April 2017

Why Discarding the Concept of "Fine Art"
Has Been a Grave Error

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

Paul Oskar Kristeller's influential essay "The Modern System of the Arts" has been cited by postmodernists such as Larry Shiner in support of the claim that the modern concept of art was an arbitrary invention of eighteenth-century European culture, with little or no relevance to other times and places. Based on Kristeller's account, they have discredited a once-useful category, and have abandoned what was originally the central task of aesthetics as a philosophic discipline--explicating the nature and function of the major arts. I argue that both Kristeller and they are mistaken, owing to errors and omissions in his essay, compounded by misreading of his text. I further show how correcting his account might point to a theory of "fine art" consistent with human needs and capacities, and cross-culturally as well as trans-historically applicable. That theory fundamentally challenges the now-prevailing view that art is boundlessly open-ended.

An earlier version of this paper (entitled "Why Kristeller et al. Are Wrong about 'Fine Art'") was originally submitted to the British Journal of Aesthetics (BJA), which rejected it--though not without some favorable comments. It was then revised and submitted to the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (JAAC) for inclusion in a special 75th anniversary issue entitled Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?--a theme for which it was particularly apt. (A significant addition was citation of the inclusion of Ayn Rand's Romantic Manifesto on a reading list prepared for the American Society for Aesthetics by Simon Fokt, unknown to Kamhi when the BJA version of the paper was written.) The JAAC--published by the American Society for Aesthetics--rejected it, in spite of some favorable observations about the content by the journal's referees.

Since the paper challenges reigning assumptions of both the art world and most academic philosophers of art, we publish it here, convinced of the value not only of the points approved by journal referees but of its main argument. The only changes made have been in the manner of citation. In the hope of inspiring further debate, we also append responses to the editors of the two journals in question (see Kamhi's Response to BJA and Response to JAAC).

I. Overview
II. Mistaken Inclusion of Architecture among the "Fine Arts"
III. Minimizing the Relevance of Antiquity's "Imitative (Mimetic) Arts"
IV. What Should the "Modern System of the Arts" Be?
V. Why Such a Theory Has Universal Relevance
VI. Philosophers Should Be Willing to Say That Not Everything Is Art


Since its publication in 1951-1952, Paul Oskar Kristeller's essay "The Modern System of the Arts" has assumed canonical status in thought about art. It purported to show that the concept of fine art (Fr. beaux arts)--colloquially, "Art with a capital A"--originated in eighteenth-century Europe. Only then and there, Kristeller argued, did the group he termed the "irreducible nucleus of the modern system of the arts"--that is, painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and poetry--solidify as an arena of human undertaking "clearly separated . . . from the crafts, the sciences, and other human activities."(1) With few exceptions, subsequent scholars and others concerned with the arts--particularly those inclined toward postmodernist critiques of Western culture--have accepted Kristeller's account whole cloth.(2) Taking it as having demonstrated that the modern concept of art was an arbitrary invention of eighteenth-century European culture with little or no relevance to other times and places, they have used it to deconstruct the institution of art in modern culture. The net effect of the resulting avalanche of commentary has been to dramatically discredit a once-useful category, and to question related ideas such as that of creative "genius," also said to be an eighteenth-century invention.

The study that has most fully developed that line of argument is Larry Shiner's The Invention of Art, explicitly inspired by Kristeller's "showing that the category of fine art did not exist before the eighteenth century" (Shiner 2001, 10). Reviewing it for the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Mitch Avila began by declaring that Shiner "has cleared the path toward more productive ways of conceptualizing the tasks of aesthetics," and ended by celebrating his driving "one more nail in the coffin for those theories of art that would pretend to tell us all what is and is not art."

In this paper I argue quite the opposite. I suggest that by ignoring fundamental errors and oversights in Kristeller's essay, Shiner and other philosophers have been engaged in building an intellectual house of cards. In the process, they have abandoned what was originally the central task of aesthetics as a philosophic discipline: that is, explicating the nature and function of the major arts. The result has been a de facto legitimizing of today's unmoored artworld--"the fractured world of modern and postmodern Western and global art and anti-art," to quote David Clowney (2011, 316). While ostensibly aiming to create a more democratic culture liberated from the artist as "genius," such scholars have in effect given license to every would-be artist to create anything at all in the name of art--increasingly alienating the general public from what was formerly a rich sphere of cultural expression.

Whereas "artists" originally were, by definition, people who create art, "art" is now defined as anything made by a purported artist. The "institutional theory" codifying that premise is fully operative in the global art establishment. As Shiner himself observed in the opening sentence of his book, "Today you can call virtually anything 'art' and get away with it." Anti-traditional forms such as "installation" and "performance," and "transgressive" works of painting and sculpture are regarded as the only contemporary art that counts, while talented artists pursuing a more traditional approach to art-making are ignored.

In the following argument, I first consider key points overlooked or misconstrued by Kristeller and subsequent scholars. I then show how correcting those points might help to advance a theory of "fine art" consistent with human needs and capacities. I further argue that such a theory is, as Clowney (2011, 310) has urged, "cross-culturally and transhistorically applicable." Moreover, it fundamentally challenges the now-prevailing view that art is boundlessly open-ended.


Kristeller's main project was to define the "modern system" of classifying the arts and trace its genesis. His pivotal mistake was his unquestioning acceptance of fine art's "irreducible nucleus" as "painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and poetry" (165, emphasis added). In that connection, he correctly cites the influence exerted by Denis Diderot's great Encyclopédie "and especially its famous introduction" by Jean Le Rond d'Alembert--which "codified the system of the fine arts . . . and through its prestige and authority gave it the widest possible currency all over Europe" (202).

