Almost 20 years ago, I wrote a couple dozen essays on the history of painting for BeyondBooks.com, a subscription service that provided online supplementary materials for high-school students. The site’s owners have given me permission to publish the essays on my website. This essay (lightly edited) is the second of five in the section on the business of art. Click “Business of Art” in the Obsessions cloud at lower right to see all that have been published.
Art commentary among the ancients
In the 5th century B.C., Greek painters began writing about their work, discussing with other artists the best subjects, styles, proportions, compositions and colors. Philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle discussed more esthetic abstract topics such as function of art. Popular writers commented on who was famous, who was popular, and who stank.
Nearly all that survives from Greek and Roman literature was preserved by the Christians. But Christians had little use for discussions of how to better represent this world in art – and no use at all for pagan esthetics or philosophy. From all that vibrant discussion among the ancients, we’re left with snippets such as this one.
For he [Apelles] said that all his own achievements were on an equal level with that artist [Protogenes] or that the latter’s achievements were superior, but that there was one thing which he was preeminent, namely that he knew when to take his hand away from a picture, a memorable lesson about the frequently harmful effects of too much attention to detail. — Pliny the Elder (d. 79 AD), Natural History; quoted in Pollitt, The Ancient View of Greek Art: Criticism, History, and Terminology, p. 128
Art commentary in the Renaissance and Enlightenment
Giorgio Vasari (d. 1574), a painter who worked during the High Renaissance, was the first to write biographies of artists, ranging from Duccio (late 13th century) to Vasari’s contemporary Michelangelo. An artist himself, he was very interested in how other artists achieved their effects. Here’s Vasari’s description of a painting by Giotto.
Because of the many beautiful ideas it expressed this was one of the finest and most wonderful paintings he ever did. The beautiful draperies and the graceful and lively heads are both marvellous; the but outstanding feature is the remarkably lovely young woman who is swearing on a book to refute an accusation of adultery. Her attitudes and gestures are stupendous … While her husband shows suspicion and contempt in his expression, the purity of her face and her eyes proclaim to those who are watching her so intently her innocence and her simplicity and the wickedness of the wrong that is being done in having her make her protestation and be falsely accused as a whore. — Vasari, “Life of Giotto, from Lives of the Artists vol. II
Two centuries later, in his History of Ancient Art, Johann Joachim Winckelmann exhorted artists to return to the “noble simplicity and calm grandeur” of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
The only way for us to become great or, if this be possible, inimitable, is to imitate the ancients. What someone once said of Homer – that to understand him well means to admire him – is also true for the art works of the ancients, especially the Greeks. — Winckelmann, Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture,1764 (La Salle: Open Court, 1987), p. 5
Winckelmann’s admonition was probably the most influential advice to artists up to that time. The immediate result was the spread of Neoclassicism throughout Europe. Jacques-Louis David (d. 1825) was the earliest and one of the most brilliant exponents.
The rise of professional critics
It was not until the 19th century that non-artists who wrote about art for a living gained the power to make or break artists’ reputations. Delacroix and the Romantic painters were championed by Charles Baudelaire (d. 1867):
For me, romanticism is the most recent, the most up-to-date, expression of the beautiful . . . Who says romanticism, says modern art – that is, intimacy, spirituality, color, aspiration toward the infinite, expressed by every means at the disposal of the arts.
John Ruskin (d. 1900), endorsing the Naturalists (a.k.a. Realists), urged that artists
insist on the necessity, as well as the dignity, of an earnest, faithful, loving study of nature as she is, rejecting with abhorrence all that man has done to alter and modify her.
Not surprisingly, Ruskin is regarded as one of the founders of the environmentalist movement.
The novelist and critic Emile Zola (d. 1902), discussing Manet’s Olympia, wrote:
What does all of this mean? You [Manet] don’t know, nor do I. But I know that you have succeeded in making a work of painting, and of great painting, and in vigorously translating into a special language the verities of light and shade, the realities of people and things.
Baudelaire, Ruskin and Zola differed greatly on the artistic styles and aims they favored, but all spoke with absolute authority and confidence. Their words carried enormous weight with the viewing and buying public.
It is no coincidence that art criticism became prominent in the same country and at the same period as the enormous Salon exhibitions. (See Buying and Selling Art.) With thousands of paintings on display, the critics provided the useful service of indicating which paintings were worth seeking out, and of explaining obscure subjects and details.
Dozens of Salon reviews appeared each year, in pamphlets, newspapers, and book form. A painting mentioned frequently and favorably had a much better chance of being sold. A painting ignored by every critic was likely to end up back in the artist’s studio.
The philosophy behind the critics
Philosophically, the power of the 19th-century critics came from the notion that only a chosen few could execute or understand art. The painter Manet (d. 1883) decreed:
Art is a circle. Through an accident of birth one is either inside or outside it.
Cézanne (d. 1906) was even more emphatic:
Taste is the best judge. It is rare. Art addresses itself only to a very limited number of individuals.
Hence, of course, if the bourgeoisie are to understand art and to support it as they ought, they need interpreters: the art critics.
For more on the changes in art during the nineteenth century, see my book Seismic Shifts in Subject and Style: 19th-century French Painting and Philosophy, which includes references for the quotes above.
With the advent in the early 20th century of non-representational painting, art critics have become even more powerful. How else would we have a clue what’s going on? As Tom Wolfe irreverently put it:
All these years, in short, I had assumed that in art, if nowhere else, seeing is believing. Well – how very shortsighted! Now, at last, on April 28, 1974, I could see. I had gotten it backward all along. Not ‘seeing is believing,’ you ninny, but ‘believing is seeing,’ for Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.” – The Painted Word, p. 6, paperback.
- The definitive work on the surviving Greek and Roman comments on art is J.J. Pollitt’s The Ancient View of Greek Art: Criticism, History, and Terminology.
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