Adler On


In every day speech and on everyone's tongues, the two words that are generally misused are "art" and "love," and of these two, the word "art" is probably misused more.

I call attention to the variety of misuses of the word "art" and of the related phrases "the fine arts." People seem to be unaware of the contradictions into which they fall when they allow themselves to say the things they do.

In the first place, the word is used for paintings that hang on the walls of museums called "museums of art,": or statutes that stand on pedestals there. These things are not art, but they certainly are works of art. They are also frequently referred to as works of fine art. But the museums of art contain many things that are not paintings or sculptures, such as suits of armor, swords and javelins, and Greek vases.

In the second place, college catalogs usually include phrases such as "literature, music, and the fine arts." Is not a poem or a novel a work of art? Is not a musical score a work of art? And, furthermore, are not poetry and music as well as works of visual art, all works of fine art. Whereas the pottery, the swords, and armor, are works of useful art?

In the third place, whom do we call artists? Only persons who produce works of visual art or anyone who produces any thing or who performs in any manner with acquired skill? Do we not call all great pianists and opera singers artists?

Human beings are artists, and almost everyone is an artist in making something or in doing something. Cooks are artists; so too are seamstresses and plumbers, grammarians, equestrians, navigators, generals of armies, fly fishers, and drivers of automobiles.

In this fundamental use of the word "art" for the skills that human beings have in producing something or performing in a certain way, we do not distinguish between the various arts as liberal, useful, and fine. A moment's thought about the etymology of the English word "art" would have prevented anyone from misusing the word for what human beings produce instead of for their skill in producing it.

The English word comes to us from the Latin ars, and that word is a translation of the Greek word techne, which is best rendered in English by the word "skill" or by the phrase "know-how." thus understood, art is one of the intellectual virtues, a practical intellectual virtue as contrasted with theoretical intellectual virtues, such as understanding, science and wisdom.

One thing further needs to be clarified, and that is the phrase "fine art" wrongly identified with the works of visual art that are found in museums. At once we can see that the word "fine" is not being used as an adjective. The categorization of some works as works of fine art does not exclude other works as not excellent and so not fine at all.

Here we are helped by the phrases in German or French that are used to categorize the works of art that in English are called works of fine art. In German the phrase is schone kunst; in French is beaux arts. Where, then, does the phrase "fine art" come from?

My guess is that it comes from the derivation of the word "fine" from the word "final." Works of fine art are final in the sense that they are not to be used as means to ends beyond themselves, but rather to be enjoyed as ends in themselves. The useful is always a means; the enjoyable is an end. The fine arts are the arts productive of the enjoyable. When a Sheraton chair is put on a platform and behind ropes it is viewed as an enjoyable work of fine art. In addition to having originally been made as a useful means for sitting down.

Recommended Readings on
Liberal Education and the Great Books and on
Art and Beauty

Adapted from
Adler's Philosophical Dictionary
Great Ideas from the Great Books
by Mortimer J. Adler

Revised 29 December 2000