Talking About Utility

Enumerating Art In The Western World

by by Claudia Norton


Episteme, from Ancient Greek: knowledge or science. An understanding of principles, know-how.

Techne, from Ancient Greek: craftsmanship. Applied know-how, often servile in nature: Understanding bound to obligation.

There was no word for Art and no word for Artist.



It went more like this:

1. raw material

2. procedure

3. final form


1. paint

2. application

3. portrait


1. ailing body

2. treatment

3. less-ailing body


3. A Taxonomy of Art

(Ancient Greek system, according to Shiner)

Liberal arts: Practice in which one engages for the sake of diversion, often a practice of the educated.

1. Grammar

2. Logic

3. Rhetoric (Poetry)

4. Arithmetic

5. Geometry

6. Music, the science of

7. Astronomy

Vulgar arts: Practice for which one is paid.

1. Tailoring

2. Weaving

3. Cooking

4. Music, performed

Mixed Arts: Practice that includes both liberal and vulgar components.

1. Navigation

2. Architecture

3. Painting

4. Agriculture

5. Medicine

6. Mechanics

7. Gymnastics



To put it simply, art was more like applied science.



To put it simply, as a practice’s function increased, social status of the practitioner decreased. That’s called an “inverse correlation.”

Function (weaving) > Function (poetry); Status (weaver) < Status (poet)



To put it simply, a man of high birth wouldn’t be caught dead with a compass in his hand.



Two days ago I saw this on someone’s OkCupid profile: “I tend to spend more time looking at the pretty buildings and the details on the pretty houses all over the city, then I do looking at the road or the car in front of me that I am about to hit.”

Talk about utility, right?

I messaged him and told him I like to look at moldings too. I asked him if he wanted to go on a walk with me to look at homes and their details. He hasn’t responded yet, although he’s been online and has looked at my profile. He spelled “than” wrong.



In the Medieval period, the vulgar arts were re-branded, if you will, and named the “mechanical arts” in an attempt to confer dignity to practitioners.

The ninth-century philosopher-poet Johannes Scotus Eriugena created seven categories of mechanical arts to balance the seven liberal arts.

Mechanical Arts:

1.     Tailoring and weaving

2.     Agriculture

3.     Architecture and masonry

4.     Hunting animals and people

5.     Commerce

6.     Cooking

7.     Blacksmithing

Around the same time, German mystical theologian Hugh of St. Victor made his own list. I like this list better because look at #7.

1. Weaving

2. Armament

(Forging, Architecture)

3. Commerce

4. Navigation

5. Hunting

6. Medicine

7. Theatrics

(Puppetry, Wrestling, Dancing, Epic recitals)



Imagine-hundreds of years from now-citizens of the future ascending the stage to re-enact one of your high school pep rallies. “Did you enjoy the theatre tonight?” they will ask one another after the show.

They will have no idea that your pep rally wasn’t only a show, but also a communion. They won’t remember that the pep rally was a functional, participatory social rite. Don’t laugh at them. How could they know? They weren’t there.



Most of the classic Greek plays were performed as a part of religious and political rituals. The whole thing had a different “feel” than theater produced recently. Like, a rodeo has a different “feel” to it than an inauguration, but they’re also similar in certain ways.



Me: It’s hard to draw something I don’t like because I don’t want to focus on it.

Other: If you pay close enough attention to anything you will find that you can’t help but love it.



All natural things were produced by the Divine art, and so may be called God’s works of art. Now every artist intends to give to his work the best disposition; not absolutely the best, but the best as regards to the proposed end; and even if this entails some defect, the artist cares not: thus, for instance, when man makes himself a saw for the purpose of cutting, he makes it of iron, which is suitable for the object in view; and he does not prefer to make it of glass, though this be a more beautiful material, because this very beauty would be an obstacle to the end he has in view. -Summa Theologica 1274

Thomas Aquinas wouldn’t last a minute now.



ar·tif·i·cer, A skilled worker; a craftsperson

Leonardo da Vinci was an artificer and Michelangelo was one too.



During the Renaissance, people like Leonardo Da Vinci weren’t given creative license. Artificers were given specific requirements to fulfill: a list of objects and where to place them in a painting, dimensions, the color palette. They signed contracts. They worked in teams.



There aren’t always words for things. Some practices go unarticulated. Once I and another invented the term “jealous-pity” for something we feel toward others who we superficially want to be like, although we know their internal life must be more painful than our own.

Art must have had a silent life, latent like “jealous-pity.”



Art was hiding in the bushes, unnamed in the Western world.

“Art had finally revealed its true nature: something that makes a statement and self-consciously embodies it. After the revelation that the essence of art is “embodied meaning,” the true form of the art-versus-craft polarity was also apparent: embodied meaning versus mere utility and genius versus mere skill.” Larry Shiner, The Invention of Art



Have you ever noticed how often the phrase “indigenous crafts” is used?



Once I was walking around an art museum with some adults and a baby. There were a bunch of Meissen porcelain figurines on display. I was confused why they were in an art museum, these domestic, decorative figurines. They didn’t seem pure enough. The mother of the baby said, “You could put anything in a museum and I would love just walking around and looking at it. It’s about the quality of attention.” The baby agreed.

Claudia Norton B’14 wants to walk around with someone and look at details on the pretty houses.