Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Kristeller’s Modern System of the Arts

Paul Oskar Kristeller was a Jewish-German scholar of Renaissance humanism who fled from Europe to the USA in 1939. In an obituary, John Monfasani wrote, ‘He may prove to have been, after Jakob Burckhardt, the most important student of the Renaissance in modern times.’1

One of Kristeller’s key contributions to aesthetics is his famous essay ‘The Modern System of the Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics’. This appeared in the Journal of the History of Ideas in two parts, the first in October 1951, the second in January 1952. (These links take you to protected content on JSTOR but you can open a free account that will let you read them. Otherwise you can find the essay online if you look for it.)

This was a classic study in the history and philosophy of art that went on to influence philosophers like Larry Shiner – it is essential reading for anyone interested in aesthetics. These are simply my notes on the essay with hardly any comment. The page references are to the page numbers in the journals.


Kristeller remind us that several terms and concepts were coined, or acquired their modern senses, in the 18th century:
  • the term ‘aesthetics’ 
  • philosophy of art
  • the beaux-arts 
  • key concepts such as taste, sentiment, genius, originality, creative imagination

Kristeller writes:

We must be careful about applying these concepts to earlier eras. Some scholars have rightly noticed that only the eighteenth century produced a type of literature in which the various arts were compared with each other and discussed on the basis of common principles, whereas up to that period treatises on poetics and rhetoric, on painting and architecture, and on music had represented quite distinct branches of writing and were primarily concerned with technical precepts rather than with general ideas. (497)

For us moderns, the five key ‘fine arts’ are painting, sculpture, architecture, music and poetry. Kristeller calls these the ‘irreducible nucleus of the modern system of the arts’. Others such as dance or prose literature are sometimes included on the list. Most writers since Kant have taken it for granted that these arts exist as a distinct area separated from the crafts and sciences. Kristeller comments:

This system of the five major arts, which underlies all modern aesthetics and is so familiar to us all, is of comparatively recent origin and did not assume definite shape before the eighteenth century, although it has many ingredients which go back to classical, medieval and Renaissance thought. (498)

The ancients

The Greeks and Romans had no conception of the fine arts. The words we translate as ‘art’ – techne (Greek) and ars (Latin) – indicated a variety of crafts and sciences. They were human as opposed to natural, and could be taught and learned.

When the Greek authors began to oppose Art to Nature, they thought of human activity in general. (499)

E.g. Aristotle thinks of a techne as an activity based upon knowledge.

Beauty, too, did not have its modern connotations. The Greek and Roman terms kalon and pulchrum went hand-in-hand with a sense of moral good, and could be used without reference to art. Later thinkers (Plotinus, Augustine) start to include something like an ‘aesthetic’ meaning, but without leading to a separate system of aesthetics.

The most respected art form in ancient times was poetry. Kristeller points out that rather than being included in a set of ‘fine arts’, poetry was instead classified alongside logic and rhetoric (eloquence), thanks to the ordering of the works of Aristotle. This organisation was influential until the Renaissance.

Music was also esteemed but was often grouped with dance and poetry because of the Greek tradition of performing poetry with musical accompaniment. The Pythagoreans’ work on musical intervals ensured that music theory was grouped with mathematics rather than with other ‘fine arts’.

Painting, sculpture and architecture had lower prestige than one would expect. The first two were disdained as manual work. No ancient philosopher wrote a treatise on the visual arts2.

Among the ancients, the link between the fine arts was imitation (mimesis). But architecture was excluded, and other activities were seen as also seen as imitative.

Later antiquity did develop a system of ‘liberal arts’: attempts to organise education into a system of elementary disciplines. Various groupings were posed. The list of Martianus Capella was: grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Note how this does not resemble the modern system of fine arts, and instead mixes what we consider arts and sciences. Similar issues arise with the distribution of arts between the nine Muses. This practice was late, and not uniform, mixing arts and sciences – various branches of poetry and of music, with eloquence, history, dance, grammar, geometry and astronomy – and with no Muse for either painting or sculpture. Thus the five fine arts of the modern system were not grouped together but routinely split up and grouped elsewhere:
  • Poetry with grammar and rhetoric
  • Music with mathematics and astronomy
  • Visual arts (excluded from Muses and ‘liberal arts’) are manual crafts.

