Art(s) & Classification – Part 1

What is art and what is not? It’s a very complex question and to cut it short immediately, let us say clearly that I would not answer it (or at least not today). What occupies me in reality is precisely how inside what constitutes Art, thinkers have considered it necessary to constitute categories. It’s these same categories and their evolutions that will be the object of this reflection.

To go back as far as my modest knowledge allows it, it’s necessary to go in Ancient Greece, where the notion of Art as such does not exist. Not really. In fact, they did have a form of classification of the arts since, under the term “techné”, they included a certain number of elements that we readily qualify as art today (and others less so!). Each techné is governed by its own muse, which the specialists of these activities do not hesitate to name when the need arises. First, there are the muses of what we still call art today: Calliope the muse of epic poetry, Erato the one of lyric poetry, Euterpe who deals with music, Melpomene for tragedy, Polymnia for rhetoric and religious songs, Terpischore for dance, and Thalie for comedy. And then there are the techné who come out of the field of what we call “art” today (although obviously the notion is debatable): Clio the muse of history, and Urania the muse of astronomy and geometry. There is no trace of architecture, for example, which does not hold their interest.

In the Middle Ages, what we call art and what we call science today were not yet completely distinct. Overall, we can say that the activities of the “art” type were grouped into three main categories. The first, that of the arts of the mind, contained two sub-categories: the trivium, that is to say the arts of grammar and rhetoric for example, and on the other hand the quadrivium, that is to say astronomy and geometry for example, but also music. The second category gathered the “mechanical” arts. It included what we call today the Fine Arts (painting, architecture, sculpture, etc.), but also everything that could be called crafts: goldsmithing, haberdashery, ironwork, etc. The last category, the “noble arts”, included activities specific to the nobility such as the handling of weapons, chess, dancing, hunting, etc. It should be noted that at the time, several different classifications intersected and overlapped. As an illustration, Hugues de Saint-Victor, theologian and philosopher of the 12th century, spoke of the “Seven Mechanical Sciences”: spinning, architecture, navigation, agriculture, hunting, medicine and theater. We can therefore find what constitutes “arts” according to our contemporary definition. During the Renaissance, the term “art” was used to describe the gestures necessary to master a technique or a trade. It’s also at this time that the well-known expression “arte del disegno” appears, which includes both the arts of volume and surface.

© Pavel Nekoranec

Some philosophers then proposed to give other classifications of art that are their own. To quote only the two most known we will speak about Kant – who distinguishes (to say it roughly) the arts of the image ” bildenden künste “, the arts of the word ” redenden künste ” and the arts of the sensations ” künste des schönen spiels der empfindungen ” -, and of Hegel – who divides the arts in architecture, sculpture, painting, music and poetry, considering that the other arts are not so important.

Today, the principle is agreed upon for about ten arts. The first would be architecture. The 2nd would be sculpture. The 3rd the visual arts. The 4th is music. The 5th would be literature. The 6th the performing arts. The 7th the cinema. The 8th the media arts. The ninth would be comics. And the 10th would be video games and multimedia. But what about tableware? Perfumery? Floral and landscape art? In which category to place a performance when it’s at the same time music, painting and theater? And if this performance is filmed, to which art does the result belong?

In the course of my research, each step forward makes me discover a new form of art that apparently does not fit into any of the categories I mentioned above, neither the old nor the new ones. Where to put the extraordinary costumes of the participants in some festivals, and which however have no vocation to be a prop in an artistic staging? Where do we put the vehicles modified for these same festivals, from the fire-breathing locomotive to the steampunk-style bicycle with trailer that can carry up to twenty people? Some arts are on the border between several categories, others do not correspond to anything we know today. Maybe it’s time to develop new categories of art?


Thank you and see you soon!


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