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October 08, 2004

Renaissance and Religion

Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards,

I keep wondering why art history generally tends to be such bad history. Or, maybe a better way to put it would be to ask why art history tends to be so resolutely a-historical, as though art were produced in a sort of social and economic vacuum. One has to wonder if this isn’t a result of the “museum” effect, where our encounter with the art of the past occurs in a carefully stripped down, antiseptic, context-less context. Which is, of course, inherently a falsification: whatever purposes the art of the past was intended to fulfill by its makers or consumers, sitting in pristine purity on the wall of an art museum wasn’t one of them.

Pondering this question, I took one of the art books that litter my shelves at home down and looked at the way it was organized—which is by grouping artists roughly into two “stylistic” categories and into fairly artificial “generations” (only three generations are identified for a period of longer than 100 years.) Scratching my head, I then actually read the introduction to see why the author had chosen to organize the book this way. The book I was looking at, by the way, is “Italian Renaissance Painting” written by James H. Beck, who is (or at least was in 1999) a professor of art history at Columbia University and a specialist in Renaissance Art. (BTW, I would actually recommend the book—for the color reproductions anyway.)

Bingo, the good professor actually discusses this point:

Iconography—that is, the subject matter and meaning of paintings—and the cultural conditions that help explain the works of art and their patronage are of great interest. Such investigations share ground with cultural history and the history of ideas and are fundamental to an understanding of the period. But an approach of this kind is less useful for establishing a broad stylistic framework in which the art may be studied. [emphasis added]

Okay, it’s his book and he can organize it any way he wants, but I’m still puzzled as to exactly what we’re supposed to learn from the professor’s approach to “studying” art? How to fit Renaissance paintings into Professor Beck’s stylistic framework? “Oh, yeah, now I get it—that Botticelli altarpiece fits into the second-generation lyric current of Renaissance painting. Wow, that rocks, dude!” Apparently the goal of studying art history at Columbia is solely to polish up one’s aesthetic discrimination to the point where one could aspire to being a professor of art history at Columbia.

Well, shortly thereafter I ran across a book deep in the stacks of the UCLA graduate library that took a refreshingly different approach. It’s called “Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy 1300 to 1600” by Richard A. Goldthwaite, an economic historian.

Mr. Goldthwaite takes the position that art is a product designed to fill a need in society. In other words, if nobody will pay for it, art—which is quite labor-and-materials intensive—doesn’t get made. He then asks a fairly obvious question: ignoring the no-doubt-great need of Italian artists during the Renaissance for self-expression, why was so much art consumed in Italy during this period? What was going on in medieval Italy that created such a historically unprecedented demand for art objects—enough to fill museum after museum around the world even after the inevitable losses of the intervening centuries?

His answer to this question lies in the uniqueness of medieval Italian society and in the specific dynamics this uniqueness created in the Italian Catholic church. (Although Mr. Goldthwaite discusses the secular consumption of art during this period as well, he focuses primarily on the religiously-motivated demand for art in this era. To test whether Mr. Goldthwaite was right in assuming that religious demand drove the art market during the Renaissance, I did a little statistical study of the works of art reproduced in Professor Beck’s book. According to my count of works produced prior to 1500, over 80% of those reproduced had religious subject matter. I think Mr. Goldthwaite knows what he’s talking about.)

What made medieval Italy—particularly the northern and central (Tuscan) regions of Italy—so unique? Several factors: these regions were the center for European trade and finance. They were also major centers for cloth and other early manufacturing. And finally, they were by far the most urbanized part of Europe. In the 1340s, eleven cities in Italy had populations greater than 40,000; only eight or nine such cities existed in the rest of Europe. The areas of the Po Valley and Tuscany alone had as many cities of over 20,000 inhabitants as did France, the Low Countries, and England combined. Granted, the Black Death and the subsequent plagues of the later 1300s seriously depopulated Italian cities; moreover, during the 1400s the rest of Europe gradually became more urbanized. Still, even as late as 1500 the Italian peninsula had three times the percentage of people living in cities as did France and four times the percentage of people living in cities as did Germany or England.

Medieval northern and central Italy was also politically fragmented into self-governing city-states (known as communes). After 1100, the communes increasingly saw themselves as practically (if not legally) independent political units. Such cities grew very rapidly and in a relatively chaotic fashion, leading to not only to great wealth but also the usual urban miseries.