Yet Kristeller previously noted (199) that the "decisive step" toward classifying the fine arts had been taken by the Abbé Charles Batteux in his "famous and influential treatise, Les Beaux-Arts réduits à un même principe (1746)." And he then claimed, misleadlingly, that "Diderot and the other authors of the Encyclopédie . . . followed Batteux's system" (200). That claim is all the more surprising as it directly follows a largely accurate account of Batteux's classification scheme. As summarized by Kristeller, Batteux's "clear division of the arts"

separates the fine arts which have pleasure for their end from the mechanical arts, and lists the fine arts as follows: music, poetry, painting, sculpture and the dance. He adds a third group which combines pleasure and usefulness and puts eloquence and architecture in this category.

Two pages later (202), Kristeller correctly observes that while depending on Batteux "in certain phrases and in the principle of imitation," D'Alembert--"against Batteux and the classical tradition"--includes architecture among the imitative arts, "thus removing the last irregularity which had separated Batteux's system from the modern scheme of the fine arts."

By implication throughout, Kristeller accepts the "modern scheme" bequeathed by D'Alembert, never questioning its validity. Astonishingly, moreover, he fails to examine why D'Alembert took the unprecedented step of including architecture among the "imitative arts," much less why he abandoned Batteux's eminently logical classification scheme. Even more remarkably, subsequent scholars have glossed over the fundamental contradictions in D'Alembert's system.

To begin with, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the "fine" or "imitative" arts had always been that they serve only to give pleasure (a purely psychological function)--in contrast with the utilitarian "mechanical arts," which serve man's physical needs. D'Alembert completely ignored architecture's practical function, however. While that basic contradiction is often remarked on by scholars, it has rarely led them to question the treatment of architecture as "(fine) art." An introductory esthetics text by philosopher Gordon Graham, for example, notes (1997, 131) that the "undisputed [physical] usefulness of architecture" raises the question of "whether it is properly called an art at all"--yet he proceeds to discuss it as "art."

So, too, The Oxford Dictionary of Art (3rd ed., 2004) uncritically observes that the term fine arts, which "came into use in the 18th century to describe the . . . non-utilitarian arts," is usually taken to include architecture "even though [it] is obviously a 'useful' art." The second edition of the Dictionary (1997) even cited Batteux's tripartite classification--with architecture included among the arts that "combined beauty [sic] and utility."(3) Why was Batteux's sensible classification scheme superseded by one so glaringly illogical? According to the Dictionary's cryptically inadequate explanation: "Soon after, in Diderot's Encyclopédie, the philosopher D'Alembert (1717-83) listed the fine arts as painting, sculpture, architecture, poetry, and music. This list established itself."

D'Alembert's treatment of architecture as an "imitative art" was equally unprecedented, defying common sense as well as tradition. Fundamental similarities between the imitative (mimetic) arts of poetry, painting, sculpture, music, and dance had long been observed and analyzed by philosophers, poets, and visual artists. But architecture had been nearly universally omitted from this group.(4) Moreover, the flimsy justification D'Alembert offered for including it so attenuated the concept of imitation as to render it largely meaningless.

D'Alembert began by acknowledging that the imitation of nature is "less striking and more restricted [in Architecture] than in Painting or Sculpture," since the latter "express all the parts of [Nature] . . . without restriction" (a proposition that incidentally exaggerates the mimetic range of sculpture). He then argued that architecture "is confined to imitating the symmetrical arrangement that Nature observes . . . in each individual thing."(5) Thus his conception reduces to the abstract, impersonal property of symmetry the mimetic aspect that is so powerfully expressive of vital meaning in the other arts. Further, as noted above, he ignored architecture's practical function--in contrast with the non-utilitarian nature of the imitative arts--and focused instead on their shared attribute of imaginative invention. Tellingly, when D'Alembert compared the various art forms, however, he omitted architecture--as do other theorists who nominally include architecture among the fine arts--no doubt for the simple reason that it is fundamentally incommensurable with them.(6)

Nonetheless, D'Alembert's classification of the fine arts took hold. Architecture is generally included alongside painting and sculpture in art history texts, and is frequently cited in theories of art. Contrary to D'Alembert, however, such accounts tend to emphasize architecture's abstract nature, comparing it to what is characterized (misleadingly) as the abstract character of music and (with more justification) to abstract sculpture.(7) They thus ignore D'Alembert's claim that architecture is an imitative art--although that claim constituted one of his two main criteria for classifying it as a fine art, the other being imaginative invention.

A notable exception to such flawed reasoning can be found in the work of art historian Moshe Barasch. Pointedly omitting architecture from his insightful survey Theories of Art, he chose instead to focus on the "image-producing arts, that is, primarily painting and sculpture." As he argued (1985, xi-xii), those arts have "a strong common basis" in their representation of nature through imagery, whereas the problems architecture deals with "constitute a realm of thought not easily merged with those of painting and sculpture."

In sum, it was by historical prestige, not by superior argument, that D'Alembert's classification, not Batteux's more logical one, became the basis for Kristeller's "irreducible nucleus of the modern system of the arts." As acknowledged by Kristeller and others, that system owed its ascendancy to the intellectual clout of the Encyclopédie. Ironically, however, Diderot's entry on "Art" for that monumental project did not discuss the "fine" arts at all. It dealt instead with the "liberal"--and, more especially, the "mechanical"--arts. Clear indication that the Encyclopédie's focus was on scientific, mathematical, and practical pursuits, not on the humanities and fine arts. In contrast, as James O. Young shows in his new translation and Introduction to Batteux's treatise, that work is informed by considerable scholarship and reflection on the arts.

