Who Needs Artists? Pt II – Fragmented Tastes for Fragmenting Communities

Goya's reaction to Napoleon

Who Needs Artists? Pt II – Fragmented Tastes for Fragmenting Communities

Relative to the long history of art (see my post Who Needs Artists? Pt I),  Renaissance (Rebirth) art is ‘modern’. It started in the mid 1400s, with the discovery of ancient literature, and the use of printing to spread it, and it lasted together with scientific developments, through the 16th and 17th centuries. This allowed the French monarchy (especially Louis XIII and his son Louis XIV) at Versailles, and the Catholic church they supported, to create an authoritative, dogmatic academic society, which lasted until about 1800 (when the revolutions had already begun). Needless  to say, dictators might have thought their personal views determined the laws that define right and the good. Louis XIV claimed “I am the state” – L’etat, c’est moi. You know what happened to him! These conservatives were glad the ignorance and emotional irrationality of what they derisively called “The Dark (or Middle) Ages” were at last put away.

But another part of that society believed the artistic styles and principles of Ancient Greece and Rome, which had ‘stood the test of time’, were the best models for modern art. Renaissance for them meant the ‘rebirth’ of ancient classical thought and values – especially from Rome and Greece. Paradoxically, a famous Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns began among literary people, that pitted the Moderns (who were conservative) against the Ancients (who were progressive). As the article above points out, this ‘literary’ quarrel hid a more serious socio-political divide which was going on.

The Academic quarrel ended around 1800, but the opposition of old and new continues, with different styles, themes and techniques of artistic expression. This post is an effort to put some of that evolution into critical historical perspective, and see if we can judge whether the arts of our culture – the 21st Century in the Western World – are progressing. (Spoiler: I don’t think so.)

Academic art is modern

The first art school was the Academy of Art, in Florence, founded by Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) – Italian painter, architect and art historian a generation after Leonardo daVinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti. His patron – the Grand Duke Cosimo I – was from the Medici family who ruled Florence and Tuscany for three centuries, beginning  about twenty years  before daVinci was born. The title of this 1565 painting – The Apotheosis of Cosimo I – shows what exaggerated honor Vasari  wanted to pay his patron. The Greek word Apotheosis means glorifying or raising someone to the divine level. Apo means ‘from’; Theos means ‘god’.

In the centuries since the Renaissance, art works have become less and less formal (less “classical”), but they continue to express artists’ intentions. Intentions, however, have changed greatly. In the early stages, they represented societal norms, judged by political or religious powers. But the norms evolved (or devolved) toward less authority and more self-expression. That could take the form of rebelling against a ruler’s control of arts (as with Beethoven in 19th C. Austria and Shostakovitch in 20th C. Soviet Union; or resistence against Academy standards (as with Courbet). It might be the artist’s judging what is real and what is fantastic (e.g. Gabriel Marquez’s and Laura Esquivel’s Magical Realism). It might express the tastes of the artist’s community over those of other communities. It might simply express the artist’s personal feelings and thoughts, without concern for the likes or dislikes or beliefs of others. And lastly, there is the view that art can’t be defined, so it can’t be called good or bad .  

In 1927 – three and a half centuries after Vasari’s Apotheosis, Henri Magritte produced this work  titled “Double Secret”. It is painted, although it displays almost photographic realism. Yet it’s beyond real – it’s ‘surrealistic’ – as it  contradicts our sense of the possible. It also lets the viewer share the artist’s awareness of Freud – very influential at this time – who claimed that our ‘subconscious self’ affects how we ‘see’. Finally, it reminds us that we all ‘put on a face’ to hide behind. No one could call this  art work ‘classical’.