By an obvious corollary, the position of the great feudal aristocracy in central and northern Italy was weak, and when the supreme feudal overlords (the Holy Roman Emperors) attempted to enforce their authority in the 1100s and 1200s, they were strongly resisted by both the papacy and the communes. Indeed, after mid-thirteenth century, the Imperial presence virtually evaporated for 250 years, leaving a high-level political vacuum that the insurgent city-states were happy to fill.

By a similar dynamic, the Italian Catholic church was also a decentralized institution. Unlike the churches in many other European countries (which during the Medieval era came increasingly under ‘royal’ political control), Italy’s church wasn’t subject to any large degree of central authority until the Counter Reformation of the later 1500s. The fact that the Pope was a regional ruler as well as the head of the Church actually worked against the development of a monolithic ‘national’ Italian church. Moreover, because of the strength of the communes and the weakness of feudalism, the integration of the Church with the aristocratic rural landowning system so characteristic of Northern Europe was much less pronounced in Italy. This made the Italian church correspondingly more responsive to the initiatives and desires of the lower orders, many of whom used careers in the church to get ahead. It also heightened the need of the Italian church to co-opt lay initiatives (generally urban in origin) in order to control the obvious risk of heresy and schism, given that the church couldn’t rely on ‘royal’ authority to coerce religious uniformity.

All of these modern aspects of life in central and northern Italy—urbanization, commercialization, political and religious decentralization, political dominance by the middle-class as opposed to an aristocratic elite—led to a religious ‘explosion.’ The medieval Italian church was forced to grow hugely and change fairly radically to respond to the new religious needs of its members. Mr. Goldthwaite describes these needs:

In the thirteenth century…the pressure on the church from the mounting population concentrations in Italian cities was compounded by new kinds of…problems[:]…uprootedness…precariousness, and violence attendant on the uncontrolled and rapid urban growth that outpaced the development of appropriate political institutions…Heretical and confraternal movements, new devotional cults, and more extreme kinds of religious experiences were the characteristic and spontaneous expressions in the spiritual world of this developing urban society…

Professor Goldthwaite repeatedly emphasizes that to a large extent the pressure for new religious expression in medieval Italy seems to have come from the urban laity, rather than descending from the clergy or the church hierarchy. To wit:

Lay and heretical movements in the cities 1100s forced the Church to form a whole new class of priests, the mendicants (e.g., the Franciscans and Dominicans) in the early 1200s, who were intended to focus on serving the urban masses. The houses of these orders continued to expand in cities in large numbers throughout the late medieval and Renaissance eras. Likewise, traditional monastic orders (which had mostly been established in rural areas as a result of aristocratic donations of land) were increasingly drawn to found new establishments, or houses, in the suburban zone around cities. Also, there was a massive wave of formations of urban lay religious organizations, known as confraternities, dedicated to charity and serving as burial societies for their members. In Florence, 51 confraternities were founded in the 1300s and 87 more in the 1400s. Somewhat later, in the late 1300s and 1400s, a wave of reform in the mendicant houses (driven by the desire of mendicant priests to return to the purity of the founders’ doctrines) led to a new round of house formations. This reform movement, which for example doubled the number of Franciscan houses in Italy, was lavishly supported by new middle-class urban elites as a way of demonstrating their religious credentials.

The upshot was a great increase in sheer volume of Italian urban religious institutions (both clerical and lay), and an increase that continued throughout the medieval, Renaissance and Counter-Reformation. For example, in 1316 Italy had 567 Franciscan friaries alone, as compared to 247 in France and 203 in Germany. Italy also possessed more than twice as many nunneries as both of those countries combined. And this increase in Italian urban religious institutions wasn’t eroded over time, but rather, increased as the result of the reform movements in the mendicant orders. In 1500, Italy possessed 600 Observant (i.e., reform) Franciscan houses, while France had 100, England 6, Scotland 9, and Holland 16. Altogether, Italy had some 1200 Franciscan houses in 1500—not counting the houses of any other order, which Italy possessed a staggering number. This was 50% more than the total number of monasteries, friaries and nunneries—of all orders—in the whole of England.

Focusing on the city most central to the Renaissance, Florence, we see that in 1340, the city had some 126 institutions that could be called a church, including about 50 parish churches. Despite an almost 50% decline in the population as a result of the Black Death and other plagues during the second half of the 1300s, the physical plant of the Florentine church continued to grow. Over the next 300 years 75 older churches were rebuilt and 65 new churches constructed. This wasn’t in response to massive population growth, either; by 1650 the Florentine population had only regained three-quarters of level it had reached in 1340. In 1427 there were 29 monasteries and 48 convents in or just outside Florence. In comparison, nearly a hundred years later, Nuremberg (a city roughly one third the size of Florence) had only four churches, two convents and eight monasteries. Fifty years later still, Lyons (the third largest city in France, and larger than Florence) still had only 12 churches and 9 monasteries. (Hey, in which city would you have wanted to try to find work as an artist?)

