On the Word “Art”

In teaching Aristotle and Thomas one often encounters the word “art.” This is generally translating techne in Greek or ars in Latin. I always remark to students that this word is being used more broadly than the way in which the English word “art” is commonly used. It does not just mean the fine arts such as painting, sculpture, music, or poetry, although it does include the latter. The word “art” as used by Thomas and Aristotle should be taken in connection with the English words “artificial,” “artifact,” and “artisan.”

While I think this is true, I’ve realized lately that more must be said; in a way, but only in a way, the word techne is opposed to the word “art” used in reference to the fine arts. For techne or ars means a know-how, a knowledge of how to produce or do something, and it characteristically gives a person the ability to produce or do this thing over and over again. The carpenter, through the art of carpentry, can make many tables with the same characteristics.

But although know-how is certainly present and active in the case of the fine arts, what characterizes them is a kind of moment of genius that is not reproducible or entirely under the control of the artist. Depending on the level of genius, an artist may be able to make many masterpieces, or just one in a lifetime. But in neither case is there a formula or process that can be followed to automatically guarantee the production of a new masterpiece.

What word do the Greeks have for this? One’s first thought is poiesis, the root word for the English word “poetry,” but this can’t be right. Aristotle uses poiein as one of his ten categories, and gives as examples “to lance” and “to cauterize,” definitely not specifically poetic productions. Poiein in philosophical Greek just means “to make or do.” The word one is looking for is mousike, an art in the sense of something metaphorically inspired by the muses. This is what we call “fine art” in English, something that may make use of techne/technique, but which is a non-reproducible product of genius.