In 1730 a small booklet entitled Regléments de la Societé des Arts announced to the learned world the constitution of the Societé des Arts, a Parisian assembly of artisans and savants that would soon grow to over a hundred members. The aim of the Societé was to bring together people with different kinds of expertise: those who practiced the arts and those whose knowledge could bring the arts to perfection. The perfecting of the arts that flourished in Paris was indeed the main goal of the Societé. Recruiting the best among the artisans the city had to offer, the Societé intended to work on a number of projects that ranged from mathematical instrument making to textile manufacturing, from the art of making glass for optical instruments to animal economy.
My project (conducted in collaboration with Olivier Courcelle) focuses on the Parisian Societé des Arts’ program - the perfecting of the arts - and its significance in the context of Paris urban culture and of French mercantilist economy. What did it mean to perfect the arts? What kind of resources, both cultural and material, did the members of the Societé des Arts mobilize in order to achieve this goal? Whereas the short life of the Societé had been previously understood as evidence of its weakness with respect to the more powerful Académie des Sciences, I argue that several of its members continued to carry out the Societé’s program even after its dissolution, whether at the Académie – if they became academicians – or in other contexts. In my analysis, the Societé des Arts is not presented as the Académie des Sciences’s competitor, but rather as a key moment in which craft knowledge and the sciences collaborated in the formulation of a normative program for the arts that would exert influence on the political economy of the Bureau of Commerce, as well as on a number of cultural activities promoted by members of the Académie des Sciences.