Even in what might seem the rarified area of theological doctrines there seems to have been changes to accommodate the religious enthusiasms of the Italian urban laity. For example, the doctrine of purgatory (where the relatively virtuous dead could expiate their sins via temporary torments) became popular in the 1200s. As a consequence, a number of practices became widespread, including commemorative masses for the dead (to shorten their time in purgatory), indulgences (cash payments to accomplish the same end), and the cult of saints (as intercessors with God on behalf of souls in purgatory).

The concept that people could ‘work their way into heaven’ and that this process could be made easier by the related practices of commemorative masses, indulgences and the appeals to intercessor saints was obviously religiously empowering to urban Italians—suggesting action that ordinary people could use to help control their own religious destiny and that of their deceased relatives. (The similarities between this doctrine and the life experiences of the urban population, which had often run away from the restraints of the more feudal countryside to the freedom of the city, seem self-evident to me.)

Likewise, this same spirit of religious self-help motivated the greatly increased interest in relics (often, body parts) of saints, which flooded into Italy in the 1200s after the sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade. (The crafting of exquisite reliquaries to store such relics was a huge boost to the Italian goldsmith’s art, which of course was the school of vast numbers of Italian Renaissance artists.) Likewise, it was the importation of Byzantine icons—some of which were represented as ‘authoritative’ representations of Jesus, Mary and other early Christian figures (copied from originals painted from life by St. Luke, Nicodemus and other holy men) which began to invest altarpieces with the possibility of being able to ‘mediate grace.’ Finally, the use of the ancient art of fresco painting was revved into high gear by its use in mendicant—chiefly Franciscan and Dominican—churches to involve worshippers more intensely in their urban preaching mission.

All this leads me to wonder if the distinctive, even revolutionary qualities of the art of the Renaissance may have been less a function of, say, the revival of antiquity (or of the conquest of illusionism or the rediscovery of the individual, etc., etc.) and more a function of the urban religious explosion that occurred in Italy between 1100 and 1650. (I haven’t had room in this posting to get into post-Renaissance art, but Mr. Goldthwaite is quite persuasive that the Counter-Reformation, during which virtually every church and chapel in Italy got a complete makeover, constituted the very crescendo of a multi-century long boom of investment in religious goods, including art.)

I must also remark, that I find it both interesting and strangely unsettling to consider Renaissance art not from the standpoint of aesthetics. It’s somewhat humbling as an artist myself to realize that to the Italian Catholic church, the main consumer of Renaissance art, that even the greatest paintings were essentially, er, just part of the furniture, at best a useful backdrop for the main event.

Hmmm, maybe Mr. Goldthwaite would be willing to license out a chapter of his book that could be used as a preface for guys like Professor Beck. It would certainly add a good deal of substance to purely ‘aesthetic’ accounts of Renaissance art.



posted by Friedrich at October 8, 2004


Wow... great entry. And I appreciate all the background info - you are kind to those of us with little knowledge going in.

Posted by: Ethan Herdrick on October 8, 2004 9:14 PM

I thought one of the reasons for the high demand for art in Italy at the time was that comissioning a devotational painting was seen as a tithe, a Good Deed that helped you up the ladder...and many of these paintings where orders then never displayed. I remember an anedote about a werehouse of unlooked art comissoned by a nervous merchant. But I think its all hearsay and can't remember where the info came from.....

Posted by: JL on October 8, 2004 11:10 PM

Goldthwaite's kind of approach reminds me of the people who emphasize that Shakespeare was a hack playwright, John Donne had a weekly sermon to deliver, and Dickens spent time in the workhouse. Knowing these things does not add one whit to the value of the writing they produced.
The "aesthetic" approach to art need not be ahistorical: my art prof, James Snyder (a medieval Netherlandish expert), had a theory that in the use of the line (as in drawing) lay the whole structure and timeline of civilization. That is, with every work of art you could largely tell what time period you were in just from the use of the line.
Icons are supposed to be used prayerfully as intermediaries between God and man. That's "historical." But if there were a canny icon painter who privately said "God, schmod!" and painted for personal profit, that doesn't make the finished product any less valuable as a work of art.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on October 8, 2004 11:29 PM