Like Kristeller, other eminent scholars have tended to blur the fundamental differences between Batteux's classification scheme and D'Alembert's muddled revision of it. Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz (1980, 276), for example, mistakenly claims that "Batteux included architecture . . . among the imitative arts." So, too, the recent debate regarding Kristeller's "modern system" tends to ignore D'Alembert's key influence on that system.

Surprisingly, even Young (2015) succumbs to that error. He argues that the "ancients had a category essentially indistinguishable from that adopted by Batteux and subsequent thinkers" (1, emphasis added), yet notes that "neither Plato nor Aristotle states that architecture counts as an art." Nonetheless, he refers (1-3, 11) to Kristeller's "modern system"--which includes architecture in its "irreducible nucleus," and downplays the ancients' central idea of the arts' mimetic nature--as if it were the same as Batteux's.

In critiquing Kristeller's "modern system," James Porter (2009a) also seems to minimize D'Alembert's role. He begins by citing Batteux as his "chief exhibit" and "best single witness" (2) and only much later points out that Kristeller's "nucleus of five fine arts . . . differs markedly from Batteux's" (9). Although his footnote on that page cites Kristeller on D'Alembert's inclusion of architecture, Porter surprisingly muses "one has to wonder where and how Kristeller arrives at his nucleus"--as if ignorant of its source in D'Alembert. Yet he later notes (14) that "D'Alembert added to Batteux's list not only architecture, but also engraving." That second addition is far less consequential than the inclusion of architecture, however, since engraving is essentially akin to painting as a mode of two-dimensional representation.


On the relationship between the "fine" and "imitative" arts, Kristeller (171) observes:

If we want to find in classical philosophy a link between poetry, music and the fine arts, it is provided primarily by the concept of imitation (mimesis). . . . Plato and Aristotle . . .clearly . . . considered poetry, music, the dance, painting, and sculpture as different forms of imitation.

Yet Kristeller gives short shrift to the ancient concept of "mimetic art," in part because it "excludes architecture" (171-72)! He also faults the ancient writers and thinkers for their inability or unwillingness "to detach the aesthetic quality of . . . works of art from their intellectual, moral, religious and practical function or content," as well as for their failure "to use . . . aesthetic qualit[ies] as a standard for grouping the fine arts together or for making them the subject of a comprehensive philosophical interpretation" (174). As I will argue, that alleged failure (as well as the omission of architecture) should be seen as a virtue.

Subsequently observing (180) that "some [sixteenth-century] authors also notice and stress the analogies between poetry, painting, sculpture and music as forms of imitation," Kristeller nonetheless argues that "hardly anyone among them is trying to establish the 'imitative arts' as a separate class." In sharp contrast, Batteux makes clear, in the Preface to his treatise ([1746] 2015, lxxvii-lxxix), that his system of the "fine arts" is deeply indebted to the ancient category of the "imitative arts." And Kristeller acknowledges (200) that "the 'imitative' arts were the only authentic ancient precedent for the 'fine arts.'"

At several points, Kristeller indicates that imitation is insufficient as a defining criterion. Even in antiquity, he claims (albeit misleadingly, as indicated below), it was "anything but a laudatory category, at least for Plato" (172). Later theorists (such as Johann Adolf Schlegel and Moses Mendelssohn), he further observes, argued that a better principle should be found (213, 217). Significantly, Peter Kivy correctly maintains (2012, 69) that even for Batteux imitation was merely "the first step in an Aristotelian genus/difference definition"--his genus being "representation" through imitation. Ignoring that principle, Kivy had previously referred to architecture as a "totally-in-the-ballpark" member of the fine arts, however (64).

The scholar who has probably shed the greatest light on thought about the "imitative arts" in antiquity and their relevance in the present day is Stephen Halliwell. At the outset of his magisterial study The Aesthetics of Mimesis, he maintains (2002, 7) that mimesis "gave antiquity something much closer to a unified conception of 'art' (more specifically, of the mimetic or representational arts as a class) than Kristeller was prepared to admit." Commenting on that in a response to Porter, Shiner admits (2009, 168) that he "found Halliwell's analysis of Plato and Aristotle . . . sufficiently persuasive to think that 'mimetic arts' was 'closer' to a unified concept of art than either Kristeller or I portrayed it."

To begin with, Halliwell cautions against the "perils of equating [the Greek concept of] mimesis with [mere] imitation" (2002, 6, note, and ff.) Tellingly, he introduces antiquity's broader view of mimesis by citing (3-4) a late-eighteenth-century counterpart in the thought of Goethe. Halliwell interprets Goethe as holding that the best art "must make contact with something more than the surfaces of nature, but must nonetheless do so by working through the representation of natural phenomena." For Goethe, the imitation of nature in art involved "striving to penetrate 'into the depths of things.'" That last idea finds a striking counterpart in ancient Chinese thought. In the words of one commentator, "Painting is an art [whose great practitioners] all started from representing outward likeness but arrived at expressing the meaning, feelings, and innate character of things."(8)

Halliwell (131-132) even discerns evidence of such a broader view in Plato--for whom

the beauty of a mimetic work (visual or otherwise . . . ) depends not on straightforward, one-to-one correspondence to a (putative) model but on a complex relationship in which a certain kind of purposiveness ("what . . . [an image] wants/intends/means") . . . must be taken into account. . . .

. . . [B]eauty of form is a matter not just of appearances but of appearances that embody and convey ethical value. . . . [I]n the visual arts (and elsewhere) form is not neutrally depictional but communicative of feeling and value.

