The study of art can be something of a chicken-and-egg situation when it comes to looking at what it tells us, not only about those who create it but also about those who admire it. One can argue that art merely reflects the culture, or that the culture comes to follow the artist, who operates as a sort of vanguard. The truth probably lies somewhere in between, but while art is not always an entirely accurate barometer of where the culture happens to be, it does give us some good indication of what the people of a particular time held dear.
Although it is something of a generality to say so, we can agree that themes in Western art are often associated with particular philosophical movements. Thus, we might reasonably expect that in the 14th century, the age of Scholasticism, when art was created primarily for the glorification of God, the themes represented would be predominantly Christian. Even if an individual patron or “donor” is represented in the art, he was usually portrayed in a smaller scale, off to the side, and often in an attitude of prayer or supplication.
By the Age of Enlightenment however, there had been a perceptible artistic shift away from the worship of the sacred to the worship of the secular. Paintings of the wealthy, their families, and their mistresses predominate, alongside representations of the possessions of these powerful people, including their ships, their stately homes, their racehorses, and so on. Although great churches were still being built, such as the Baroque and Rococo splendors of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires, in many cases the buildings themselves were more spectacular than the art commissioned for them.
Because a materialist view of the world would not jibe well with the teachings of an impoverished carpenter from Nazareth, during this same period there were fewer and fewer representations of the Christian God, and more representations of the mythological (and very materialist) gods of Greece and Rome. Even in heavily Catholic Spain, Tiepolo’s famous 1766 ceiling fresco for the Royal Palace in Madrid, “The Apotheosis of Spain”, is covered in pagan symbolism with no reference to Christ or His Church, let alone the contributions of Spain to the spread of the Gospel. The Bourbons were more interested in shoring up public perception of their crumbling empire than in giving glory to God.
So when it comes to our own day and age, what do we learn about ourselves from looking at the contemporary art of the last few decades? And one asks this question of course, bearing in mind that there are artists today working in every kind of style and medium one can think of, from traditional to bizarre. There is no longer simply a world of canvas, wood, and marble upon which to draw.
Well for one thing, we can observe that much of the contemporary art currently on display in public institutions was created not to please an individual patron, but rather for the artist to please himself. There are still plenty of artists who work primarily on commission, and even those who do not will often contract to deliver a piece for a particular space. However since the dawn of modern art in the 19th century, there has been a fundamental shift in motivation for the professional artist from being paid to do what his patrons ask, to his patrons being expected to pay for what the artist creates, virtually irrespective of the patron’s wishes. If the patron does not like it, he is advised to either educate himself or go shop elsewhere.
For the collector, this has created a rather odd situation. It is like dining in a fashionable restaurant where you have no control over what the chef chooses to serve. If you want to be considered up-to-date and a part of the scene of the moment, you will bow your head and gratefully consume your organic celery stalks stuffed with par-boiled free-range pheasant eggs marinated in 10-year aged fish sauce. And should you dare to question whether the chef actually knows what he is doing, you will most likely be considered a philistine and asked to leave.
This presents us with the primary problem of the contemporary art world in a nutshell, for once such art is placed in a public space, we are only permitted to admire it or not; we are not permitted to actually criticize it. If we do engage in criticism beyond the nonsensical artspeak blathered about by much of the black turtleneck brigade, we are invariably informed that we are too far down the evolutionary chain to understand the intent of the artist, or what we are talking about. Perhaps the latter is true, in many cases, given the rather cursory amount of art education most students receive in primary and secondary school these days.
Yet to question the intent of the artist is in fact to try to grasp the purpose of art itself, which is absolutely essential when the meaning of the art is not clear, or even when it appears to be right on the surface. After all, even the Old Masters would make references to ideas and opinions in their works which would not necessarily be perceived simply by glancing at one of their pictures. Thus if the vast majority of contemporary art finding its way into public collections is ugly and bears little evidence of actual skill in its execution, it is not wrong to point out that perhaps this is a rather all-too-apt assessment of our present culture. A society which is lazy, horny, and dumb will not only create art which mirrors those vices dressed as values, but will in fact laud them at every opportunity.
Whether it is art which is leading the way in this regard, or whether it is simply following alongside, we should be asking whether we like what we see being said about ourselves in our contemporary art. The selfishness and cheapness of what we hold up as being representative art of our culture is, sadly, all too representative. One suspects that centuries from now, our descendants will be looking at this work in their museums and institutions, and thanking their stars that they did not live in an age when the ravings of a diseased society were viewed as something to celebrate.
Detail of “The Apotheosis of Spain” by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1766)
Royal Palace of Madrid, Spain