Batteux, Abbé Charles (1713–1780)

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In the history of aesthetic ideas, the abbot Charles Batteux was less of an innovator than an apt synthesizer of prevailing ideas and a late defender of the classical theory of imitation in the new field of taste and aesthetic experience. Nonetheless, Les beaux-arts réduits à un même principe (The fine arts reduced to a single principle; 1746/1969) is generally thought to have provided the first modern classification of the fine arts. In all of his undertakings, Batteux sought to submit the fine artsas opposed to the practical arts, which seek to fulfill various needsto a single principle, "both simple and wide-reaching" (Foreword, Les beaux-arts réduits à un même principe ), that could explain all varieties of art. In keeping with the classical theory of poetry and art, this principle is that art should imitate la belle nature (beautiful nature, including human actions and passions) to produce aesthetic pleasure. In other words, the goal of the fine arts is pleasure, their essential characteristic is imitation, and their subject is la belle nature. The manner in which this imitation is done makes for the particular differences of the various art forms: poetry, painting, sculpture, dance, and music. On this basis, Batteux divided the inquiry conducted in Les beaux-arts into three parts. First, he identified the nature of all art forms and their essential differences. Second, he examined the nature of taste as a way of evaluating la belle nature. Third, to verify his theory by practice, he proposed a detailed typology of the fine arts.

Batteux first tried to clarify what it means for the fine arts to imitate la belle nature. Three aspects of this process deserve to be highlighted: imitation as such, the process of idealization that presides over the production of la belle nature in art, and the function of genius in producing works of art. First, art, as the product of genius's activity, works by imitating. Yet all imitation finds its raison d'être and its limits in the model that goes before it. Poetic and artistic invention is therefore not creating per se but rather reproducing what already exists. The function of art is to re-present its subject in a medium. Imitations must nevertheless appear to be nature. Perfection in the arts being based on resemblance, falling back on the purely formal (or purely aesthetic) properties of the aesthetic medium seems inadmissible for Batteux.

Second, in the Aristotelian tradition to which Batteux was explicitly connected, what the fine arts imitate is not nature as it truly is, but la belle nature, or nature as it should be as a result of idealization. In contrast with history, which simply presents the facts and strives to speak the truth, the fine arts present the ideal and strive for verisimilitude. They aspire, through selective representation of the real, to the perfection of the type. Painting and poetry are born with history, but the invention that is their own aims at drawing human actions together in a new and more coherent totality that brings out their meaning.

Third, only an artist of genius in a state of enthusiasm can produce true imitation of la belle nature. Far from being an occult faculty, enthusiasm, for Batteux, complements the spirit of observation. It designates the moment when the artist's spirit warms up at the sight of a vivid representation stemming from his imagination.

Although his theory of the imitation of la belle nature anchors Batteux's thought in the classical tradition, his theory of taste tends to bring together newer aesthetic tendencies that were forming during his era. Artistic genius is subject not to predetermined rules but to taste, which he defined as the "faculty of appreciating the good, the bad, and the mediocre, and of distinguishing among them" (Batteux [1746] 1969). Far from opposing the intelligence at work in the sciences, taste (which in its largest sense is essentially moral) always presupposes knowledge, to which feeling is added to motivate action or give rise to desire. In strictly artistic taste, sentiment, preceded by a knowledge of the qualities of an object, "tells us if the la belle Nature is well or poorly imitated" (Batteux [1746] 1969).

We can see to what extent ethics and aesthetics are intertwined: On the one hand, la belle nature that art imitates conforms to principles of taste to move individuals (in other words, it is directly connected with our general moral interests as human beings). On the other hand, it conforms to our cognitive nature, providing our minds with an exercise and movement that widens our sphere of ideas. Batteux considers the spectacle of human actions and human passions to be the primary subject of la belle nature represented, or rather engendered, by art. The ideal of artistic imitation associates the good (which corresponds with our universal moral interests), the beautiful (which satisfies our cognitive expectations of variety, uniformity, and novelty in the artistic representation), and the perfection of formal aspects of the work itself.

See also Aesthetics, History of; Aristotelianism; Art, Representation in; Pleasure.


works by batteux

Les beaux-arts réduits à un même principe (1746). Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1969.

Principes de la littérature (5th ed., 1774). Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1967.

work on batteux

Saint-Girons, Baldine. Esthétiques du 18e siècle: Le modèle français. Paris: Philippe Sers, 1990.

Daniel Dumouchel (2005)