Control in Southern Europe

The lives of two Spanish painters – Diego Velazquez (1599-1660) and Francisco Goya (1746-1828) – span a century and a half of developments begun by Italian masters da Vinci and Michelangelo. They show what levels of creativity can be reached, despite a climate of war and limits imposed by State and Church in their time. I can’t emphasize enough how much war there was in Europe – on sea and land – in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Velazquez and Goya came from middle-class families who encouraged their creativity. They had excellent training, in art school, travel experience, and practice at multiple genres common to their time – e.g. portraits (including church dignitaries), mythologic characters, saints, domestic activity, street scenes, landscapes, battle action (imagined), and equestian portraits of rulers.  Both men were appointed as court painters. Whereas royal politics determined much of the living conditions of these two and other artists and their subjects, Catholic doctrine determined what creative reactions were acceptable.

Valazquez’ art is marked by Baroque love of opposites, light and dark chiaroscuro (to give depth), romantic emotions, and impressionistic atmospheric landscape settings. He lived under 3 rulers, all from the House of Bourbon. Here is his Venus at her Mirror (c.1651), which demurely protects her nudity. Compare this to Goya’s brazen Maja depicted later.

Here is one of Velazquez ‘street scenes’, from his time in Seville, titled The Water Seller (c.1622), but it’s not in the street. It has the chiaroscuro depth (from light and shade), but the setting isn’t clear –  somewhere out of the open sun. From a northern climate,  I forget the sun can be painful. I also should remember that a painting has to be posed. Is this piece ‘realistic’ or a ‘romantic’ interpretion? It suggests the mood and feelings of the customers and especially the poor seller. Does it depict a common scene? If we can analyze the theme – what the artist is trying to ‘say’ – we can judge the artist’s intentions better. That in turn asks us to know the setting, or context. Context literally means ‘with the text’ – i.e. what goes along with something written or spoken. Linguists distinguish denotation (the literal meaning) from connotation (what is associated by habit with the words – e.g. who speaks them, social status, occasion for the expression, facial gestures, vocal tone, etc.) This division isn’t clear and distinct thoug. It’s especially unclear in paintings, which aren’t a verbal text; yet they do ‘say’ something, which has connotations. What is said is different from how it’s said. Even a photograph is not free of connotation or interpreted meaning – especially with today’s technology and computerized ‘enhancements’. ‘The Facts’ are altered by the mere choice to take (or not take) this picture, with its environment, composition, focus, ‘angle’, subject, etc. All these ‘relativistic’ thoughts make it hard for me to claim there is a truth involved in art work. But I still think so, and it helps me justify the belief that great art  can teach us something universal, if we listen. 

In contrast to Velazquez, Goya lived under 8 rulers, and 4 changes of House – Habsburg, Bourbon, Bonaparte & Bourbon again! He shared his predecessor’s interest in ordinary people, who have little control over their private or public lives, and little knowledge of reality. He too had a court appointment that allowed him a good income, if he avoided offending the authorities. With time, however, his view of others seems to grow less sympathetic. In 1799 he published an 80-page volume of aquatinted sketchings, shown in this Wikipedia gallery titled Caprichos (caprices) – each with a brief comment. They show disgust at the foibles, corruption, ignorance and superstitions of people in his society, whatever their status. And by extension, all human kind. One of these caprices is titled “The Sleep of reason produces monsters.” Monsters have long been a common theme of romanticism,  but mourning the loss of reason is not romantic. It’s realistic.

The following year Goya’s Naked Maja (Maja desnuda – c.1800) was commissioned by a government officer for a private collection, and so was hidden from the authorities. It had a clothed version as a companion piece. The former went considerably farther toward realism, and towards offending official tastes than his earlier work. The model is obviously a ‘lower class’ woman as shown in her direct ‘come-hither’ gaze, and her exposed pubic hair – something the idealized portrayal of a nude would not allow. It was the first life-size painting of a nude woman in Western art. 