Dear Ms. Skattebol:

I think I appreciate aesthetics as much as the next art buff, and maybe more. I just think that approaches to art history that dismiss or shove the social context of art into the background drain away a huge amount of the ability of visual art to communicate. I mean, the contemporaries of Giotto or Donatello or Raphael "got" all sorts of meanings about their work because they were experts on the context, being up to their necks in it every day. Do you think that made them value the art less? Moreover, I suspect that some of what I find a thinness in meaning in much contemporary art probably derives from the fact that its purpose really is to sit in pristine solitude on the white wall of a gallery or a museum. I would venture that art produced to be a comprehensible part of just about any religious ceremony would probably have considerably greater human density and seriousness than much current-day art-for-art's-sake-style art. I also usually find obvious contradictions in much of the catch-phrases and cliches used to describe art movements like the Italian Renaissance once I know and think a bit more about the period in question, and as I dislike being flim-flammed I enjoy developing a more realistic view of what was really going on. But maybe that's just me, and ignorance really is bliss. Thanks for stopping by.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 9, 2004 12:04 AM

"Icons are supposed to be used prayerfully as intermediaries between God and man. That's "historical." But if there were a canny icon painter who privately said "God, schmod!" and painted for personal profit, that doesn't make the finished product any less valuable as a work of art."

While not strictly wrong, per se, I think the line of thought that creates a dichotomy between the aesthetics and religious function of, say, icons is ill conceived. Consider what Bishop Ware wrote in "The Orthodox Church:"

"The icons which fill the church serve as a point of meeting between heaven and earth. As each local congregation prays Sunday by Sunday, surrounded by the figures of Christ, the andgels, and the saints, these visible images remind the faithful inceasingly of the invisible presence of the whole company of heaven at the Liturgy. The faithful can feel that the walls of the church open out upon eternity, and they are helped to realize that their Liturgy on earth is one and the same with the great Liturgy of heaven. The multitudinous icons express visibly the sense of 'heaven on earth.'"

Contra Fredrich, I do not think that the "standpoint of aesthetics" is exclusive of historical - and especially religious - considerations. To understand its religious and historical significance is to bring to the art a higher level of aesthetic regard.

(Disclaimer: I realize that the post concerned the Roman faith, and I brought an example from the eastern faith, but I think the same still applies.)

Posted by: Sweeney on October 9, 2004 12:14 AM

Lucky fellows, you hit upon someone who's
not only a former Orthodox, but worked for a
colleague of Professor Beck!

I think that if you have to know anything about
the context in which art was created for it to
communicate, then it is not art. True art is
universal, and transcends its time and place
of origin. That's why Lewis Thomas (and
Bill Buckley) wanted Bach to be beamed into
space in a time capsule representing the best
in human achievement. Surely members of a
civilization on another planet could not be
expected to know the "context" in which that
music was created.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on October 9, 2004 2:00 AM

Wow, "winifer skattebol." So who decides what's universal? And, if no one decides, is anything universal? We're certainly never going to get a universal consensus on art, not even a consensus that art is universal. I'd hold out just for spite even if every living being in the universe other than me were in consensus.

Posted by: . on October 9, 2004 2:34 AM

I believe Lisa Jardine covered similar ground in her Renaissance history, "Worldly Goods".

Posted by: Michael Serafin on October 9, 2004 10:51 AM

I think that if you have to know anything about the context in which art was created for it to communicate, then it is not art.

Really. I'd be interested to hear you explain palaeolithic cave paintings--art made in a context no living person understands--and say anything beyond fairly vapid cliches. In fact, I'd like to hear you discuss Michelangelo and say anything beyond vapid cliches, if you are limited to remarks that can be made only with zero knowledge of his philosophical, religious, or historical context.

As Gombrich points out, visual art is not terribly communicative and relies on a large number of "aids" to get its point across.

I think I understand your point--and as I mentioned above, I like purely aesthetic discussions as well as the next art buff--but I think you've staked out too extreme a position to be viable.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 9, 2004 11:31 AM

Grunewald's Isenheim Altarpiece was created for a hospital, to help the inmates be stalwart in their suffering. Knowing that does not "enhance" its value as a work of art.

