In the early to mid-20th century, Socialism permeated many aspects of society and study, including the study of art history. What is the social significance of a work of art? To what degree are artists influenced by society? T.J. Clark, Professor of Modern Art at the University of California Berkeley from 1988-2010, looked closely at Realism in 19th-century painting, specifically Gustave Courbet’s Burial at Ornans (1849-1850), analyzing the social value of a work of art and what it means for art to be considered “avant-garde.”
Clark’s methods have their roots in Nietzsche’s argument: “there are no facts, only interpretations.” Whether we read into our historical sources or take them at face value, all discussions of the subject are imbued with a slight tweak of our individual perspective. There is no pure truth. Clark further denounced traditional labels such as “avant-garde.” It was not that such terms were meaningless in his mind, but they were in need of constant re-evaluation. Only if we demote them and criticize them can we arrive at an understanding of what it means for a work of art to be avant-garde. Clark identified a serious need a multiplicity of perspectives within art history.
Although he was not the first art historian to suggest that art history is inseparable from other kinds of history, Clark introduced an important distinction between relating to and reflecting was entirely new. He argued that history should not serve as a mere background to a work of art – “as something which is essentially absent from the work of art and its production, but which occasionally makes an appearance” – but an integral part of the work’s creation. Furthermore, history or social being is not transmitted to the artist on some kind of “fixed route.” Rather, artists respond to the values and ideas of the artistic community, which in turn are altered by changed in the general values and ideas of society, which in turn are determined by historical conditions.” According to Clark, it is the art historian’s job to explore all of these possible influences and look at a work of art through as many different lenses as possible.
All quotes in this post were pulled from T.J. Clark’s essay “On the Social History of Art,” in Image of the People, pp. 9-21.
Concerned with art historical methodology, Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) attempted to move away from the interpretations of art of his predecessors, which he felt were too concerned with formal qualities. According to Panofsky, analysis of art occurs in three stages: primary or natural subject matter, secondary or conventional subject matter, and means of intrinsic meaning or content. Primary subject matter is expressed though the identification of pure forms, such as the line and color of an object, or the specific way an object is shaped. These pure forms were seen as the carriers for a natural meaning, which all together make up a pre-iconographical description of the work. The next level of meaning, secondary subject matter, deals with the connection of artistic motifs with themes and concepts, thus identifying stories and allegories within the work. Identification of these symbols and narratives can be described as the iconography of the image. Finally, one may interpret a work through the intrinsic meaning or content. This level of analysis is associated with what Panofsky calls the iconology of the image, the historical environment, personal history, and technical skill that influenced the creation of the work. Iconology puts the work in a certain place in the scope of art history, instead of only looking at the work as a singular object.
Before Panofsky had even written down his methodological ideas, he was applying his theories to works of art. For example, in his 1938 article “Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait”, Panofsky analyzed the title piece using both iconographical and iconological interpretation, painstakingly tracing the literature on this portrait’s true meaning though the literature of various historians, thus making use of his knowledge of literary sources.
Style as related to the study of art has always been historically biased. Alpers, an American artist, art historian, and art critic, emphasizes the importance Italian examples played in defining style; and, in doing so, she demonstrates how art historians contributed to shaping the concept of style. Comparing Raphael’s The Three Graces to Rubens’ painting of the same title highlights how easily two artists’ works can be differentiated from one another, even when depicting the same subject matter.
The discussion of style is one that can easily be avoided, but it undoubtably relates to how we classify a work of art. Style is perhaps directly related to what we consider “good” art and “bad” art, but it can also be argued that all artwork has style. Alpers suggests the art we consider “good” aligns with Italian examples. Do these Italian examples influence a viewer’s perception of contemporary art? What is involved in making and perceiving something as art?
This information is based on reading from: Svetlana Alpers, “Style is What You Make It: The Visual Arts Once Again,” in The Concept of Style, Berel Lang, ed., 1979.
John Ruskin’s believed art should lead the viewer to the truth and that imitation was the downfall of art. Art was meant to be created in good taste and reason in order to lead the viewer to pleasure. The ability to discern beauty shows good taste and thus inserts itself into morality. Imitation is a lack of morality and thus needs multiple ideas in order to sustain itself. Art is the only place in which imitation can be found because art provides the world with pleasure. While we derive pleasure from things created by nature, nature is not the ideal or the absolute truth. The ideal comes from a deity that was created by humans in order to explain why certain forms, colors, and textures create a sense of pleasure and thus are morally good.
Beauty is all about perception and the ability to use reason. If there were no ugly or falseness in the world then reason, beauty and what is morally good would be taken for granted and would not be understood. Beauty stems from the ideas and expressions that are related to the object depicted. The idea of relating art to someone is the most powerful source of pleasure because it plays of emotions, which attaches people immediately (for good or for bad), to the image.