Halliwell also illuminates (202-206) Aristotle's view of the "pleasure" involved in the arts. In contrast with the English term (which tends to connote a superficial experience), its Greek referent, hedone, had far more serious connotations. For Aristotle, the pleasure derived from art was a highly meaningful experience, in which emotion is aroused by the understanding of a work's content and an appreciation of its relevance to life. More on this below. Suffice it to say now that in downplaying the ancient group of "imitative arts," Kristeller committed a major oversight.


Kristeller's "irreducible nucleus" of the "modern system of the arts" was correct in one sense. Diderot's classification scheme was the one that had taken hold in Western culture. But a more astute analysis might have led Kristeller to question its authority, rather than simply accept it at face value. Ideally, he would have recognized the logical superiority of Batteux's scheme, with its deep roots in prior thought.

A proper system of classification would identify the major mimetic arts (Batteux's group: music, poetry, painting, sculpture and dance) as a special category, distinct from the "decorative" (or "applied") arts, crafts, and design. The latter category--encompassing the attractive design, ornamenting, and crafting of objects whose primary function is physical or practical--would include architecture, as Batteux had argued. In contrast, the major mimetic arts have an exclusively psychological function.

The confused inclusion of architecture among the "fine arts" aside, a distinction between "fine" and "decorative" art similar to the one I've just described was of course largely accepted in Western culture prior to the onslaught of postmodernist critiques. Shiner and other postmodernists applaud blurring or ignoring the distinction, however. For example, Shiner (2001, 7) welcomes the fact that "women's needlework has been rescued from the dungeon of 'domestic art' to enter the main floor of our museums." Further, he uncritically notes (294) that Judy Chicago's Dinner Party "celebrated the low-ranked crafts of ceramics and embroidery." While aiming to celebrate women's achievements and experiences, however, The Dinner Party in fact conveys very little about the individuals it purports to commemorate through crafts such as needlework. The ultimate test is to ask, Which gives a fuller sense of women's contributions to civilization--The Dinner Party's place settings [more] (however exquisitely crafted) or works of "fine art" such as Artemesia Gentileschi's painting of Judith Slaying Holofernes or Mary Cassatt's The Child's Bath?(9)

Much like Shiner, Clowney applauds (2011, 315) "the recent rise of 'fine crafts,' such as fine art furniture, wood turning, and 'fiber arts' within the world of art." From another perspective, it can be argued that the conceptual breakdown he and others advocate has served to legitimize artworld absurdities such as Michael Beitz's furniture "sculptures"--in which useful items such as sofas and tables are distorted out of any functional shape, in order to explore "relationships." Useless as furniture, they also fail as art.(10)

Such muddled theory and practice is at least partly due to inadequate understanding of the role of mimesis in the major arts. While Young (2015), for example, makes a strong case for Batteux's grouping of the imitative "fine arts," and extensively documents its precedence in antiquity, he admits (3) that he has little to say about "what makes the fine arts fine (what they have in common)" or "the related question of what makes them valuable."(11) Let me try to fill that gap here.

As suggested by Halliwell's analysis, cited in the previous section, neither Plato nor Aristotle viewed mimesis/imitation in the arts as an end in itself. It served instead as a powerful means of representing ideas and values relevant to human life. Batteux was therefore mistaken in claiming that "the imitation of nature should be the common goal of the arts" (lxxix, emphasis added). Moreover, as Halliwell observes (2002, 9-10), antiquity's broader view can be discerned in other eighteenth-century thinkers--not only Goethe, but also Alexander Baumgarten and Immanuel Kant. For Baumgarten, Halliwell rightly argues, aesthetics denoted "'the science of perception,' the sphere of immediate and particular sensory cognition, as opposed to the general, abstract forms of conceptual or intellectual cognition." It did not refer to the "autonomous and 'disinterested' realm of experience" that later dominated eighteenth-century thought about aesthetics.

Nor did Kant conceive of art as a "disinterested" realm divorced from vital concerns. In sections 44-54 of the Critique of Judgement, dealing with the "fine arts" per se, Kant stipulates that works of art present "aesthetical Ideas." He explains ([1790] 1957, 426):

[B]y an aesthetical Idea I understand that representation of the Imagination which . . . cannot be completely compassed and made intelligible by language. . . . [It] is the counterpart (pendant) of a rational Idea. . . .

The Imagination (as a productive faculty of cognition) is very powerful in creating another nature, as it were, out of the material that actual nature gives it . . . , and by it we remould experience, always indeed in accordance with analogical laws. . . .

Such representations of the Imagination we may call Ideas, partly because they at least strive after something which lies beyond the bounds of experience, and so seek to approximate to a presentation of concepts of Reason (intellectual Ideas), thus giving to the latter the appearance of objective reality.

In other words, the arts present perceptual embodiments of important ideas--not only ideas about existential phenomena, such as death, envy, love, and fame, but also conceptions of other-worldly things, such as heaven and hell. In all cases, as Kant clearly implies, the products of the artist's imagination are mimetic--resembling the appearance of nature, or "objective reality." As he further indicates, a work of art does not merely copy nature, for it embodies concepts more fully than any single instance in nature.

All of those thinkers were of course writing long before the invention of "abstract art." Still less could they have envisioned the endless proliferation of new "art" forms concocted since the mid twentieth century, none of which could be accommodated by their view. What is needed now, therefore, is an answer to the question, Why are the arts necessarily mimetic?

