the arts between imitation, beauty, and pleasure

 review of the central themes in

Charles Batteux:
'Les beaux-arts réduits à un même principe', 1746.


A central merit of this book is that it distinguishes a category of phenomena (the arts: music, 'poésie', painting, and dance) from other phenomena on the basis of a unequivocal criterion: imitation. An equally central flaw, however, is that Batteux, misled by the ambivalence of the word 'imitation', introduces two more criteria, so that the arts are subsumed under categories in which they do not belong.


Although he seldom uses the term 'image', there is no doubt that 'imitation' refers primarily to objects that are not 'real' but 'mere imitation'. In painting 'tout est fantöme'(I, 2)* and 'la poésie remplit notre esprit d'images feintes (...) souvent plus charmans que s'il etoient vrais et naturels' (I, 2). Or: in the arts, we are only dealing with 'un fantome, une apparence' (II, 5). Or also: the rules of painting can be reduced 'à tromper les yeux par la ressemblance, à nous faire croire que l'objet est reël, tandis que ce n'est qu'une image' (III, 2).

But, like so many authors before and after him, Batteux is misled by the ambiguity of the term 'imitation'. For, next to the 'metaphorical' interpretation, according to which an image only 'pretends' to be real, there is also the literal meaning: the imitation of examples - like in the 'imitation of nature' - or in 'the imitation of Jesus Christ' (imitatio Christi). And, not otherwise than all those who scorn the obsequious imitation of nature, also Batteux remarks that art should not imitate nature as it is, but as it should be: thus, he describes 'poésie' as 'un mensonge perpetuel qui a toutes les caractères de la vérité'. (I, 2).

That the appropriate criterion to discern art from other phenomena is thereby neutralized, is evident from the fact that Batteux has to introduce an addition criterion to discern the 'imitation reelle' (telle qu'elle est dans la société) from the 'imitation artificielle', (telle qu'elle est dans les arts) (I, 2).

The problem can only be solved, when it is understood that the making of an image consists of two parts: the creation of an original (that, according to Batteux, has to be more probable than existing examples), and the making of a 'true to nature' imitation of that original in an 'unreal' image - and when it is at the same time understood that the (literal or creative) imitation  of an original is another imitation than the making of an 'imitation' - the making of an image.


Thus, 'les arts de li'mitation' are no longer the counterparts of 'les arts du 'réel':, as 'les arts de l'imitation artificelle' they are put on a par with 'les arts de 'l'imitation réelle'. And, to make matters worse, Batteux introduces a further distinction in that the supposed 'arts de l'imitation' suddenly turn out to be 'les beaux arts'. The new criterion 'beauty' is not the opposite of 'ugly', but rather of, on the one hand 'utility' - since Batteux distinguishes the 'beaux arts' as the 'arts du plaisir' form the 'arts mécaniques '(arts du besoin) (I, 1), and, on the other hand, together with the good, the opposite of the truth ('le goût est dans l'art ce que l'intelligence est dans les sciences') (II, 1) - so that art comes to be opposed to science.


Not only does Batteux fail to distinguish art from other phenomena, he also fails to provide an adequate criterion for distinguishing the diverse 'arts de l'imitation' from each other.

He proposes to distinguish the arts according to the means they use to imitate: the arts of the eye and the arts of the ear (I, 5). He thereby overlooks the fact that such a classification cannot include the epic (narrative) arts: the image conjured up by the words in an epic or a novel are not perceptible at all: they are merely imagined - and, moreover, they cover the whole range of senses. At the same time, Batteux fails to see that the (written or spoken) words of a novel are only the means with which the images are conjured up in the mind. In that he does not distinguish between the words and the images that are conjured up, he cannot but regard 'la poésie' as an art of the ear, which applies only to lyric and dramatic, but not at all to narrative literature (I, 5).


Unfortunately, Batteux' "Beaux arts réduits à un même principe' has been very influential. Many an author - not least Kant - has inherited its fundamental flaws: the multiple definition of art, and the deficient 'system of the arts'. Up to now, none of these shortcomings has been properly corrected.

© Stefan Beyst, December 2015.

* Roman numbers refer to the parts, arabic numbers to the chapters.

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