The Cathedrale de St-Sauveur in Aix-in-Provence contains an open-out triptych by Nicolas Froment called "La Vierge au Buisson Ardent" (Virgin in the Burning Bush). Yes, if you're a Christian you "get" it: the bush burns, and is not consumed: this is an allusion to Mary's virginity, and an attempt to link the Old (Moses) and New Testaments.
But a Hindu or an atheist could come along and still know it was a great painting.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on October 9, 2004 12:24 PM

How do we know that Hokusai made wonderful paintings? We in the West know little, if anything, about the Japanese "context" in which they were created.
I wonder if the Paleolithic cave paintings are really "art" in the sense you mean. As an attempt by pre-literate people to communicate their whereabouts or success in hunting, they are more like pictographic language.

Posted by: agnes lampwick on October 9, 2004 12:33 PM

I'm afraid I have to disagree with . (may I call you Dot? Or is that simply a way of "making your point"?) above. We DO know what is universal. Why are members of the Korea National Symphony in Seoul sitting there playing Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms? Because that music is universal, not because the orchestra wants to explore Germanic culture from the 17th-19th centuries, ferchrissake.
Friedrich says that museums divorce art from its context in order to display it as artifact upon white walls. As far as I am concerned, it's just the opposite: museums fairly CAPITALIZE(!) on the cultural context approach. Every exhibition comes belabored with staggering amounts of wall text, picture captions, and catalogues describing history and context. Moreover, there are "thematic" museums like the Jewish Museum. Why do we need to know that Chagall, for example, was Jewish? What advantage does it give us? He would be shown in any museum in the world.
On the other hand, Audre Lorde is always billed contextually as a black lesbian poet instead of just a poet (in many cases, artists who come with a lot of baggage like that are published or exhibited--to wit, Basquiat--just because people are afraid to be un-PC). If artists are any good, their work will stand up to scrutiny without these details.

Posted by: martine mallary on October 9, 2004 1:26 PM

I certainly seem to have stirred things up here. I obviously forgot the strength of the cult of art genius, with the concommitant notion that such genius will out no matter what the circumstances. I respectfully apologize for even daring to suggest that without patronage of a type not available to most artists over most of human history, Michelangelo would not have been able to create the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Obviously, I should have realized that Pope Julius, the Catholic Church, and the entire art scene of the High Renaissance were merely accidents, and that Michelangelo's genius would have overcome their absence trivially. Again, my apologies.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 9, 2004 1:51 PM

In a sense, I see what Friedrich means: if you didn't know that "Guernica" was supposed to represent the Spanish Civil War, you wouldn't understand it, but instead see it as a meaningless jumble of upside-down horse heads and whatnot.
But for that reason (because you have to be told what it stands for) I say it's NOT art--it's just "art " because everyone is telling us that it is, and that Picasso is a genius.

Posted by: Herbert O'Rourke on October 9, 2004 1:53 PM

How true, how true, that everything is dependent upon historical circumstances! Speaking of geniuses: Friedrich von Blowhard would never have been able to promulgate his views on art, to so wide an audience, without the patronage of the Internet in the dawn of the twenty-first century. The only difference is that Michelangelo perhaps did not KNOW that he was a genius, but Friedrich is in no doubt that he is one.

Posted by: Owen StJohn on October 9, 2004 2:31 PM

"But for that reason (because you have to be told what it stands for) I say it's NOT art--it's just "art " because everyone is telling us that it is, and that Picasso is a genius."

I dislike [a non trivial portion] Picasso.
A lot of what I like as art, looks, to people who don't know any better, like lines on paper. You can argue that it's not art, I guess. But, historically, a lot of people have considered it art. Not only art, but the highest form of art, period.

For argument's sake, I could make a painting that consists of a circle. You might be able to appreciate it on a purely superficial level, but it is simply untrue that you would, with no knowledge of what it may or may not mean, have the same aesthetic experience of it as me.

Posted by: . on October 9, 2004 2:32 PM

Nobody has made the point that the Italian Renaissance did not KNOW it was the "Italian Renaissance" at the time. WE call it that, but only with hindsight. So therefore Michelangelo was just doing his job like everybody else. But there has to be some sort of objective standard by which we perceive that the Sistine ceiling is worthier, or "greater," than the courthouse murals in downtown Manhattan...and that standard doesn't have to do with cultural context.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on October 9, 2004 3:36 PM

Wow, this is really turning into a food fight.
Allow me to try to be more responsible in describing my position:

(1) I really, really, really like Renaissance art and am quite convinced of the nearly superhuman talent of many of its practitioners. I formed these opinions prior to having anything but the vaguest ideas about the history, economics, etc. of the Italian peninsula between 1000 and 1600.