The most compelling answer I know of to that crucial question was offered by philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand in four essays she published in Objectivist periodicals between 1965 and 1971. They later appeared (along with essays on literature and contemporary culture) in a volume she entitled The Romantic Manifesto (1975). That work was recently recommended on a reading list prepared for the American Society for Aesthetics by Simon Fokt (2015).(12) As he notes, Rand's theory has had little attention from analytic philosophers. Apparently unknown to him, an in-depth study of it was published nearly two decades ago by Louis Torres and me, however, and was recently expanded upon by me with respect to the visual arts.(13) As summarized in the latter work (163), Rand held that

humans create art because of a deep psychological need, both cognitive and emotional, to give concrete external form to our inmost ideas and feelings about life and the world around us. As she understood (and is increasingly confirmed by neuroscience), emotions are directly tied to sensory perceptual experience, whereas ideas and values are mental abstractions from that experience. Without external embodiment, such abstractions remain vaguely unreal, detached from our emotional life. Through the arts' sensory immediacy, we reconnect our thoughts and feelings about things that matter to us, and we are thus made more fully conscious of them. As Rand succinctly put it [1975, 20], "Art brings man's concepts [about such things] to the perceptual level of his consciousness and allows him to grasp them directly, as if they were percepts."

Without knowing it, Rand gave clear expression to the view adumbrated by Baumgarten and Kant. The greater clarity of her view was no doubt due to the increased understanding of thought and emotion provided by the cognitive revolution that had begun in the 1950s. While Baumgarten had recognized that emotion plays a key role in the arts, Rand understood why. It is owing to the hard-wired connection between direct perception and emotion. Moreover, Rand correctly stressed that emotions are based on values.

As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has since emphasized (1994, 136-137), every perceptual experience we have is accompanied by a corresponding emotional coloration--an implicit evaluation of good or bad, painful or pleasurable, according to the circumstances--which is stored in the brain for future reference. Each new object we encounter is automatically compared to those stored cognitive and emotional memories of past experience, providing an instantaneous evaluation based on past knowledge and experience. In Rand's theory, art is not mere "cheesecake" for the mind. It is instead a cultural adaptation of great significance. Since human action is largely voluntary, not governed by instinct, individuals and societies must constantly make choices that affect both present and future well-being. In so doing, we need to remain mindful, amid the myriad demands and distractions of daily life, of what we believe and value, not just at the moment but in the long term.

One of Rand's essays was entitled "Art and Cognition." In its crucial emphasis on values and emotion, her account differs significantly from other cognitive theories of art. In Art and Knowledge, for instance, Young argues (2001, 126) that the "most basic criterion of aesthetic value" is the knowledge provided by a work of art, and the cognitive value of an artwork "will be proportional to the value of the knowledge it makes available." According to Rand, we do not turn to art for mere information or knowledge in the abstract. Art serves instead to concretize value-laden beliefs about the world and our place in it--by means of perceptual representations that grab our attention and engage our emotions. A similar view was expressed by Moshe Barasch when he argued (1985, 65) that the chief purpose of medieval Christian art, for example, was not to convey new information about the life of Christ or the saints but rather to "intensify" believers' "absorption" in the meaning of those lives.

To summarize Rand's view, the major art forms serve an important psychological function, profoundly linked to our life as conscious beings. They make us more aware of what we think and how we feel about the world and our life in it, as well as about the alternative worlds we might imagine. For the individual and, by extension, for society, they bring those ideas and values more fully to mind. Mimetic representation is not in itself the goal of art. It is the indispensable means by which art performs its psychological function. Avant-garde inventions such as "abstract art" ignore this principle at their peril.(14)

Recent findings in neuroscience offer support for Rand's theory. As I have argued (2014), the discovery of the "mirror neuron system," in particular, sheds light on the power of mimetic art. First discovered in the early 1990s in the macaque monkey through electrodes inserted into the skull, the mirror neuron system comprises a network of neurons in the area of the brain that controls movement. Remarkably, they are not only activated when the monkey is about to execute a goal-related action such as grasping an object but also discharge when the monkey observes another individual (monkey or human) executing a similar act. (Gallese 2011, 441-449)

Studies using noninvasive techniques have provided abundant indirect evidence that humans possess a similar system, with an even wider range of responses. It is involved in the processing of both emotions and actions. Most important for the arts, mirror neurons are not only activated by observing actual instances of emotional expression and action in others; they are also triggered by seeing images of such phenomena (ibid., 444).

Advocates of "abstract art" have long resisted the idea that visual art requires imagery to convey meaning, however. Highly telling in this regard is a series of experiments performed by neuroscientist Semir Zeki. They show that "much larger parts of the brain are activated" by colored images than by colors in an abstract context. Imagery not only engages more of the brain's visual processing center, it also involves "regions of the brain traditionally associated with higher cognitive functions"--in particular, with the hippocampus, which manages both emotion and long-term memory. (Zeki and Marini 1998, 1676-1681) This is not surprising. As cognitive scientist Robert Solso suggested (2003, 27), when we look at art, we experience it in terms of our past knowledge, searching for something that "coincides with our view of the world." Abstract work provides very little that one can connect with.


In addition to claiming that "Art as we have generally understood it is a European invention barely two hundred years old," Shiner maintains (2001, 14-15) that there are "profound differences between basic assumptions about the arts" in the traditional cultures of China, Japan, India, and Africa, on one hand, and the "mainstream assumptions of Europe and the Americas," on the other. As I've argued (2014), however, his claims are true only if one regards as "mainstream" the dubious theory and practices of the avant-garde. If one takes as "mainstream" the more traditional views held by many art lovers, evidence abounds to refute such claims, beginning with the examples cited above from classical antiquity and ancient Chinese thought.

