Reclaiming a wide definition of “art”

Following the thought of Eric Gill, Peter Leithart traces the history of the term “art.” For a long time, it did not refer to the fine arts, even if the Greeks made a distinction between the superior arts that produced intellectual products, rather than physical products. He quotes Gill’s descriptions: art was “human skill in making” or “the well making of what needs making.” Abbe Bateux’s conceptualization of the fine arts and the mechanical arts combined with mass production enabled by the Industrial Revolution mean that fine arts dominate the category of art.

The last three paragraphs are interesting:

As a result of these shifts in the way work works, “the word art is now almost exclusively associated, at least on fashionable literary circles, with the fine arts.” Painters and poets have “no ordinary job of work to do,” and come to “use the word art to mean, not human skill in making things, but the ability of certain special people, specially trained or specially gifted, to exhibit in paint or stone, or word or sound, their special sensibilities and fine feelings.” Art is linked with “aesthetics,” which Gill defines as “beauty mongering.” I think Gill is wrong to restrict this definition of art to “fashionable circles.” Working class people think of the fine arts in a similar way, and mock the elite artistes. The category of “fine arts” damages artists by encouraging them to think of themselves as prophets; it damages others because it discourages them from thinking of their own making as artistic.

The proper response to this situation is not to jettison the industrial system, impossible in any case.  The key is to reinvest what we think of as “non-artistic” work with the values associated with art. That involves looking for creative ways to give laborers more responsibility for their products. It means finding fresh ways to enhance the creative potential of all labor, so that it becomes drudgery divine. It also means recognizing the artfulness, and the beauty, that is always already there in any field of human endeavor. There is music in a humming engine; there’s a choreography to a well-orchestrated factory floor; the janitor can take aesthetic satisfaction from the cleanliness and order he leaves behind; mothers in the home are sculpting children; there’s beauty in skillful manipulation of a backhoe.

As Gill says, all men, because they are made in the image of God, are called to “collaborate with God in creating, to make all things good, that is to say beautiful, that is to say holy.” All men, not only the “artist,” are called to be and make the art of God. In Christ, the Father’s inspired Poem, Christians discover this artistic vocation.


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