To be avant-garde is to be forward thinking; to create something that is at the very edge of innovation. For Ruskin, landscape painting is not avant-garde because it has a tendency to idealize the scene. Ruskin states that for landscape painting there was no passion and honesty and will never teach the world about anything divine. Having an imagination, according to Ruskin, is an important quality for artists to have and thus an idealized landscape is important. Also when the viewer discovers a piece of art is false, there will be a feeling of pleasure due to their ability to use reason. If artists were only using canons to create art then there would be no innovation; there would be nothing for the viewer to reason through in order to reach the morally good.
Here are three examples of works of art that show Ruskin’s philosophy.
This information is based on readings from: Robert Williams, Art Theory: An Historical Introduction (Wiley-Blackwell, UK, 2009) and Donald Preziosi, ed., The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology (Oxford University Press, NY, 2009).
Many refer to Johann Joachim Winckelmann as the father of Art History, the first to lay out a progression of art and art movements in a way that analyzes both the art as well as its cultural context—something that we still do to this day. His archeological work in the excavation of Herculaneum and Pompeii (around 1762) had an extreme impact on his own writing as well as the world at large—it undoubtedly is intimately connected to the conception of the Neoclassical movement, a movement that was interested in the revival of antique ideas and themes, which directly follows these excavations in the late 18th century.
In 1755 Winckelmann wrote Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture, where he speaks to Greek ideals in painting and sculpture, and boldly claims that, “The only way for us to become great or, if this be possible, inimitable, is to imitate the ancients.” This admiration and interest in Antiquity continues—in 1764 he published The History of Ancient Art—which to this day continues to be called the first example of modern Art Historical theory. In this works he strives to break down the rise and downfall of art—suggesting a progression of Antique art.“This selection of the most beautiful parts and their harmonious union in one figure produced ideal beauty—which is therefore no metaphysical abstraction; so that the ideal is not found in every part of the human figure taken separately, but can be ascribed to it only as a whole; for beauties as great as any of those which art has ever produced can be found singly in nature, but, in the entire figure nature must yield the palm to art.” —Winckelmann, The History of Ancient Art, 1764
And check this out—the French Rococo movement was happening at the same time as the birth of Neoclassicism and the rise of Winckelmannian-aesthetics… interesting, right? Easy to see how Winckelmann seemed to have a certain distain for the art-making of his day, preferring the Antique instead.
Oil on Canvas
Wallace Collection, London, United Kingdom
The sublime in art is the attempt to express the infinite without finding in the realm of phenomena any object which proves itself fitting for this representation.
-Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
The enlightenment of the 18th century was a period of radical idealism, a period in which science, intellectualism, skepticism and reason began to shape every aspect of life, from religion and politics to technology and art. In the midst of this, two German idealists, Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, began to radically reexamine nature of art, beauty, taste, and genius, reshaping the philosophical field known as Aesthetics.
Kant and Hegel applied their philosophical structure to the study of art and beauty in their respective works The Critique of Judgment and Lectures on Aesthetics, covering topics such as sensory knowledge, aesthetic judgement, universal taste , pleasure and displeasure in relation to the beautiful, and, perhaps most influentially, the sublime accomplishment of art.
For Kant, this concept of the sublime was the expression of something supernatural, something that, being beyond the scope of human reason, was an object deserving fear and reverence. lying outside the boundaries of limited human metaphysics, such art was necessarily the product of a faculty of genius, a unique talent for recognizing and expressing concepts that reside beyond words. For Hegel, the sublime was the sensual representation of the Absolute itself. Hegelian idealism dictated that the highest accomplish art of was the realization of pure concepts in perfect conjunction with form, a feat he saw accomplished most perfectly in the Christian art of his day.
In the above image, Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, the feeling of the sublime is palpable, one cannot help but take in the unbelievable vastness and beauty of nature, and the human spirit willing to view it. This painting inspires, as Kant would put it, an appropriate sense of fear and trembling.
Giorgio Vasari, considered the ideological founder of art history, published The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects in 1550. In it he included not only facts, but judgments. He saw art progressing through an increase in the depiction of naturalism and beauty and the expression of abstract ideas and narrative. Vasari describes disegno (design, defined as intellectual ability to invent and technical capacity to make drawings) as uniting the visual arts. In Vasari’s eyes, the union of the visual arts (painting, sculpture, and architecture) was brought to perfection by Michelangelo.
Vasari valued draughtsmanship (the ability to reproduce nature with accuracy and precision) and, somewhat paradoxically, manner (the ability to copy the most beautiful parts of things). He also valued the work of the ancients. Michelangelo, who not only painted and sculpted accurately and beautifully but also looked to the ancients, was therefore his ideal artist.
For more information, visit Chapter 2 in Art Theory: An Historical Introduction by Robert Williams (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, pp. 55-94), selections from Vasari in Donald Preziosi’s The Art of Art History (Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 22-26), or locate an edition of Vasari’s Lives of the Artists.