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Art and visual culture: medieval to modern
Art and visual culture: medieval to modern

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2.1 From function to autonomy

The most important idea for this purpose is the concept of art itself, which came to be defined in the way that we still broadly understand it today over the course of the centuries explored here.

This concept rests on a distinction between art, on the one hand, and craft, on the other. It assumes that a work of art is to be appreciated and valued for its own sake, whereas other types of artefact serve a social function. A significant step in this direction was made by a group of painters and sculptors who in 1563 set up an Accademia del Disegno (Academy of Design) in Florence in order to distinguish themselves from craftsmen organised in guilds. Their central claim was that the arts they practised were ‘liberal’ or intellectual rather than ‘mechanical’ or practical. After 1600, academies of art were founded in cities throughout Europe, including Paris (1648) and London (1768). Most offered training in architecture as well as in painting and sculpture. A decisive shift took place in the mid eighteenth century, when the three ‘arts of design’ began to be classified along with poetry and music in a new category of ‘fine arts’ (a translation of the French term, ‘beaux-arts’). Other arts, such as landscape gardening, were sometimes included in this category. Architecture was occasionally excluded on the grounds that it was useful as well as beautiful, but the fine arts were usually defined in terms broad enough to encompass it. One writer, for example, described them as ‘the offspring of genius; they have nature for model, taste for master, pleasure for aim’ (Jacques Lacombe, Dictionnaire Portatif des Beaux-Arts, 1753 (1st edn 1752), p. 40, as translated in Shiner, 2001, p. 88).