Perhaps most crucial is the now-controversial distinction between the major ("fine") arts and the minor or "decorative" arts and crafts. Torres and I (2000) maintain that such a distinction is clearly implicit in Ellen Dissanayake's studies of traditional societies, though she missed seeing it. As we note (114-117), when she argues (1988, 152-153) that art in preliterate societies served to "express and reinforce the values and beliefs of the society" in emotionally compelling ways, the arts she cites are poetry, music, dance, and painting. So, too, Robert L. Anderson's cross-cultural survey in Calliope's Sisters reveals a clear functional distinction between those major arts and the "decorative" arts associated with utilitarian objects. As revealed by his case studies, though not recognized by him, a culture's core values generally find embodiment in the major arts that the eighteenth century dubbed "fine."(15)

A prime instance cited by Torres and me of the high status universally granted to works of art that perceptibly embody the primary values of the society are the private devotional sculptures known as "spirit figures" in the West African culture of the Baule people. They depict the "spirit" husband or wife believed to have been left in the other world before birth, and represent a Baule ideal of physical beauty and social perfection. As emphasized by Susan Vogel (1997), these small wooden sculptures are much more highly valued than utilitarian objects whose ornamental figures serve primarily to afford esthetic pleasure and social prestige. She observes (270):

Baule artists and householders have created a profusion of useful objects decorated with exceptional care and skill. . . . In Baule life these objects, far more elaborate than the ordinary ones, are amusing, delightful to behold, and, as I was often told, "will make people talk about you," but they are devoid of spiritual power, and Baule people finally consider them trivial.

The spirit figures clearly qualify as works of ("fine") art according to the principles outlined here, although there is no comparable term in the Baule language (ibid., 17).Vogel further maintains (291) that her findings on Baule art and culture are broadly applicable to other African societies. Finally, when Dissanayake observes (1988, 34) that the world's great civilizations presumably needed "aesthetic manifestations of their worldview, not simply the worldview itself," her examples are Egyptian sculpture, Hindu temple facades (which have rich sculptural components), and Chinese landscape painting. It is telling that she omits mention of such practices as body decoration, basket weaving, or ritual displays of food in that context, though they are included in her broad designation of art. Considered in that light, Dissanayake's characterization of the arts as "time-tested means for making sense of human existence" (1992, 139) seems applicable mainly to Batteux's "fine art" forms.


One of Fokt's reasons for recommending study of Ayn Rand's theory is especially apt here. In his view, it can foster "discussion on the status of the avant-garde and most abstract art forms." Some students, he adds, "likely share the sentiment that many such works are not art." As do many ordinary art lovers and museumgoers, I would add.

At the conclusion of his influential essay, Kristeller (226-27) observes that "the traditional system of the fine arts [was beginning] to show signs of disintegration." Recapping his claim that while the "various arts are certainly as old as human civilization" how we group them is "comparatively recent," he adds that "new techniques may lead to modes of artistic expression for which the aestheticians of the eighteenth and nineteenth century had no place in their systems"--as exemplified by motion pictures. True, but the art of film can be categorized as essentially akin to fiction and drama. It was not a radically unprecedented new form.(16)

Moreover, as I've argued here, the primary groups of major ("fine") and lesser ("decorative") arts are far less "arbitrary and subject to change" than Kristeller claims. In addition, his failure to recognize the universal significance of the major mimetic arts led him into yet another error. He adds: "The tendency among some contemporary philosophers to consider Art and the aesthetic realm as a pervasive aspect of human experience rather than as the specific domain of the conventional fine arts, also . . . weaken[s] the latter notion in its traditional form." In that connection, he cites John Dewey's Art as Experience (1934).

From his mid-twentieth perspective, Kristeller could not see just how far such ideas would go toward undermining the traditional fine arts. But he hoped that "an understanding of the historical origins and limitations of the modern system . . . might help to free us from certain conventional preconceptions." From our twenty-first-century perspective, in contrast, we can see all too clearly how far the breakdown of the traditional fine arts has gone toward "freeing" the artworld from ideas that were not merely "conventional" but were based on actual functional differences. However unwittingly, Dewey greatly contributed to that breakdown, by inspiring Allan Kaprow's misguided "blurring of art and life" in the "Happenings" of the 1950s.(17) Those, in turn, gave rise to the "installation art" and "performance art" that dominate today's artworld. Blurring the boundary between art and life in effect obliterates art. Since art has always been about life, it implies and requires a distinction between the two. Kaprow himself seemed to recognize this when he wrote ([1961]1993, 21): "I am not so sure whether what we do now is art or something not quite art. If I call it art, it is because I wish to avoid the endless arguments some other name would bring forth."(18)

The inventor of "concept art," Henry Flynt, actually calls himself an "anti-art activist" (n.d., emphasis added). In the essay introducing his work, he even suggested that it might be best to regard his "activity as an independent, new activity, irrelevant to art" ([1961] 1989, 431.(19) Philosophers of art have largely ignored such revealing statements by leading avant-garde figures whose inventions began as expressly anti-art gestures yet have been wholly assimilated into the contemporary "art" establishment. As Shiner documents in the final part of his book, artworld assimilation has encompassed virtually everything--from photography and architecture to Marcel Duchamp's urinal, John Cage's 4'33," and beyond.

