Aesthetica Preprint, 16 (June 1987)

Massimo Modica, The System of the Fine Arts: Batteux and Diderot

Massimo Modica's study aims to examine the relationship between Charles Batteux's ideas and those of Denis Diderot from 1746 to 1752, that is from Batteux's treatise (Les Beaux-Arts réduits à un même principe, printed in 1746) to the years in which some of the most significant of Diderot's works appeared (the Lettre sur les sourds et muets, published in 1751, and the items Art and Beau, printed in the first and second volume of the Encyclopédie respectively).
The aim of Modica's essay is twofold. It first attempts to show that Diderot's aesthetic reflections bring to light the theoretical difficulties inherent in the "système des beaux-arts". Then, does it go on to demonstrate that Diderot's aesthetics tends to criticize some common ideas about the consequences of the socalled "aesthetic culture" of the eighteenth century, in the theory and practice of the arts ­ like that, for example, of art conceived as some type of diversion or entertainment, in other words as "the realm of beautiful appearance".
This interpretation is possible, however, by means of a very important presupposition, which is indispensable for the coherence of this essay. It is necessary, briefly, to consider the item Art as a very pertinent part of Diderot's aesthetics. Art has been hither neglected, in this respect, and never published in the collection of Diderot's Oeuvres esthétiques. With Art, however, Diderot marks an essential transformation in the aesthetic reflection. Batteux wants to justify a precise cultural field, the system of the fine arts, clearly separate from other fields of human experience. By contrast, Diderot wants to reconcile all the arts, liberal and mechanical ones, that is, to reorganize the whole sphere of "artistic" activities under the sign of their utility and social strength. In this way Diderot's aesthetics, with its attention to these questions and others, like technical development and productive forces, or the social and intellectual value of mechanical arts, points out new ways of evaluating the relationship between aesthetic activity and technical production, and finally aesthetic thought itself. Thus, to the "specific" aesthetics of the fine arts, Diderot opposes the aesthetics of the operative character of human culture, which is perhaps the most adequate definition of the whole aesthetics of the Encyclopédie.