Up until the mid-18th century, art functioned as an evolving yet relatively stable language of high culture with a vocabulary of conventional forms (style) and themes (subject matter) familiar both to artists and educated audiences. Because artists used vocabularies already familiar to their audiences, it was possible for them to say something significant and for art to have a serious place within a wider range of overlapping cultural forms and practices such as literature, music, theater, dance, religion, and political festivity. Like all forms of high culture, art also worked not just to reflect shared values but also to redefine them. As an active, creative, inventive force responding to individual patrons, artists, and new social circumstances, art provided a changing, flexible arena in which different social groups could interact, exchange and contest ideas, define new forms of group identity, and formulate new blueprints of "reality" and "maps" for human existence.
While no single work of art or artist ever changed the world, the totality of artistic production served as a powerful outlet for the formulation, circulation, and legitimization of new ideas, values, and practices. Of course, these were generally defined by the social elites who monopolized the patronage and consumption of material culture, especially the luxury objects of fine art: painting, sculpture, prints, illustrated books, tapestries, stained glass, furniture, metal work, ceramics, and architecture. If politics was always an important aspect of art through the eighteenth century, we are only reminded that art had a more serious and central role in the past as a vehicle for defining reality in the orderly, largely hierarchical terms defined by European court, church, and burgher elites. For all the interest in aesthetic quality and innovation maintained by patrons, collectors, viewers, and artists, art was never a completely separate "aesthetic" realm held apart from daily life nor was it ever reduced to mere decoration (even in the days of the Rococo).
We can glimpse the social function of art before the nineteenth century by borrowing Augustine's description of the fundamental role of the sacraments as a collective language of visual signs in early Christianity.
In no religion, whether true or false, can men be held in association together unless they are gathered together with a common share in some visible signs or sacraments. [i]
Taking into account the many striking national, social, and religious differences and conflicts between rulers, nobles, church officials, and burghers within early modern Europe (1300-1780), the social elites who purchased most art were to a large extent "gathered together ... with a common share" in a gradually evolving series of cultural languages and values until the later eighteenth century. To be sure, strong regional, social, political, economic, and religious differences operated within this larger, international system of material culture and generated strikingly different artistic languages from one region and moment to the next. Yet even here, art worked as a flexible medium of discussion, exchange, and mutual transformation across divisions and boundaries.
To return art to a more dynamic place within this unfolding social history, it helps to see art not just as a distinct group of objects which can be isolated from other objects and social processes but also as a medium of cultural exchange and social transformation. Aesthetic values themselves were always defined by social elites at particular historical moments and were inseparable from larger social circumstances. Even the idea of art, as we know it today, was largely an invention of the Renaissance (1400-1600) with significant contributions from the Romantic period (1790-1840).
The most conspicuous features of Western art as a shared cultural language between 1400 and 1800 was the use of an elevated, heroic language of religious, mythological, historical and allegorical subjects taken from literature, an equally lofty figural rhetoric which turned increasingly to heroic nudes after 1500, and grand, highly organized, rhetorical compositions. In new artistic categories less tied to great literary subjects, similar qualities were apparent. For example, portraits focused on the heroic social roles and larger identities of princes and leading citizens. And after 1500, landscape slowly developed as a category densely inscribed with equally grand notions of history, class, religion, philosophy, gender, and science. Even newer scenes of everyday life and ordinary objects (still-life) were frequently infused with high moral, social, and philosophical values or with an earthy humor tied, inversely, to lofty ideals.
Finally, new notions of art and artistic practice as noble, intellectual invention rather than lowly, manual craftsmanship spread through Italy after 1400 and through the rest of Europe after 1500. Derived originally from a consciously high-minded court culture, this thinking rapidly assigned a new, heroic autonomy to artistic practice and to the luxury objects it produced. Thus Renaissance Europe created the modern understanding of art, prized above all for a high intellectual and poetic vision and tied to new notions of individual artistic originality (or, after the Romantics, to "genius"). From 1500 on, individual artistic innovation was increasingly prized and marketed as a major aesthetic commodity. Despite the growing market for aesthetic "originality," artistic innovation through the eighteenth century did not mean the invention of a radically new style or subject matter. The invention of something completely new would have sacrificed the intelligibility of the invention and left audiences bewildered. From the Renaissance to the early nineteenth century, artistic innovation generally meant the clever reworking of traditional images within a larger, coherent, shared system or language of art. This was well described in the seventeenth-century by the French painter, Poussin.
Novelty in painting consists mainly not in a subject never treated before, but in good and new groupings and expressions. By these means a subject that is common and old can become singular and new. [ii]
To sum up, art from 1400-1800 was a slowly changing, collective language defined largely by social elites. It served to image and legitimize coherent views of the world and the changing place of elites within that world. For all of its conservative tendencies, art was also inherently dynamic in responding to changing social, political, economic, and intellectual circumstances and in producing new cultural maps, forms, explanations, and justifications, new forms of “reality” and of art.