The grouping together of poetry, music and the visual arts into a system of fine arts for contemplation and study occurred for the first time in the eighteenth century. Treatises written in England, France and Germany sought common principles for the comparative analysis of the fine arts, culminating in the constitution of a separate subdiscipline within the discipline of philosophy. Charles Batteux’s The Fine Arts Reduced to a Common Principle (1746), for example, grouped together music, poetry, painting, sculpture and dance as ‘fine arts’, arguing that their shared end is pleasure. Moses Mendelssohn in Reflections
on the Sources and Relations of the Fine Arts and Letters (1757) translated Batteux’s categorisation into a German idiom, agreeing that the unity of the fine arts is grounded in their capacity to move their audiences: ‘Poetry, eloquence, beauty in shapes and in sounds penetrate through the various senses to our souls and rule over our dispositions. They can make us happy or depressed at will’ (quoted in Martha Woodmansee, The Author, Art, and the Market: Rereading the History of Aesthetics, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, p. 14). In the specific case of literature, this instrumentalist theory tying the fine arts directly to pleasure came under pressure in the second half of the century as the number of readers increased and the appetite for sensationalist books grew. With serious authors like Goethe failing to compete in the marketplace with more popular writers, an alternative theory of the fine arts and poetry/literature was outlined by Karl Philipp Moritz in Toward a Unification of All the Fine Arts and Letters under the Concept of Self-sufficiency (1785). Rejecting Mendelssohn’s theory that the value of the work of art derives from its capacity to give pleasure to the public, Moritz argued that works of art (including works of literature) should be self-sufficient totalities to be contemplated exclusively for their own sakes, independent of external relationships or effects. According to Moritz, ‘men of taste’ would value such superior works, whereas ‘the rabble’ would continue to seek ‘diversion’ and ‘pleasant sensations’ in popular works (quoted in Woodmansee, The Author, Art, and the Market, p. 20). Cultural historian Martha Woodmansee summarises the shift:
Moritz’s theory – reinforced and cemented as the German theoretical defence of high culture or Kultur – soon became the dominant theory of art/literature in the nineteenth century, and was a necessary condition for the study of literature as a discrete discipline.