(2) However, I am also quite interested in history, and latterly, in the history of ideas, religion and culture generally. Having with some effort learnt more about these things (which is why I ran across Mr. Goldthwaite's book), I don't see that it lessens my aesthetic pleasure in Renaissance art in any way. I am a bit puzzled as to why some of you seem to think that it would reduce your pleasure to know something about the real world circumstances in which this art got made, but maybe this is simply a lack of empathy or intelligence on my part.

(3) I am genuinely confused about Professor Beck's approach to art history, because it seems to be self-contradictory, when examined closely. If one wants to do hardcore aesthetic analysis of a body of paintings, I suspect the resulting book would look more like the work of Bernard Berenson than the book Professor Beck has produced, which is largely organized chronologically but without the main virtue of chronological accounts, the ability to know exactly what is happening simultaneously at different places. While I don't particularly quibble with the way Beck divides Renaissance art between lyrical and monumental tendencies, I don't exactly get what has been communicated by such a division either, which he admits is both artificial and awkward for a variety of artists. I can only assume Beck intends it as a piece of aesthetic education for beginning students of art. In any case, such aesthetic critiques really hardly belong in the realm of art history, per se, but rather in art criticism...which, as I've said, is odd because Beck's book isn't really organized as aesthetic criticism, but as a historical survey. Moreover, where the book seems to get into serious intellectual problems is with the "problem of Giotto" or where the Renaissance actually begins. In Mr. Beck's introduction he admits that all of the stylistic tendencies of the Renaissance are clearly visible in earlier Italian medieval art, and that the division between the Renaissance and the Medieval era has been vastly overstated. But for whatever reason (quite possibly the insistence of his publisher), he decides he wants to begin his book around 1410, not 1200, so he has to dance around the fact that the most revolutionary artist in this entire era, the one whose stylistic choices were absolutely determinative for the entire period under discussion was Giotto who, of course, died some 70 years prior to the beginning of his book. So he basically kind of dances around this fact, claiming that Giotto isn't really a Renaissance artist on a variety of fairly trivial stylistic grounds. This, of course, ignores the more significant fact that even if Giotto wasn't a Renaissance artist, all the Renaissance artists were working in the Giotto-esque tradition! Hence, Beck's book isn't really coherent even as a purely aesthetic discussion of Italian painting in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. Frankly, it was my dissatisfaction with accounts that claim that the Renaissance arose in reaction against Medieval art that led me to start probing into issues like the social background of Italian painting. I like Mr. Goldthwaite's book precisely becuase the dynamic he sketches out emphasizes the continuities of Italian cultural life over the years 1100-1700 rather than positing artificial dichotomies such as Renaissance v. Medieval.

Anyway, if you genuinely find that knowing something about the cultural context of art interferes with your pleasure of it, I can only offer my profoundest apologies.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 9, 2004 3:55 PM

Ms. Skattebol:

You say:

But there has to be some sort of objective standard by which we perceive that the Sistine ceiling is worthier, or "greater," than the courthouse murals in downtown Manhattan...and that standard doesn't have to do with cultural context.

Two questions:

(1) Why must such standards exist? (To put it another way, even if it is important to you to rank art by greatness, why do you seem upset with any other use or interest in art, such as art's role in cultural or even economic history?)

(2) What makes you so sure that your objective standards even begin to be objective? After many years pondering such matters, I strongly doubt that such objective standards, do, indeed exist, particularly ones that are completely independent of cultural context. Doesn't it give you pause to consider the enormous swings in critical reputation over the centuries of such artists as El Greco, Michelangelo, Ribera, de la Tour, even Rembrandt? Do you think the highly educated people of, say, the eighteenth century who would have considered all of the above second (or third) rate artists were just blinkered idiots--while you repose in complete enlightenment?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 9, 2004 4:06 PM

Friedrich, you and Bronislaw Malinowski would get along, I think. He always wrote "economic anthropology," e.g. of the Trobriand Islanders, which doesn't make his work any less worthy, but gives everything a particular slant. There ARE other factors aside from the economic influencing civilization.

Yeah, sure, the distinction between "medieval" and "Renaissance"--where one leaves off and the other begins-- is bullshit and mere academic dandyism. And Giotto may have known that he was an innovator, but not that so many would follow his example.
Francis has often said that the sculptures on NYC buildings designed by Italian artisans are as good as anything in the Renaissance.

