In an Age when everyone who was someone dabbled in just about everything, it might not be surprising that Adam Smith, the father of economics, had extensive views on the arts. He was another Leonarda da Vinci, a renaissance man. The constellation of Smith's interests, or their remains, included economics, politics, ethics, rhetoric, history, the sciences and philosophy.
Leaving further research on the renaissance man phenomenon for another time, Smith first and foremost thought of the arts as imitative.1 This doesn't seem a big deal. This puts him in the company of Plato and Aristotle among others so it is not anything bold and new. What is bold and new is how Smith uses imitation as a step ladder to other insights.
He did not stop at imitation, but looked at why certain imitations are more esthetically pleasing than others. Why does painted sculpture look less beautiful when compared to unpainted sculpture? This question goes to the heart of Smith's concerns. Art is imitation, but what kind of imitation is it?
To answer this question, look at the arts Smith concentrated on: painting, sculpture, poetry, music and dance. He labels these imitative arts. It seems obvious in these arts what is being imitated. Painting imitates objects and scenes on a flat surface. Sculpture portrays figures and events in stone. Poetry mimics human speech. And so on. What is the difference between a painting, a sculpture and a poem? It is in the medium. Painting uses color, shadow and line to portray some of the same things portrayed with contour and shadow in sculpture and metaphor and sound in poetry. The arts differ in their media more than their subjects.
Even so, certain media are better than others for certain subjects. Smith recognized this when he saw how limited the palette of sculpture is. It works best, according to him, when it shows off the human or other form with "scarcely any drapery" (180). In painting, on the other hand, clothing and other things which hide more than they reveal can be powerful. He goes further than this to note that the media affects the choice of subject in a more astounding way. "In Painting, the imitation frequently pleases, though the original object be indifferent, or even offensive". In sculpture, "imitation seldom pleases, unless the original object be in a very high degree either great, or beautiful, or interesting" (179). So much for the differences between the arts.
This aside, Smith's main point is that people delight in experiencing imitations that are different in some respect from the original. An art work "frequently derives a great deal [of merit] from its resemblance to an object of a different kind" (178). A Bierstadt landscape imitates a certain valley, but it is a lifeless, flat surface. Raphael's sculpture of David imitates a trim but muscular man, but it is a piece of motionless white stone. Smith spent a lot of space detailing how people don't like total copies except in a few exceptional cases, such as two horses pulling a carriage. "A set of coach-horses... is supposed to be handsomer when they are all exactly matched..." (177). (Over a century after Smith, Kenyon Cox came to the same conclusion. Cox wrote that "we receive a degree of pleasure from the recognition of the same object under new aspects."2)
There are two things going on here. Imitations are never perfect, but in art, which is imitative, there are two reasons for this: 1) the limits of the medium and the artist and, 2) the goals of the artist. Smith did not make these distinctions. He knew that sculpture is different from painting and that some artists are better than others. While he didn't make the distinctions, we can. We can use them to better understand him.
If Smith had stumbled upon this distinction, he may have then come upon the notion that art reveals the essence of its subject. He could have studied the two distinctions separately. The first one, the limits of media and artists, would be a study especially for those interested in the techniques of the arts. The second one is more interesting from the philosophical perspective because esthetics are about general features of art, not the How or the What but the Why.
Let's elaborate this second distinction not made by Smith. To concretize this, sculpture would capture the essence of shape by casting off color among other things. Certainly, there are multicolored sculptures, but these are not as effective in illuminating shape as monochromatic ones. The former are often kitsch, the latter sometimes masterpieces. The issue here is not the unlikeness of the medium or of the imitated to the imitation, but the fact that art focuses attention by controlling the imitation. In art there is never a total imitation or even an attempt at one, but always a highly prejudiced one. The How and the What of sculpture link up with the Why.
This is the value of Ayn Rand's definition of art as a "selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments."3 Rand believed this selective process was guided by the artist's metaphysical value-judgments. Smith never delved into this matter. He got far enough to see the mimicry involved in art is limited, but he only saw a few of the reasons why this is so. Perhaps I am too harsh on him. His insight, though limited to one area, is nonetheless important.
Smith's faults might be better seen against the backdrop of his successes. A final point made in his defense is that he never finished his work on the arts. During his lifetime, the essays I examined were not finished or published. One can only wonder what bright gems he would have cut for us to admire had he lived a few years longer.
1. See his "Of the Nature of That Imitation which takes place in what are called The Imitative Arts" and "Of the Affinity between Music, Dancing, and Poetry" in Essays on Philosophical Subjects. All page numbers refer to the 1980 Liberty Classics edition of this work.
2. What is Painting? "Winslow Homer" and Other Essay (New York: Norton, 1988 [1917 ]), pp100-1.
3. The Romantic Manifesto (New York: New American Library, 1975), p19.
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