Monday, January 9, 2012

Artist + freedom = emotion

So, last time we talked about Michelangelo and how Western art has always been about selling ideas.

Michelangelo's paintings are awesome. I think there would be very few people who would disagree when I say they are truly art, right?

Well, he hated painting. Hated. The pope forced him to paint the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo's famous for it, but if he'd had the choice, he wouldn't have done it.

Western artists were craftsmen. Hired to create something to the specifications of whoever was paying for it. It wasn't their message they were selling, it was their patron's message.

Do you think every painter, builder, sculptor, etc who built the great European churches were devout Christians? Do you think they passionately believed in the messages broadcast through the stained-glass windows, murals, statues, mosaics and paintings?

I'm sure many of them were, but I doubt they all felt they were called on by God to create Notre Dame and Chartre Cathedral.

I think I'd be safe in saying for most of them, it was their job. People didn't have the freedom and education to just choose their careers back then, they were apprenticed. Skills were usually passed down from father to son. Projects like the great churches were built over generations. 99.99% of the workers had absolutely no control over what they were doing. They were given the specifics and they carried them out exactly or they wouldn't get paid.

Sure, many artists battled against the conventions of what art was throughout history. Some of them met with success and slightly skewed the notion of art into a new direction. Yes, I said 'slightly skewed'. Usually one artist inspired another, who inspired another... so the changes were slow but gradual. Yes, there were bursts and booms, specific artists tied to specific movements like Claude Monet to the Impressionist period or Pablo Picasso to cubism, but each of them were drawing from an entire history of other painters, art forms and scientific advancement. For example, we can thank Japan opening it's borders to international trade in 1863 for much of the Modern art movement because this new/unfamiliar art style strongly influenced painters like Manet, Degas, Cassatt, Denis, Gaughin, and of course, Van Gogh.

Art used to be a simple thing, a flat view of the world and the ideals around us, and by us, I mean the upper echelon of society, the leaders, religious, political, etc. Good artists were recognized by craft, tradition and technique. The time, effort and precision they put into their creations.

Industrialization changed, not only the economic status of the artists, but the available materials. Paint was now made in factories, not by hand. Globalization made it easier to appropriate ideas/techniques/etc from all over the world and brought in a typhoon of cultures, religions, philosophy from which to find inspiration. Both of these were highly influential in changing the notion of what art was and what art could be, but I think there's something far more important.

The true switch from 'what the customer wanted' to 'what the artist wanted' is what triggered the change in valuing the emotional response one could receive from art. Sure, emotion had been part of art in the past, like religious art was usually meant to sell awe, devotion, a cry for peace or a call to arms, but again, that emotion was carefully calculated information being fed to the viewer through the techniques of the artists. There was nothing personal about it.

When the artist was no longer trying to sell to one particular patron, the artist had to sell to the public.

I know I'm about to make an incredibly bold and crude generalization, but here it is: that change in who was 'most important' can be directly attributed to the contemporary artists of New York City because those who founded the USA (and Canada) were freedom-hungry immigrants who fought against the imperialistic old-world, old-blood, old-money, class-obsessed, monarchy-based European countries they fled from. They wanted to tear away the old traditions and take control of their own futures.

Sure, the timing had to be right, with industrialization/globalization, but I think the idea of creating 'The New World' was like the spark that lit the fire.

Freedom was something artists never used to have, and with it came an explosion of what art was, what it could be and what it meant. For the first time, artists had control over what they made, even though they still lived and died by how popular they became, America was all about freedom, even if it was the freedom to just blow stuff up or vomit blue food colouring onto another artist's canvas.

There's a reason many people don't like contemporary art. Much of it feels like pure chaos and destruction, but often that's what war is, what social change is, what an overhaul of outdated, oppressive rules/beliefs is. This is what artists were questioning and while they tried to sort out their thoughts, their language of communication was art. Just as art had been used in France during the French Revolution to fire up the revolutionaries and later glorify their success, so art was used in America, yet with much greater freedom.

You can hate the means, you can hate the method, but you can't find fault in the freedom to make it.

Art was always something the wealthy had and the commoners did not have, but with the mass changes in the way the world worked, the rising middle-class and the self-made empires in the New World, for the first time, artists were exploring what they wanted to say, how they wanted to say it. Industrialized materials meant paint & canvas were cheaper than ever, so artists had even more reason to explore and experiment. They were selling their own ideas and ideals, not their patron's, but they still had to find buyers.

So what was this new generation of artists selling?


  1. I have to say, I'm learning a lot about art that I hadn't known before. I'd heard that Michaelangelo was truly inspired to paint the Sistene Chapel, but not that he hated painting. That had to be weird to be extremely gifted at doing something he didn't like very much.

  2. @ Angela

    Sculpture was his true love, but he couldn't say 'no' to his patron... especially when that patron was the pope :)

    Glad you're finding this series enjoyable... really, it took me months to get the guts to put it up 'cause, in my mind, you can't properly argue the notion of art/writing without giving some kind of background, and I knew that would mean about a week of extremely nerdy/info-heavy posts.

    ...and for those who are totally bored by this, come back on the 16th. No more art-blather then :)

  3. Great post, Ms. Monkey! You've got the kernel of a great idea there--I'm always at a loss to explain why modernism is equally, if not more, valuable than the "great" classics, and you've just given me the answer. Thanks for that!

    P.S. -- glad you enjoyed the guest post :) Don't put the knife away just yet--for the bold of heart and mind, there's all sorts of mischief to get up to :D

  4. @ Guilie

    I think I find it a little funny that things are 'classics' mainly because we've been raised to view them as 'classics'.

    ...can you tell I miss writing research papers?

    ...and you might not want to encourage me to pick up a knife, especially considering the subject matter of most of my stories ;)

  5. I have heard that most of the problem with modern (and post-modern) art is that it is, in effect, masturbation. Wordsworth wrote as a poet being a man writing to men, but very little modern poetry can be said to have that touch of the intimate and universal woven together, and I imagine much the same can be said about most modern art: it's more about what the SELLER wants and then making a market for that. The natural downside to that tends to be a very limited market.

  6. @ alcar

    The term 'artistic masturbation' is generally used when artists are more interested in creating art for themselves and don't care at all about who sees/likes it. This is part of the re-worked idea of *genius*, where people are essentially bullied into saying they like/understand something 'cause of the attitude that only the elite are smart/cultured enough to *get* modern art.

    This is actually the subject of the post going up tomorrow :) ...and I specifically removed the term 'artistic masturbation' because I thought it was too strong a term (though apt). So I think it's hilarious that your mind is on track with where I was going :)

  7. My friends who are artists are not young, one does monet type work centered around the river by her house. She has a day job. The other does very abstract? work and does not make money at it either. Both must paint as part of their nature. “Art” does not have to be works on canvas but film as well. For example Andy Warhol with his views of the city and sleep. Not sure I would call either of them “art”. Then of course there’s John Cage and his piece “silence”. I was subjected to him when I lived in New York. I just read what I wrote. Conclusion: not sure I like “contemporary” art in any form.

  8. @ sue

    I think I can understand that... I think every person needs some kind of creative outlet, whether it's cooking, music, writing, art, etc.

    Interestingly, Andy Warhol was directly rebelling against Pollock's work. Oh, and there's a funny story how Warhol's 'Brillo Boxes' work was being shipped into Canada and was held up at customs 'cause on the paperwork, it labelled it as a 'painting', but they were 3-dimentional replicas (like much of his work).


Type me out a line of Shakespeare or a line of nonsense. Dumb-blonde-jokes & Irish jokes will make me laugh myself silly :)