Goya’s Third of May 1808 shows Napoleon’s Imperial Guard (Mamalukes) in turbans executing citizens who had been arrested the night before for protesting the French rule Napoleon had forced on Spain. The painting was authorized by the provisional Spanish government, seven years after the event, to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon’s by a coalition of forces from the U.K., Portugal and Spain. A contemporary critic has said the work looks like a war correspondent’s memory, but it’s not known whether Goya witnessed either scene. There’s no idealism here; just violence, fear, and resistence. 

Goya’s late period produced increasingly bleak depictions of what was happening around and within himself. Hearing loss, an undiagnosed illness and the horrors of war turned his late work very dark – his ‘black period’. (In my view, chaotic environments and disordered minds are often linked.) His last works show these issues in a variety of forms – many of which are fantasy horrors that he painted in private on the walls of his house. Apparently he did not intend them ever to be seen in public. One the most striking of these is Saturn devouring his son (c.1823).






Bourgeois Art                    

In the mid 1800s, artists began to reject community norms imposed by state and religious authorities, largely due to social consequences of the Industrial Revolution in northern Europe. The values and tastes of middleclass businessmen – disparagingly called bourgeois by their critics who saw them as materialistic and conventional – replaced the themes of classic art schools. The mood shifted from idealism to realism, with little evidence of spirituality, though religious activity was displayed as part of daily life.

Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) is one of the best known naturalist/ realist painters of modern times. His work and influence developed while the three Napoleons were alive, with all the politics, war and social disruption that involved, discussed above. He lived to see Nopoleonic France overthrown by Prussia in 1870. His travels to Holland reinforced his love of independence. It also strengthened his belief in the importance of landscapes in art, and his love for the landscape of Ornans, where he was born and raised  by a liberal, successful farm family. 

From age 14 to his death Courbet’s commitment to revolutionary changes, in art and society, was unstopped, despite many personal and political struggles. After gaining a following, a style and a wealthy patron, he expressed his intention to paint ‘only what he saw’ – much of which was the hardship of everyday life for ordinary people. He rejected the idealized emotions of Romantics.

This 1849 depiction below of a burial at Ornans broke several conventions. It’s very large (life size) – something reserved for reverent and royal works. Also, it makes no effort to romanticize or spiritualize the mood. It’s simply a scene that ordinary people often experience.

This equally large painting, Rencontre (The Meeting – 1854) is styled after an old Christian legend about a Wandering Jew who was cursed for insulting Jesus. In reality it depicts Courbet meeting his patron Alfred Bruyas, and Bruyas’ servant on the road to Montpellier (where Bruyas lived). Critics ridiculed it with the title Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet. Clearly Courbet was not shy about promoting his own image.



A shocking rejection of religious idealism is Courbet’s 1866 L’Origine du Monde  (The Origin of the World), now kept at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. The piece can still provoke scandal. In 2010 Facebook took down the page of an art critic for showing it, but lost the resulting law suit in 2018 (without paying damages). Our era of smart phones offers plenty of space for viewers who seek ‘explicit’ artistic productions – often for cheap thrills, sarcastic  comments and crude take-offs; but also for serious artists like this one whose effect on art history is not likely to disappear.  

Bohemian art

In poor neighborhoods of major cities – e.g., the popular Left Bank (La Rive Gauche) of Paris – the rejection of business leaders’ tastes went even farther. Groups of anti-establishment Bohemians came together. They chose to live for love and life among their friends, totally rejecting any connection with mainstream aesthetics. This life was portrayed movingly by Giacomo Puccini, in his 1895 opera La Boheme – a favorite in my family. But let’s remember that if Puccini hadn’t made a good living writing operas, none of  us would know about and love him. More telling, if we saw through a less romantic lens, few Americans today would want that life for their reality.

This brings up the modern idea that there is no such thing as good or bad art. I had the good luck to take a humanities course at Penn State which centered on E. H. Gombrich’s 1950 book – The Story of Art – showing art history as ‘a narrative moving from what ancient artists “knew” to what later artists “saw”‘. The book’s first line reads “There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists”. We’ll return to this idea in the next blog, on Modernism.


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