A decade ago, Denis Dutton aptly charged (2006, 367-368) that his fellow aestheticians had erred in "endless analysis" to accommodate the most outrageous "hard cases"--even including work avowed by its maker to be non-art or anti-art, I would add. Ironically, Dutton later succumbed to the same tendency, however, joining the chorus of those for whom Duchamp's readymades had become "the central hurdle over which any attempt to define art must leap" (Goldsmith 1983, 197). While pointing out that Duchamp's readymades indisputably flouted several of his proposed "universal criteria of art" (Dutton 2009a, 196-200), he nonetheless concluded (2009b) that Fountain was an important work of "conceptual art," even "a work of genius." No matter that Dutton himself (2009a, 200-201) quoted Duchamp as saying that he never intended the readymades as "art."(20)

As Dutton rightly lamented (2009a, 4), "[t]oo many disputes in art theory tiresomely rehash the artistic status of amusing modernist provocations, such as Andy Warhol's signed soup cans." Most lamentably, in my view, philosopher and critic Arthur Danto hung his influential institutional theory on Warhol's vacuous Brillo Boxes. No less eminent a philosopher than Peter Kivy (2012, 66) regards that theory as "arguably the most powerful philosophy of art to be produced in the second half of the twentieth century." I beg to differ. As Danto himself acknowledged (1974, 140), it was based on "the eviscerated work the artworld now enfranchises." But why should philosophers necessarily give credence to whatever "the artworld now enfranchises"--however "eviscerated"?(21) Shouldn't they be the intellectual gatekeepers of culture?

Held to that role, who would regard Warhol as a genuine artist, much less as one "possess[ing] a philosophical intelligence of an intoxicatingly high order" (to quote Danto 1994, 62-63)--worth basing a radically new theory of art upon? Would it not be more prudent to surmise that the unprecedented banality of his work was in fact due to the total anomie and emotional deadness he confessed to and displayed? As he once explained ([1963] 1969, 119), he employed a mechanical approach to creating paintings because he didn't "love roses or bottles or anything like that enough to want to sit down and paint them lovingly and patiently." And he repeatedly asserted "everything is nothing" (1975, ch. 12).

In the astute view of clinical psychologist Louis Sass (1992, 106), Warhol's "nearly catatonic demeanor" suggested that he was "infinitely empty--as if the inner self had been rendered contentless." Has such vacuousness ever been associated with genuine art or artists? Should it not prompt a fundamental reassessment of the influential theory based on Warhol's "indiscernible" facsimiles of supermarket cartons? More broadly, isn't it time for philosophers to recognize that not everything enfranchised by the artworld merits our attention as "art"?


Anderson, Robert L. 2004. Calliope's Sisters: A Comparative Study of Philosophies of Art. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Avila, Mitch. 2003. Review of Larry Shiner, The Invention of Art: A Cultural History. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 61: 401-403.

Barasch, Moshe. 1985. Theories of Art: From Plato to Winckelmann. New York University Press.

Batteux, Charles. (1746) 2015. The Fine Arts Reduced to a Single Principle. Translated with introduction and notes by James O. Young. Oxford University Press.

Cabanne, Pierre. 1971. Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp. Translated by Ron Padgett. New York: Viking.

Clowney, David. 2008. "A Third System of the Arts? An Exploration of Some Ideas from Larry Shiner's The Invention of Art: A Cultural History." Contemporary Aesthetics, vol. 6 (2008), https://digitalcommons.risd.edu/liberalarts_contempaesthetics/vol6/iss1/4/.

----. 2011. "Definitions of Art and Fine Art's Historical Origins." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 69: 309-320.

D'Alembert, Jean Le Rond. (1751)1997. Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, translated by Richard N. Schwab. Excerpted in Aesthetics, edited by Susan L. Feagin and Patrick Maynard, 105-108. New York: Oxford University Press.

Damasio, Antonio. 1994. Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Putnam's.

Danto, Arthur C. 1964. "The Artworld." The Journal of Philosophy 61: 571-584.

----. 1974. "The Transfiguration of the Commonplace," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 33: 139-148.

----. (1994) 2001. "The Philosopher as Andy Warhol." In Philosophizing Art: Selected Essays, 61-83. University of California Press.

D'Azevedo, Warren, ed. 1973. The Traditional Artist in African Societies. Indiana University Press. See esp. Robert Farris Thompson, "Yoruba Artistic Criticism"; William Bascom, "A Yoruba Master Carver"; James Fernandez, "The Exposition and Imposition of Order: Artistic Expression in Fang Culture"; and d'Azevedo, "Sources of Gola Artistry."

Dewey, John. (1934) 1958. Art as Experience. New York: Capricorn.

Diderot, Denis. (1751) 1967. "Art." Denis Diderot's Encyclopedia (Selections), 58-66. Translated by Stephen J. Gendzier. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

Dissanayake, Ellen. 1988. What Is Art For? University of Washington Press.

----. 1992. Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why. New York: Free Press.

Duchamp, Marcel. See Cabanne, Pierre.

Dutton, Denis. 2006. "A Naturalist Definition of Art," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 64: 367-377.

----. 2009a. The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. New York: Bloomsbury.

----. 2009b. "Has Conceptual Art Jumped the Shark Tank?" New York Times, October 16.

Flynt, Henry. n.d. "About Henry Flynt."

----. "Concept Art" ([1961] 1989). In Esthetics Contemporary, edited by Richard Kostelanetz, 429-431. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Fokt, Simon. 2015. "Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto (Signet, 1962 [sic])." In What Is Art? A Reading List, 16. ASA Curriculum Diversification Grant Project. American Society for Aesthetics.

Gallese, Vittorio. 2011. "Mirror Neurons and Art." In Art and the Senses, edited by Francesca Bacci and David Melcher, 441-449. Oxford University Press.

Goldsmith, Steven. 1983. "The Readymades of Marcel Duchamp: The Ambiguities of an Aesthetic Revolution." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 42: 197-208.

Graham, Gordon. 1997. Philosophy of the Arts: An Introduction to Aesthetics. New York: Routledge.

Halliwell, Stephen. 2002. The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems. Princeton University Press.

Kamhi, Michelle Marder. 2014. Who Says That's Art? A Commonsense View of the Visual Arts. New York: Pro Arte Books.

----, and Louis Torres. 2000. "Critical Neglect of Ayn Rand's Theory of Art." Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 1:1-46.

