The unity of the arts was a key idea of the Arts and Crafts movement, which was concerned especially to raise the status of crafts and the craftsman. The difficulties of this idea were evident from the beginning, when the elevation of the crafts was being achieved by the denigration of fine art. William Morris was scathing about much of the art of his time, which he thought effete and decadent. It also led to ridiculous overstatements, such as Lethaby’s assertion that a work of art was a well-made boot.

It’s not an idea we hear much about today, when postmodern art has evolved into something very different from painting and sculpture and when the crafts themselves have become more akin to fine arts than boots. Many people, familiar with easel painting and even enthusiastic about 20th century modernism, are simply bewildered by postmodernism. There’s no unity of the arts and there probably never was. The arts, or things called “art”, are members of a large family, within which some distant relations have nothing in common with one another, e.g. Mark Wallinger’s Sleeper (top), a pair of boots by Lobb (above) and  Alma-Tadema’s Roses of Heliogabalus (below).

2 thoughts on “THE UNITY OF THE ARTS

  1. Just discovered your blog! Glad to know there are other folks out there thinking about these things 🙂

    I like your depiction of the lack of unity in the arts and have often made this case in arguments against the essentialist idea that art is some one definable thing. I studied Ludwig Wittgenstein in Philo grad school and his notion of family resemblances has always struck me as an important insight.

    It has also occurred to me that we are perhaps also often confused between the use of 'art' as a description and as a name for things. When the word 'art' gets used it is often taken to describe the things that are being referred to, as if 'art' necessarily means something specific, like 'blue' or 'large' can sometimes mean. The problem is that we actually use the word 'art' more like a name, and even if it had some properties of description, its more common attribute is that it collects these various things under one heading: It names them. And if 'art' isn't a property of the things, per se, then we can see that as a name our disagreement over its application is more about the customs of our grammar than any metaphysical delvings into the nature of the things themselves….

    Or so it seems to me 🙂 , and the same argument can be made for 'craft' etc…..

    I seem to recall that the origins of the word 'art' had to do with 'skill', in which case we are talking descriptively. 'Craft' when used to identify issues of craftsmanship is also descriptive. But the name use of these terms is something quite different, and that seems to be where we get into so much trouble.

    How do you see this? I'm curious to hear what another thinker thinks 🙂


  2. Wittgenstein precisely. I am quite happy with the idea that art is what is shown in art galleries. “But what makes them art galleries?” A consensus among artists, gallery managers and critics. The bewildered men and women in the street don't count and continue with their search for the essence of art.


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