Everyone knows that the arts developed in a system of patronage. This is important because the patrons were the educated as well as the moneyed class, and the values of society were largely their values. In contrast, the subterranean life of the peasants probably evolved very little in a thousand years.
Although the artists were likely to be craftsmen from the intermediate ranks of society, the culture that they shared and contributed to was given its direction by the upper classes, or at least by the aristocratic tradition to which the nouveau riche deferred. For better or worse, this was a system of checks and balances that tied the arts to the society that produced them.
All of the arts were founded on craftsmanship, and both the artists’ skill and the quality of materials were greatly esteemed. In the Renaissance, manuals were written by mature artists to help others on the way. There is, for example, Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassus, which teaches musicians how to write counterpoint, Alberti’s On Painting, which codifies the artistic practice of his time, and Dante’s De Vulgare Eloquentia, which defends the common language as the vehicle for literature and establishes rules for lyrics and eclogues. Criticism and theory didn’t exist except insofar as they dealt with the relationship of the arts to society and the individual citizens, a long tradition that goes back at least as far as Horace. Such commentary is a kind of conservative defense of the artistic status quo: Art is good because it is ennobling, instructive, and beautiful.
With the rise of newspapers and magazines serving the interests of a middle-class, we get the birth of the critic in a more recognizable form, and a class of reviewers arose that prided itself on its ability to make and break reputations. Acid and opinionated, they attacked writers such as Byron, who responded with English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. In the visual arts, they attacked and defended the loosely associated group of painters who were unhappy with the official art of the government-sponsored Salon—those to whom they gave the entirely misleading name, “Impressionists.”
And now theory begins to creep into criticism, explicitly through the writings of Seurat’s disciple, Signac. Perhaps unwittingly, Signac misrepresented the history of Impressionism and created the myth that its development was motivated by theories of color based on scientific fact. This is new ground, far removed from debates about craftsmanship and beauty, or about “good” painting and “bad.”
The resulting history can be characterized in two different ways. One view sees it as a progress of meaningful ideas, the true history of art. The other sees it as a bizarre aberration, the derailing of art history by a newly evolving class of critics and theorists. The Nabis and the Fauves stressed subjective response. The Symbolists stressed the role of symbol and suggestion. The Cubists claimed to represent a higher reality by showing the subject fractured to represent different viewpoints combined into one image–or so we are told by the critics. Surrealists claimed to show the work of the unconscious. Expressionists emphasized the role of “inner necessity” in producing an emotional response. And so it has continued—an endless proliferation of “isms.”
There is something very odd about this. Let us suppose that Cubism represented a new truth—that there was something to it. Wouldn’t we expect to find it widely practiced today? Why does it look so horribly dated? The same thing can be said of Futurism and the other movements. Are we to believe that art has a history of progress—that the most recent art is somehow better than that of the past? To go one step further, if there was no validity in the theory, if no new reality was being shown us, why don’t these movements drop into well-deserved obscurity? To answer these questions, we need to look at the roles played by collectors, museums, and the academic critics.
The early collectors were the patrons, and they surrounded themselves with things they thought to be both beautiful and meaningful. The history of art was one of changing fashions, of the growth of new techniques and new viewpoints, but it wasn’t a history of revolutions, and the past was always prized. The revolution of the Impressionists was actually a revolt against state control of the art establishment; it wasn’t really an “ism” since no particular style of painting characterized the Impressionist exhibits. But with the rise of the “new painting” and more particularly with the growth of a large and prosperous middle class, we find that works which were felt to be of little value in one decade became highly desirable in another. This created a new kind of collector who saw art as an investment. The rise of each “ism” was viewed in somewhat the same way an investor would view the development of a new industry. With any luck, a purchase made today would be worth ten, twenty, or even a hundred times as much in a few years. Paintings were growth stocks, risky but lucrative.
Art museums are like collectors. They, too, sort through the emerging trends trying to identify those that might emerge as major movements, and they, too, jump on the bandwagon when they think that they see one developing. As a result, their collections include works of op art, pop art, kinetic art, minimalist art, and all the rest. With museum support, the trends flourish for a while, and millions of dollars are spent to build the museum collections, which the curators are then committed to touting and defending forever. After all, can any museum afford to devalue its collection by deciding that pop art, for example, is trivial (as it surely is), a dead end that lacks the power to move a sensitive and intelligent viewer except, perhaps, to scorn?
Museums are protected against any such embarrassment by the development of a new academic class, the theorists—the critics in a new guise. Like their newspaper cousins, these are people of words, and they elaborate and shuffle ideas for their livelihood. They tell us what it all means, and what they say is a kind of vacuous philosophizing, talk of flatness, or linearity, or abstraction from the corporeal, or challenging our convictions, or man and nature or . . . .
The Pre-Raphaelite painter, Holman Hunt, once said that the greatest compliment to a work of art would be for a viewer to stand before it and say, “Oh!” Nothing more. If this were widely accepted, the critics would be out of work, and they need the “isms” to provide them with the endless opportunities to elaborate and shuffle upon which they depend.
Thus, critics, theorists, collectors, and curators have derailed art history. Together, they have taken it upon themselves to define for us what is meaningful, but in an arbitrary way that is divorced from the roots of art itself. Craftsmanship, for example. How can one recognize craftsmanship in the work of an artist who simply places a crucifix in a jar of urine? Appreciation, for example. Where are the roots in our living experience which allows us to respond to such a work? It is little wonder that most people are alienated from art—except for the cute, the decorative, and the nostalgic.
Note Many artists fretted at the narrow views of those who accepted paintings for the Salon, and these included Degas and Manet. Showings were arranged by different groups of “refusés,” those refused by the Salon, and one such group’s showing included a painting by Monet titled, “Impression, Sunrise.” The reviewers were scathing, and one referred to the exhibition as being an “Impressionist” exhibit, and the name stuck. But the style of painting involving taches (dribs) of paint—which became Monet’s style—was not the style of most of the members of the group. Renoir, who may have invented it, stopped painting in that manner. He recognized the fact that it destroyed form, and went to Italy to study drawing. (To rid oneself of the notion that Impressionists all painted in taches, one need only look at the work of the Impressionist, Gustave Caillebotte. The name, "Impressionist," is very misleading.) Vacuous art-critical talk abounds wherever critics, theorists, collectors, and curators have their say, and they sound like inept psychoanalysts. Let me give one quick example. In Edward Hopper, Rolf Günter Renner discusses the painting, New York, New Haven and Hartford (1931). This shows a house and a barn seen on a slight rise beyond a railroad track. He says: "Hopper destabilizes perspective and introduces movement within the same work. Although the track in the foreground is almost parallel to the bottom edge of the painting, and although we are looking full on at the houses (at what is nearly a right angle), we still cannot determine the direction of movement from which this landscape segment has been registered. In this fleeting glimpse, Nature and Civilization have been conflated." What does it mean to say that a landscape segment is “registered” from a “direction of movement”? This painting, like most of Hopper’s, is characterized by its stillness. Moreover, there is nothing at all destabilized about the perspective (whatever that can mean). The painter’s eye—for the purposes of perspective—is at the right margin, and this is easily seen to be so by projecting lines from the railroad ties, eaves of the house and barn, etc. to the vanishing point. This is an unusual point of view for a painting, but nothing more. For Renner, the railroad track is supposed to represent civilization, the hillside is supposed to represent nature (we must ignore the house and barn), and the fancied instability of the perspective and uncertainty about the “direction of movement” is supposed to bring about the conflation of the two. Nonsense.