Definitions / by Jeannine Cook

Here I am, defining myself for many a long year as an artist, and yet, yesterday, I was brought up short. I was reading a short article by Ruth Walker entitled Art, Artisans and artisanal grilled cheese in the January 24, 2010, edition of The Christian Science Monitor. In this article, Ms. Walker addresses the origins and meaning of the word "art". I realised that I felt totally ignorant about the whole subject. Abjectly ignorant!

I rushed off to my beloved Oxford English Dictionary to learn more. I knew that "art" came from the Latin "ars", a word that passed into French and then into early English, as did so many words. But the timing and nuances of meaning for "art" were fascinating. The first use of the word comes in 1225, when the word meant skill in doing anything as the result of knowledge and practice. According to Ms. Walker, the original Latin concept embraced a skill of things being "joined" or "fitted together". By 1386, Chaucer was talking of art as a human skill or human workmanship, as opposed to nature, while earlier that century, art was already included in general learning taught in schools, as well as the skills required in applying the principles of a special science.

Only in 1600 did the word "art" start to refer to the application of skills to subjects of taste such as poetry, music, dancing, etc. J. Taylor is cited in the OED as saying that, "Spencer and Shakespeare in art did excell". However, the use of "art" to refer to "the application of skills to the arts of imitation and design, Painting, Engraving, Sculpture, Architecture; the cultivation of these in its principles, practice and results: the skillful production of the beautiful in visible forms" only came into use after 1880.

From then on, art has mainly referred to the many aspects of the realm now referred to aesthetics, but it also now includes more negative aspects of studied actions, artful devices, trickery and cunning... hardly surprising!

What interested me, on digging further about the meaning of the word "art" as defined today, is how often that word "beautiful" creeps into the definition. In, the first definition is, "the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful (my emphasis), appealing, or of more than ordinary significance." In the Free Online Dictionary, they started the definition by, "the conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty (again, my emphasis), specifically the production of the beautiful in a graphic or plastic medium". In the Brainy Quote, they talk of, "the application of skill to the production of the beautiful by imitation or design, or an occupation in which skill is so employed, as in painting or sculpture".

The other word which appears often in the definition of "Art" is nature. In Your Dictionary, the first meaning is, "human ability to make things; creativity of man as distinguished from the world of nature (my emphasis)". In Answers, art is "a human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature."

Whilst the 20th century saw many reactions against the concepts of beauty and nature in the visual arts, in particular, I think it is instructive that art has for so, so long been defined as having skills and knowledge that derive from and celebrate the world around us. After all, it was Plato who said that "art is imitation".

Plato. Luni marble, copy of the portrait made by Silanion ca. 370 BC for the Academia in Athens. From the sacred area in Largo Argentina.  (Image courtesy of the Capitoine Museums)

Plato. Luni marble, copy of the portrait made by Silanion ca. 370 BC for the Academia in Athens. From the sacred area in Largo Argentina.  (Image courtesy of the Capitoine Museums)