And, yes, it is true that the St Matthew Passion sank into obscurity until Mendelssohn rediscovered Bach, so it was not properly "appreciated" until the 19thc....thus, art's reputation waxes and wanes with the times.

But remember that it is art-in-cultural-context that has given us abortions like the Whitney Biennial! Can any reasonable person hold that a blank minimalist canvas by Agnes Martin or an ink blot by Robert Motherwell is equal in aesthetic value to a cup by Benvenuto Cellini or a painting by Lucas Cranach? The "objective" standard is not MY standard, it's a standard which I hope would be held by any civilized person of taste and breeding.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on October 9, 2004 4:57 PM

Is Art an end in itself?

Or is it, properly, an activity in the service of a higher end: the praise and worship of God?

That Art has been in crisis, ever since faith in God - in the West, at least - has buckled, I think answers the question.

I realize that FvB's post does not center on this question. But his statement toward the end that - "I must also remark, that I find it both interesting and strangely unsettling to consider Renaissance art not from the standpoint of aesthetics. It's somewhat humbling as an artist myself to realize that to the Italian Catholic church, the main consumer of Renaissance art, that even the greatest paintings were essentially, er, just part of the furniture, at best a useful backdrop for the main event" - alludes to it.

Posted by: ricpic on October 10, 2004 10:26 AM

Ah, ricpic, I think you're on to something. To put it in secular terms, religion offered Italian artists not merely patronage but also an entire cultural program to which they could apply their visual creativity. (The Franciscans, who were responsible for much of the explosive growth in fresco painting during the 1200s were very purposeful patrons and knew just what they wanted and expected, subject-matter-wise, from Giotto at their churches in Asissi and Florence. They were creating unique visual ambiences intended to reward religious pilgrims. And the results are still impressive--virtually the entire wall surfaces of those churches are frescoed, and the visitor is immersed/surrounded by a "propoganda campaign" in pictures. In the process, the mendicant orders helped create much of the visual language of the Renaissance.)

I think it's fair to say that contemporary artists are not so fortunate in their patronage.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 10, 2004 11:37 AM

"Is Art an end in itself?

Or is it, properly, an activity in the service of a higher end: the praise and worship of God?

That Art has been in crisis, ever since faith in God - in the West, at least - has buckled, I think answers the question."

And isn't it interesting how the majority of the greatest art and architecture the world over was made in praise and worship of god/gods? Whether you call Him Allah, God, Buddha (although Buddha isn't technically a god), etc... In terms of the art that could have been, it's a shame that Judaism is opposed to such representation.

I wonder what would happen if a large number of patrons got together with the purpose of attempting to create a similar cultural environment. Would it be all but impossible today? The last place such religious fervor could be found today would be in America's Bible Belt. I wonder.

Posted by: lindenen on October 10, 2004 1:16 PM

The religious impulse does survive in folk art: see Howard Finster:

Posted by: winifer skattebol on October 10, 2004 1:24 PM

Re: Art and religion

I've been wrestling with the same question recently. It seems like you need two things to create great art: talent, and trandescendent view of the world. In other words, in order to say something that matters, you first have to believe that there are things that do, in fact, matter.

But what do we have, at least in this country? The places that have the talent to create art don't have the cultural context, and the places that have the context are systematically deprived of the talent. Say a churchgoing kid from the Bible Belt shows artistic talent. He'll probably go off to art school in someplace like New York or Boston and be steeped in the casual nihilism of those places. He's likely to lose any religious faith he has, and his art will take on the naval-gazing quality endemic to the art world.

Menawhile, back home, the religion retains a sort of cartoonishness typified by dreck like the "Left Behind" series or the paintings of Thomas Kincaide. There isn't anough of a critical mass of talent to deepen the view of God beyond the picture shown in sunday school - it all went off the the Big City.

Its a rare artist who, whether through overwhelming talent and vision or just plain sturbborness, can overcome this. One example I can think of (not in the visual arts, alas) is Bob Dylan. Even before his "born again" period, his songs were steeped in biblical imagery - and not (as many of his fans thought) in an ironic way or just as a convenient source of quotes...

Posted by: jimbo on October 10, 2004 3:31 PM

Broadly (and probably incorrectly) paraphrasing Ken Wilber's view of art criticism here:

There are 3 broad avenues to view an art: What did the artist mean, what do I see as a viewer, and what was the cultural, technological context behind the objet d'art?

