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Reading Guide: Introduction to Larry Shiner,

The Invention of Art: A Cultural History

The word "Art" used to mean "craft" or "skill". Very often it still does. The art of cooking is the skill of cooking. You can think of many other examples: The art of plastering, the healing arts, the art of bricklaying, the art of love.

But when you hear that aesthetics is the philosophy of art, you probably don't think the course will be about bricklaying or cooking or snowboarding. You think it will be about painting and sculpture and music and poetry and dance and things of that sort. In other words, it will be about the fine arts.

When we (modern westerners) think about the fine arts, we tend to think of them as universal. Every culture has them, and they go back to our human beginnings, when people who have left no written records painted animals in European caves and made bone flutes using the pentatonic scale. Or so we think. (Many of us have this thought, along with the contrasting idea that what counts as art is a matter of personal opinion.)

As you can tell from the title of his book, Larry Shiner has a different idea about fine art. He thinks it was invented in the 18th century. When you first hear that, it is not going to make any sense to you. Perhaps this would be a better way to understand his point. In the 18th century, certain arts (painting, sculpture, music, poetry and fiction, dance, theater and architecture) were divided from the rest of the crafts. They came to be recognized as the fine arts, in contrast with the other (not so fine) arts. When that division happened, some other things happened as well. The other not-so-fine arts were downgraded; people came to think of them as merely utilitarian. The fine arts, on the other hand, came to be regarded as valuable for their own sake. Because they were no longer connected with other purposes, they also became disconnected from ordinary life. The "invention" of the fine arts was connected at first with the creation of an art market, so that many more people came to own such art than would have done so in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance. While that is still true, the independence of fine art from crafts and from ordinary life also resulted in a much narrower audience for the newest and most innovative examples of fine art.

Shiner tells the story of these developments in his book, using lots of examples. This introduction just gives you a taste. Notice, as you read it, that he is writing history. If you disagree with him, you will have to do so on the basis of historical fact. Still, you might interpret the facts in a different way than he does. And he does have an opinion about what attitude we should take toward arts, crafts and entertainment. You may have a different one. Try to sort out the difference between his description of the facts, and his (and your) evaluation of those facts.

I will often refer to Shiner's position during this class. I have come to the conclusion that he is right about the history, and it has changed the way I think about the arts. Even more than that, it has changed the way I think about the philosophy of the arts. This text is an important one for the class. You don't have to agree with it; but please read it carefully and make sure you understand what it says.

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