Regarding antiquity, Kristeller concludes:

Thus classical antiquity left no systems or elaborate concepts of an aesthetic nature, but merely a number of scattered notions and suggestions that exercised a lasting influence down to modern times but had to be carefully selected, taken out of their context, rearranged, reemphasized and reinterpreted or misinterpreted before they could be utilized as building materials for aesthetic systems. We have to admit the conclusion, distasteful to many historians of aesthetics but grudgingly admitted by most of them, that ancient writers and thinkers, though confronted with excellent works of art and quite susceptible to their charm, were neither able nor eager to detach the aesthetic quality of these works of art from their intellectual, moral, religious and practical function or content, or to use such an aesthetic quality as a standard for grouping the fine arts together or for making them the subject of a comprehensive philosophical interpretation. (506)

The Middle Ages

The early Middle Ages inherited the ancient educational scheme of seven liberal arts. The growth of learning in the 12th and 13th centuries forced some rethinking of the scheme and the formulation of seven mechanical arts to correspond to the liberal ones. The lists varied. Kristeller offers (in Latin): weaving, armaments, navigation, agriculture, hunting, medicine, theatre, with various subclassifications. Again, our ‘fine arts’ are not grouped but are scattered throughout such schemes. Poetry and music were taught in universities, whereas the visual arts were taught in artisans’ guilds, associated with druggists, goldsmiths, masons and carpenters. Treatises on individual ‘fine arts’ were technical in character and linked them neither with the other arts nor with philosophy.

The concept of ‘art’ retained its broad, classical meaning.

For Aquinas shoemaking, cooking and juggling, grammar and arithmetic are no less and in no other sense artes than painting and sculpture, poetry and music. (509)

When thinkers like Augustine, Dionysius the Areopagite and Aquinas theorised beauty, it was not linked to art, but dealt with the metaphysics of God and creation.


Kristeller observes:

The period of the Renaissance brought about many important changes in the social and cultural position of the various arts and thus prepared the ground for the later development of aesthetic theory. But, contrary to a widespread opinion, the Renaissance did not formulate a system of the fine arts or a comprehensive theory of aesthetics. (510)

Renaissance humanism reorganised the liberal arts, raising the prestige of poetry and prose, first in Latin then in vernacular (i.e. the modern everyday languages). The revival of Platonism spread the idea of the divine madness of the poet, which sowed the seed of modern ideas of genius. In the 16th century Aristotle’s Poetics was translated and discussed. Music and poetry came closer together, not least through the creation of opera. The visual arts saw a steady rise in prestige and were linked with science and literature: there were calls for painting to be raised to a liberal art so it might approach the prestige of music, rhetoric and literature (poetry).

In consequence, in 16th century Italy (later elsewhere) the three visual arts – painting, sculpture, architecture – were separated from crafts for the first time, moving from the guilds to their own Academy of Art (Florence, 1563). A parallel was made for the first time between painting and poetry, on the basis of Horace’s ut pictura poesis. Educated circles began debating the relative merits of different activities and this provided an arena for promoting the arts.

Music, painting and poetry began to be grouped together as subjects of appreciation for the gentleman:

by the first half of the seventeenth century, the taste and pleasure produced by painting, music and poetry is felt by several authors to be of a similar nature. (517)

However Renaissance theories of beauty still followed ancient models and did not reference art. The classifications of arts and sciences still scattered the ‘fine arts’ in various places and did not separate them from the sciences.

These changes prepared the ground for the modern system of fine arts but did not yet constitute such a system.

17th century

In the 17th century, cultural leadership in Europe passed from Italy to France. France enjoyed fine achievements in the arts such as Poussin’s paintings and Lully’s music.

This was accompanied by the founding of the Académie Francaise in 1635, the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1648, and other bodies. This shouldn’t be mistaken for a system of the arts. But alongside them came a theoretical and critical literature on the arts. They evince a desire to achieve a status for painting equal to poetry, and this honour was occasionally also extended to sculpture and architecture.

Kristeller notes the Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns: in this age of scientific advances, the moderns felt they had outstripped the ancients in the accumulation of knowledge, but the merits ‘in certain other fields, which depend on individual talent and on the taste of the critic,’ were more controversial. This helped prepare the ground for a division of the arts and sciences.

The separation between the arts and the sciences in the modern sense presupposes not only the actual progress of the sciences in the seventeenth century but also the reflection upon the reasons why some  other human intellectual activities which we now call the Fine Arts did not or could not participate in the same kind of progress. (526)

Kristeller also points to the role of Charles Perrault, whose book Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes separated the arts from the sciences.

