Defining the Fine Arts

Michelle Marder Kamhi

Having long been dismayed by the degradation of the fine arts in contemporary culture, I wholeheartedly commend NAS’s undertaking to combat it in academia. I especially applaud the goals of depoliticizing the arts and reforming the College Board’s AP Art History exam.

Earlier this year, I happened to peruse the latest AP Art History Course and Exam Descriptions and was appalled from the outset by the cover image—a photograph of the inane Gates installation in New York’s Central Park. As one astute young visitor had mused on seeing it in 2005:

They are just orange curtains. They don’t have much meaning. . . . It kind of takes the purpose out of art. . . . [It] really depends [on] what you define as art. . . . I don’t think it is art, just a bit of shock value. . . . But I guess that is the state of modern art these days.

In so reflecting, that 16-year-old had identified the crux of the problem. It goes far deeper than politicization—to the fundamental question of how art is defined. And the sad truth is that the crucial definition of fine art has become increasingly confused almost since its inception—with the result that the very concept is rejected outright by most of today’s scholars and critics. Instead, the mainstream art world is now ruled by the “institutional” [de-]definition of art—which declares, in effect, that art is virtually anything created by a purported artist.

In that context, arguments about the “quality of art” are less crucial than an understanding of the essential nature of fine art, vis-à-vis other forms of expression. Much of the contemporary “art” included in the AP Art History course, for example, in fact belongs (as does The Gates) to the anti-art lineage of the 1960s. Students should learn that such work doesn’t qualify as art at all, properly speaking.

As it happens, a key step in the breakdown of the concept of fine art was the inclusion of architecture. I was therefore somewhat troubled to see an architectural dome pictured on the cover of the NAS Fine Arts: Issue Brief. Happily, architecture is not mentioned in the brief, however, which makes me expect that (in contrast with the AP Art History program, which prominently features architecture), it will not be dealt with in subsequent NAS materials. While great works of architecture are surely worthy of study, it should not be under the rubric of “fine art.” In any case, understanding what went wrong in the classification of architecture sheds light on the larger question of how fine art should be defined.

Why Architecture Should Be Excluded from the Fine Arts

Scholars and critics who reject the very idea of fine art argue that the term (in French, beaux arts) is of limited relevance, having been coined only in Western Europe in the eighteenth century. They ignore that the concept it refers to is much older, however, with deep roots in antiquity. Moreover, the group of arts it subsumes has significant parallels in other cultures.

In that connection, it is important to know what the first systematic account of the concept referred to. That account was published by the French cleric Charles Batteux in 1746, under the title Les Beaux-Arts réduits à un même principe (recently translated as The Fine Arts Reduced to a Single Principle). Batteux’s beaux arts were the very same forms as antiquity’s pleasurable arts (a kinship he acknowledged)—that is, music, poetry, painting, sculpture, and dance—also known as the mimetic arts. Like the ancient Greeks, Batteux viewed these forms of expression as a distinctive category of human activity. In contrast with what he termed the mechanical arts (akin to Aristotle’s utilitarian arts), they serve no physical function. Their function is purely psychological.

Batteux went a step beyond Aristotle in classifying “the arts in general,” however. He introduced a third type that “have as their object both usefulness and pleasure.” Appropriately, he placed architecture in this third category, for “[physical] need has brought [it] forth, and taste has perfected [it].” As he argued, it is “something in between” the two other types of art, for it partakes of “both pleasure and utility.” In contrast with the fine arts, which afford pleasure solely through the imitation of nature, Batteux maintained, architecture “polishes” and “adorns” nature for both usefulness and pleasure.

Given that eminently logical system of classification, how and why did architecture then become one of the canonical fine arts? As the 1997 edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Art observed, the term “fine arts” generally refers to the “nonutilitarian arts” yet is commonly understood to include architecture “even though [it] is obviously a ‘useful’ art.” The Dictionary even cited Batteux’s tripartite classification, placing architecture in his third category, but then cryptically added: “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.”

Indeed, the eminent scholar Paul Oskar Kristeller had earlier declared that “the Encyclopédie, and especially its famous introduction [by d’Alembert], codified the system of the fine arts . . . and through its prestige and authority gave it the widest possible currency all over Europe.”

Astonishingly, it appears that neither Kristeller nor anyone else bothered to assess the reasons for d’Alembert’s glaringly illogical system of classification, however, until Louis Torres and I did so in What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand. To begin with, we noted that d’Alembert’s primary interests and expertise were in scientific, mathematical, and practical pursuits, not in the fine arts. In his relative ignorance regarding the latter, he went considerably astray. We further argued:

Contrary to all prior tradition (and to common sense as well), d’Alembert classified architecture as an imitative art. . . . Moreover, the necessarily flimsy justification [he] offered for including it so attenuated the concept of imitation as to empty it of descriptive or explanatory value. Acknowledging that the imitation of nature in architecture is “less striking and more restricted than in Painting or Sculpture,” since the latter “express all the parts of [Nature]” . . . , d’Alembert held that architecture “is confined to imitating the symmetrical arrangement that Nature observes” (emphasis ours). Thus the mimetic quality that is directly and naturally expressive of vital meaning in all the arts is reduced, in his conception of architecture, to the abstract, impersonal property of symmetry. Further, although earlier theorists had appropriately emphasized the practical function of architecture in contrast with the nonutilitarian nature of the imitative arts, d’Alembert entirely disregarded this fundamental distinction, focusing instead on the shared attribute of imaginative invention.

Most important, d’Alembert (like many later theorists) failed to understand why all the fine arts (including music) are essentially mimetic—albeit in distinctive ways—and how that property contributes to their powerful psychological effect. In that light, it becomes obvious that another step in the concept’s breakdown was the twentieth-century inclusion of “abstract art” (numerous examples of which appear in the AP Art History Course). Those who stubbornly defend the invention of such work as a major cultural breakthrough ignore the profoundly false assumptions that informed it.

The undefining of fine art that began with d’Alembert’s error has had lamentable cultural consequences—as I’ve argued most recently in “Why Discarding the Concept of ‘Fine Art’ Has Been a Grave Error.” NAS can best begin to restore fine arts education by presenting a clear statement of what forms of expression that term properly subsumes and why.


Michelle Marder Kamhi co-edits Aristos, and is the author of Who Says That’s Art? A Commonsense View of the Visual Arts, reviewed in Academic Questions (Summer 2015). Her website and blog are at

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