What did Picasso mean through Geurnica? It was a personal commentary on the Spanish war. What do I see/feel when I see Geurnica? I see tortured faces of animals and humans in 3d flat representation (thankfully I have a small reproduction hanging in my room so I can immediately type in what I feel when I see it). What was the cultural/technological background? Well Picasso certainly did not use digital tools for his work nor did he use Asiatic artistic tools as well.

One can debate on the merit of each perspective as being a valid art criticism, but one cannot deny the existence of the three perspectives.

Wilber suggests that all three perspectives must be honoured for a more complete art criticism. Friedrich's suggestion of marrying the historical art background and the pure esthetical judgment of the art piece is one step into a more comprehensive and integral art criticism.

Posted by: Bob Yu on October 11, 2004 2:22 PM

Trackback here.

Posted by: Megan on October 12, 2004 11:52 PM

FWIW, the decontextualized "appreciation" of art has its own history, not that I'm a scholar of this or anything. But "art appreciation" of the sort we tend to think of these days is a fairly recent development in the way people experience and interact with art. A guy I talked to who is a scholar of this development once explained to me that the GI Bill played a big role here in the creation of what he enjoyed calling "the art-appreciation racket."

Also FWIW, I find myself wondering if it's better to think of much po-mo or decon or modernist art as not serving a religious vision, or to think of it instead as serving a bad or unproductive religious vision. My thinking on this is that, since modernism-etc has functioned for many as a replacement for the old religions (and as a kind of liberation theology), we should maybe picture its products as being art in the service of the religion of modernism. If this art tends to dead-end or crap-out, whatever its occasional glories, perhaps it isn't because it isn't serving a religious vision, perhaps it's because the religious vision it's serving isn't a very rich or nourishing or rewarding one.

But maybe I'm just playing with words and definitions...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 13, 2004 10:39 AM

During modernism, artists still believed in a universal aesthetic (more or less). Jackson Pollock's intuitive paintings were an attempt to find a way to describe a feeling that he believed was universal, and he was hoping to transport his viewers directly into that feeling.

PoMo's have a big beef with modernists like Pollock for assuming there was anything universal to aspire to, and particularly for presuming that there is any sort of universally recognizable aesthetic.

I agree with Michael that modernist art was trying to achieve a secular religious experience. PoMo has no such aspirations: art is only useful in that it can serve as a cultural mirror and as a commodity.

Posted by: Megan on October 13, 2004 11:11 AM

That's what the po-mo's say, but is it what they do? I often haven't found that to be the case. Often they turn their anti-universality into a kind of disguised new-style universality, and use it as a new-style liberationist program. They theorize anti-theory, in other words, thereby tumbling into what they criticize. Stephen Toulmin has a nice way of putting this: many of those who are the harshest critics of the Descartes-derived thing are doing so for the most Descartesian of reasons. Anti-certainty becomes its own kind of certainty.

And there's another prob with the hardline po-mo approach. (I rather like a loose and informal po-mo-ism myself, one that avoids becoming a dogmatic program.) It's that the hardliners are so into freeing us of our addiction to the universalist thing that they free us finally of any attachment to art, and wind up denying that great or even merely lovely personal experiences can be had via interacting with art. If art is merely mirror and commodity, why bother with it at all?

My own hunch is that what underlies a lot of this is the fear of religion. Modernism failed as a secular religion. Hardline po-mo is so determined to avoid (or deny, or refute) the religious dimension that it winds up desacralizing art entirely, which in turn robs art of much of what makes it of interest...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 13, 2004 11:23 AM

FWIW, I did a little blogriffing on postmodernism here.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 13, 2004 12:05 PM

"My own hunch is that what underlies a lot of this is the fear of religion. Modernism failed as a secular religion. Hardline po-mo is so determined to avoid (or deny, or refute) the religious dimension that it winds up desacralizing art entirely, which in turn robs art of much of what makes it of interest..."

Makes you wonder if religion is inevitable....

Posted by: lindenen on October 13, 2004 4:45 PM

This article on an arts school in Cleveland that for a long time resisted theory and other pomo crap details how it's being essentially corroded. This is the kind of arts school I would have dreamed of attending but they're ruining it. Replacing teaching artistic skills with teaching theory.

Bang your head.

"You can teach people how to think about art," he said, "but you can't teach them how to make it."

So, you mean, you can brainwash people into spouting the party line all the while you don't teach them how to draw or paint well? This was what my school was like and I feel like I've been paying for it ever since because I don't feel I got the crucial development I needed.

I just felt this actually fit perfectly with the topic.

Posted by: lindenen on October 13, 2004 5:52 PM

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