Perrault states explicitly that at least in the case of poetry and eloquence, where everything depends on talent and taste, progress cannot be asserted with the same confidence as in the case of the sciences which depend on measurement. (526-7).

Perrault proposed a category of Beaux-Arts as opposed to the liberal arts, though he included optics and mechanics alongside eloquence, poetry, music, architecture, painting and sculpture.

The fluctuations of the scheme show how slowly emerged the notion which to us seems so thoroughly obvious. (527)

On the brink of the 18th century, modern Western culture was close to the modern system of the arts, but had not quite reached it.

The 18th century

During the first half of the 18th century the modern system of the arts became fixed through a series of critical writings and treatises that probably reflected cultured discussions in Paris and London.

In 1719 the Abbé Dubos, though he did not invent the term beaux-arts, popularised the idea that poetry is one of them. He conceived of arts dependent on genius or talent as opposed to sciences dependent on knowledge, though he still lacked a system. Other initial steps were taken by Crousaz, Voltaire, Père André.

The decisive step for Kristeller was made by the Abbé Batteux in Les beaux arts réduits d’un même principe (1746): the first writer to lay out a clear-cut system of the fine arts in a dedicated treatise. He had an enormous influence, especially in Germany. HIs fine arts were music, poetry, painting, sculpture and dance. Theses were separated from the mechanical arts and had pleasure as their end. Another grouping – eloquence and architecture – combined pleasure with utility. The principle the fine arts had in common is imitation of nature, which, Kristeller says, allowed Batteux to claim classical authority for his scheme:

The ‘imitative’ arts were the only authentic ancient precedent for the ‘fine arts,’ and the principle of imitation could be replaced only after the system of the latter had been so firmly established as no longer to need the ancient principle of imitation to link them together. (21)

Batteux faced various criticisms (e.g. Diderot) but his system remained intact. In his Discours préliminaire (1751), written for the Encyclopédie, d’Alembert criticised the liberal vs mechanical arts distinction and divided the liberal arts into 1) the fine arts, with pleasure as their end, and 2) more useful arts such as grammar, logic and morals. His main division of knowledge was into history, philosophy and the fine arts. A new concept of the ‘fine arts’ was taking over from the old divisions of human activities, and by adding architecture to the five basic fine arts the Encyclopédie codified the new system beyond Batteux. This view was gradually popularised and stabilised, and began to be influenced by the development of aesthetics in Germany.

In the early 19th century the philosopher Victor Cousin created a philosophical system around the Good, the True and the Beautiful, the latter meaning art and aesthetics. This helped to establish aesthetics as a philosophical discipline. Romanticism also affected the conception of the arts and led to theories that resembled those of the present-day even more closely.

In the 18th century, Britain too made important contributions to artistic thought. William Wotton wrote a treatise (1705) on the Quarrel that followed Perrault in emphasising, says Kristeller, the ‘fundamental difference between the sciences that had made progress since antiquity, and the arts that had not’.

The philosopher Shaftesbury was interested in the arts, and Kristeller notes:

Since Shaftesbury was the first major philosopher in modern Europe in whose writings the discussion of the arts occupied a prominent place, there is some reason for considering him as the founder of modern aesthetics. (27)

However, the Platonist Shaftesbury did not distinguish between moral and aesthetic beauty, and his conceptions of poetry do not go beyond those of older authors.

Also influential was Joseph Addison, whose essays on the imagination appeared in the Spectator in 1712. He referred to gardening and architecture, painting and sculpture, poetry and music as products and pleasures of the imagination.

Francis Hutcheson went further than Shaftesbury in distinguishing between the moral sense and the sense of beauty, preparing the way for the separation of aesthetics from ethics.

Various further writers popularised the idea that poetry, painting and music should be grouped together. By the second half of the century, the notion of a distinct group of fine arts was taken for granted. At the turn of the century Coleridge imports aesthetic ideas from Kant and other German idealist thinkers.


German thinkers didn’t really enter the debate until the 18th century, though French and English writers had some influence on them.

Baumgarten coined the terms ‘aesthetics’, by which he meant a theory of sensuous knowledge, and thereby helped to found aesthetics:

Baumgarten is the founder of aesthetics in so far as he first conceived a general theory of the arts as a separate philosophical discipline with a distinctive and well-defined place in the system of philosophy. (35)

However he did not offer us a system of fine arts.

