonal qualities and rhythms of the human voice registering the course of the emotions. Nevertheless, the motivation of artistic creation lies deeper, it is said, than a desire to imitate nature, or to find some pleasure in such resemblances.

According to Tolstoy, the arts serve primarily as a medium of spiritual communication, helping to create the ties of human brotherhood. According to Freud, it is emotion or subconscious expression, rather than imitation or communication, which is the deepest spring of art; the poet or artist “forces us to become aware of our inner selves in which the same impulses are still extant even though they suppressed.” Freud’s theory of sublimation of emotion or Desiree through art seems to connect with Aristotle’s theory of emotional catharsis or purgation. But Freud is attempting to account for the origin of art, and Aristotle is trying to describe an effect proper to its enjoyment.

The theories of communication, expression, or imitation, attempt to explain art, or at least its motivation. But there is also a conception of art which, foregoing explanation, leaves it a mystery — the spontaneous product of inspiration, of a divine madness, the work of unfathomable genius. We encounter this notion first, but not last, in Plato’s Ion.

The other major controversy concerns the regulation of the arts by the state for human welfare and the public good.

Here, as before, the fine arts (chiefly poetry and music) have been the focus of the debate. It is worth noting, however, that a parallel problem of political regulation occurs in the sphere of the industrial arts. On the question of state control over the production and distribution of wealth, Smith and Marx represent extreme opposites, as Milton and Plato are poles apart on the question of the state’s right to censor the artist’s work. In this debate, Aristotle stands on Plato’s side in many particulars, and Mill with Milton.

The problem of censorship or political regulation of the fine arts presupposes some prior questions. Plato argues in the Republic that all poetry but “hymns to the gods and praises of famous men” must be banned from the State; “for if you go beyond this and allow the honeyed muse to enter, either in epic or lyric verse, not law and the reason of mankind, which by common consent have ever been deemed the best, but pleasure and pain will be the rulers in our State.”

Such a view presupposes a certain theory of the fine arts and of their influence on the citizens and the whole character of the community. Yet because both Plato and Aristotle judge that influence to be far from negligible, they do not see any reason in individual liberty for the state to refrain from interfering with the rights of the artist for the greater good of the community.

To Milton and Mill, the measure of the artist’s influence does not affect the question of the freedom of the arts from political or ecclesiastical interference. While admitting the need for protecting the interests of peace and public safety, Milton demands: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

The issue for them is entirely one of liberty. They espouse the cause of freedom — for the artist to express or communicate his work and for the community to receive from him whatever he has to offer.

[Great Books of the Western World GBotWW=”1″]