Kant, Immanuel. (1790) 1957. Critique of Judgement, translated by J. H. Bernard, excerpted in Kant: Selections, edited by Theodore Meyer Greene. New York: Scribner's.

Kaprow, Allan. (1961) 1993. "Happenings in the New York Scene." In Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life. University of California Press.

Kivy, Peter. 2012. "What Really Happened in the Eighteenth Century: The 'Modern System' Re-examined (Again)." British Journal of Aesthetics 52: 61-74.

Kristeller, Paul Oskar.1990. "The Modern System of the Arts." In Renaissance Thought and the Arts: Collected Essays, expanded ed., Princeton University Press. First published in 1951-1952, 163-227.

Porter, James I. 2009a. "Is Art Modern? Kristeller's 'Modern System of the Arts' Reconsidered." British Journal of Aesthetics 49: 1-24.

----. "Reply to Shiner." 2009b. Ibid. 49: 171-178.

Rand, Ayn. 1975. The Romantic Manifesto, rev. ed. New York: Signet.

Sass, Louis. 1992. Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature, and Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Shiner, Larry. 2001. The Invention of Art: A Cultural History. University of Chicago Press.

----. 2009. "Continuity and Discontinuity in the Concept of Art." British Journal of Aesthetics 49: 160-169.

Sirén, Osvald. 1963. The Chinese on the Art of Painting: Translations and Comments. New York: Schocken. First published in 1936.

Solso, Robert. 2003. The Psychology of Art and the Evolution of the Conscious Brain. MIT Press.

Tatarkiewicz, Wladyslaw. 1980. A History of Six Ideas: An Essay in Aesthetics. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Torres, Louis, and Michelle Marder Kamhi. 2000. What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand. Chicago, Open Court.

Vogel, Susan Mullin. 1997. Baule: African Art / Western Eyes. Yale University Press.

Warhol, Andy. (1963) 1969. Interview with G. R. Swenson, Art News, November 1963. Reprinted in Pop Art Redefined, edited by John Russell and Suzi Gablik, 116-119. New York: Praeger.

----. 1975. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Young, James O. 2001. Art and Knowledge. New York: Routledge.

----. 2015. "The Ancient and Modern System of the Arts." British Journal of Aesthetics 55: 1-17.

Zeki, Semir, and Ludovica Marini. 1998. "Three cortical stages of colour processing in the human brain." Brain 121: 1669-1685.


1. Kristeller 1990, 164-165.

2. Notable exceptions have been Halliwell 2002, Porter 2009b, Kivy 2012, and Young, 2015. Kristeller's shortcomings were first explored in Torres and Kamhi 2000, 193, 326n6, 420n18, 421n22.

3. Batteux's designation of this category referred to "pleasure"--not "beauty."

4. In response to Porter's "Is Art Modern?," Shiner (2009,160) argues that no fewer than ten other eighteenth-century classifications of fine art list "the same 'nucleus' of five arts" (including architecture) as D'Alembert. Nearly all of them were later than D'Alembert's Preliminary Discourse, however, and were therefore probably influenced by it.

5. D'Alembert (1751) 1997, 105, emphasis added.

6. For D'Alembert's comparison of the fine arts, omitting architecture, see his Preliminary Discourse in Denis Diderot’s Encyclopedia (Selections), trans. by Stephen J. Gendzier (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1967), 16.

7. For example, under the rubric "Non-imitative character of architecture," the comprehensive article on the "Fine Arts" by Sidney Colvin in the classic 11th edition of theEncyclopedia Britannica (1910) compares architecture to music. On the imitative nature of music, see Torres and Kamhi 2000, 87-90; on architecture and abstract sculpture, 198-99.

8. Lien An, quoted in Sirén 1963, 152.

9. See Kamhi 2014, 93-95, for further analysis of The Dinner Party.

10. On Michael Beitz's work, see Kamhi, "Barking Up the Wrong Trees in Art Education," For Piero's Sake, May 12, 2016.

11. Somewhat confusingly Young refers here to Kristeller's grouping, rather than to Batteux's, as if the two were synonymous.

12. Fokt incorrectly lists the volume's publication date as 1962.

13. On critical neglect of Rand's theory, see Kamhi and Torres 2000 and Kamhi 2014, Preface. Our book on Rand's theory was favorably reviewed by Choice magazine (Association of College & Research Libraries) and The Art Book (Association of Art Historians, U.K.), but was overlooked by journals devoted to aesthetics.

14. On the misguided intentions and ultimate failure of "abstract art," see Torres and Kamhi 2000, chap. 8; and Kamhi 2014, chap. 3.

15. See the discussion of Anderson's Calliope's Sisters in Kamhi 2014, 28-29.

16. On the art of film in relation to Rand's theory, see Torres and Kamhi 2000, 74-75, 253-257; and Kamhi 2014, 114-117.

17. Dewey advocated (1958, 3) "restor[ing] continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and . . . everyday events, doings, and sufferings." Did he mean what Kaprow took him to mean? Or did he mainly intend to counter Clive Bell's notoriously false claim that the significance of (fine) art is "unrelated to the significance of life"? My guess is the latter.

18. Regarding Kaprow's influence, see Torres and Kamhi 2000, 274-278.

19. On the spurious category of "conceptual art," see Torres and Kamhi 2000, 270-273; and Kamhi 2014, 89-92.

20. Dutton doesn't cite the source of the Duchamp quote. It was Cabanne 1971, 47. On Dutton and Duchamp, see Kamhi 2014, 147-148; on the readymades, ibid., 80-83.

21. Regarding the artworld's enfranchisement of Warhol, see Kamhi, "The Apotheosis of Andy Warhol," Aristos, December 2012.