Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Art as a Language and the Social History of Art


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.


[i]  Augustine, Contra Faustum Manichaeum, 19.11, cited in Bernard Leeming, Principles of Sacramental Theology, ed., Westminster, 1960.

[ii] Poussin, cited in Goldwater, ed., Artists on Art, p. 157.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Vote November 2nd!


"Silence in the face of evil is itself evil, God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act." Dietrich Bonhoeffer 








 "It does not require a majority to prevail but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set bush fires in people's minds." - Samuel Adams















"All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent." - Thomas Jefferson


"If you will not fight for right when you can easily win without bloodshed; if you will not fight when your victory will be sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival.  There may be even a worse fate. You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves." - Winston Churchill

Friday, October 1, 2010

Did God Kill Homosexuals the Night of Jesus' Birth?

We are all very much aware of the problem of pedophilia within Roman Catholicism. It is my personal view that this problem emanates from the vast presence of homosexuals in the Church of Rome. This general suspicion is not new. 

Homosexuals were occasionally condemned by medieval writers, especially monastic writers concerned about the sexual improprieties flourishing in all-male communities sworn to chastity. Citing early Christian authorities, Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend (1270-90) goes as far as to describe the annihilation of all “sodomites” on the night of Christ’s birth as one of a series of miraculous announcements of Christ’s birth. The writer enlists Jerome and Augustine for support, though no such statements can be traced to either. 

“To these shepherds, then, an angel appeared, and announced to them the birth of the Savior, telling them also how they might find their way to Him. And they heard a multitude of angels singing, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will!' In yet another way, the Nativity was revealed through the Sodomites, who that night perished throughout the world. In this regard Saint Jerome tells us: 'So great a light arose that night that it extinguished all those who were given to this vice.' And Saint Augustine says that God could not take flesh in the nature of man as long as there existed, in this nature, an unnatural vice.”  [i]
Jacobus de Voragine to the left with his Golden Legend in his hands
Evidently the problem of "sexual improprieties flourishing in all-male communities sworn to chastity" is nothing new. But the answer is not to invent history, such as de Voragine has done. The true Church must remain resolute in its stand against all sexual vice.


[i]  Quoted in Henry Suso, The Little Book of Eternal Wisdom, “Nativity,” p, 50.