In the second half of the century, other German thinkers incorporated the French conception into philosophical aesthetics, and interest in the arts expanded. Kristeller comments that the role of Lessing’s Laokoon (1766) has been misjudged. Lessing sought on the one hand to break the long-held parallel between poetry and painting, while paying no attention to the much bigger historical movement to group those and other arts into a new system of the arts.

Kristeller says the biggest contributions between Baumgarten and Kant came from Moses Mendelssohn, Sulzer and Herder. Mendelssohn called for aesthetic principles to be formulated for the fine arts as a whole, and ‘thus was the first among the Germans to formulate a system of the fine arts...’

He did not work out an explicit theory of aesthetics, but under the impact of French and English authors he indicated the direction in which German aesthetics was to develop from Baumgarten to Kant. (38)

The Swiss Johann Georg Sulzer developed aesthetics more systematically in his General Theory of the Fine Arts (1771–74). This was ‘the first attempt to carry out on a large scale the program formulated by Baumgarten and Mendelssohn,’ and popularised the idea that the fine arts were a group with characteristics in common.

The young Goethe’s criticism of Sulzer for grouping such divergent arts together shows how new the modern system of the arts still was. Herder played a more active role. In Kritische Waelder (1769) he stresses the need to compare the fine arts.

Kristeller ends his historical survey with Kant:

He was the first major philosopher who included aesthetics and the philosophical theory of the arts as an integral part of his system. (42)

The larger of the two divisions of Kant’s major work, the Critique of Judgement, addressed aesthetics. In Kant’s system, aesthetics earned a place alongside epistemology and ethics as a major branch of philosophy. This was an important step, as it won aesthetics a new autonomy. Kant also offered a division of the fine arts: speaking arts, plastic arts, and arts of the beautiful play of sentiments.

Kristeller concludes:

Since Kant aesthetics has occupied a permanent place among the major philosophical disciplines, and the core of the system of the fine arts fixed in the eighteenth century has been generally accepted as a matter of course by most later writers on the subject, except for variations of detail or of explanation. (43)


In conclusion, Kristeller notes that the modern system of arts did not exist in antiquity, the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, although elements of it can be seen throughout history.

The ancients:
  • The comparison of painting and poetry
  • Theory of imitation that linked various art forms

  • Raised the prestige of the visual arts above the crafts
  • Invited comparison of different art forms
  • Established amateur theorising from viewpoint of critic or viewer, not the artist

17th century:
  • Scientific progress helps separate arts and sciences

18th century:
  • Treatises by amateurs that group and compare fine arts systematically
  • Theory of fine arts accepted as a discipline of philosophy

Kristeller offers little explanation of why the system matured in the 18th century specifically3, noting only some of the institutional developments:

The rise of painting and of music since the Renaissance, not so much in their actual achievements as in their prestige and appeal, the rise of literary and art criticism, and above all the rise of an amateur public to which art collections and exhibitions, concerts as well as opera and theatre performances  were addressed, must be considered as important factors. (44)

He argues aesthetics was primarily formulated by secondary writers outside of systematic philosophy, and only gradually found expression among more important thinkers. Only after Kant do major thinkers take the lead in aesthetics.

Ancient as the art forms are, our modern system of categorising them together as ‘the arts’ is comparatively recent. He reminds us that art forms come and go, and change their relationships, all the time. E.g. arts like stained glass and fresco fall away, while the novel and cinema come to the fore.

The branches of the arts all have their rise and decline, and even their birth and death, and the distinction between ‘major’ arts and their subdivisions is arbitrary and subject to change. There is hardly any ground but critical tradition or philosophical preference for deciding whether engraving is a separate art (as most of the eighteenth-century authors believed) or a subdivision of painting, or whether poetry and prose, dramatic and epic poetry, instrumental and vocal music are separate arts or subdivisions of one major art. (46)

Because of this instability, the modern system of the arts is itself breaking down as artists and critics question its assumptions. All our ideas about the arts are fluid. Kristeller finishes with this thought:

These contemporary changes may help to open our eyes to an understanding of the historical origins and limitations of the modern system of the fine arts. Conversely, such historical understanding might help to free us from certain conventional preconceptions and to clarify our ideas on the present status and future prospects of the arts and of aesthetics. (46)


2. Kristeller isn’t quite right about this. We know Polykleitos wrote on proportions in sculpture, Parrhasius on painting, and Agatharcus about scene painting. However none of these works survive.
3. To supply what Kristeller does not: the main impetus was the emergence of capitalism as a mode of production, with its dramatic recasting of the artist as an original creator selling self-contained commodified ‘works’ on the free market to an art-buying public.


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