Art and Democracy

Art as Theology: Chapter Five

      1. The French Revolution
      2. Radical Technique
      3. Escape from Freedom
      4. The Media and Art

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The French Revolution

Perhaps the greatest irony of modern art is that its elite position in culture could not fully exist before the French revolution. The aristocracy's stranglehold on European culture was broken and the church lost is credibility, or at least its defining role, with most of the aristocracy and the educated middle class. But unlike the Protestant break from Rome, or the American revolution, the French revolution left a cultural void. The Catholic Church lost it's position of authority, with many Catholic institutions coming under direct assault. The Protestant community had suffered decades of murderous attacks, which left them weak and disorganized.

Therefore the artist was freed of the social control that had held the artisans in place. Competing elites could now flourish. When the French revolution brought down the aristocracy, both the bourgeois and the artist were free to express and to act on their self-importance. A sort of artistic republicanism took over, whereby artists as their own representatives could vie for cultural leadership. With the aristocratic support gone or severely weakened, arts academies, informal schools of art which held gatherings called salons, became the most important gathering place for social elites and artists. Favored artists were rewarded with a place at the table of the most important and artistically aware of the wealthy patrons. The seed of artistic self-importance had been planted and was growing like wildfire.

Robert Hughes, in the book to his BBC documentary “The Shock of the New”, suggests “the idea of a cultural avant-garde was unimaginable before 1800. It was fostered by the rise of the European bourgeoisie and its liberal beliefs. In a world where the tastes of courts, religious or secular, determined patronage, the idea of ‘subversive’ innovation as the basis of artistic development could not have occurred, nor could the Romantic worship of the artist's creative powers. Not until the nineteenth century, when God began to die in good earnest, would his traits of omnipotence and self-sufficiency become displaced onto the figure of the painter or sculptor, or art itself became a substitute for religious experience. That the meaning of works of art should be controlled by patronage, and therefore by dogma, ideology, and political needs, was simply one of the donnees of creative work before the bourgeois triumph of 1789, and not yet an intolerable invasion of the artist's realm.” (Hughes, 1980. Page 366).

The crumbling of the old order, and the explosion of social and economic theories from a multitude of new voices encouraged artists to rethink their own profession. The artist was now captain of their own vessel. Groups of artists formed outside of the circle of patrons. Not only did these gatherings foster new approaches to art, they also became the hotbed of new theories which soon changed the rules of the game. Courbet was one of the first well known artists without visible patronage. He perfected the Bohemian outsider image still essential to new artists and arts movements, (Wolfe, 1975).

According to sociologist Diane Crane, “the conflicting conceptions of the artistic role at the present time have their origins in a wider range of artistic roles that emerged in the fragmentation of modern society, the artist was free to assume social attitudes that would not have been acceptable in earlier periods when the arts were patronized by a social elite whose values they reflected. Two artistic roles which emerged during this period were those of iconoclast and aesthetic innovator. The early iconoclasts saw art as a way of attacking bourgeois conventions, as in the case of Impressionist painters such as Manet.” (Crane, 1987. Page 138).

The Protestant Revolution had raised the standard of religious purity against corrupt spiritual and political leadership. This drove an intellectual fire storm in the realms of religion, politics, economics and philosophy. The American revolution was the beachhead for many of the cutting edge ideas in political thought. American democracy created a nation without a king and without an aristocracy. The United States of America was for all of that was still guided by strong Puritan or at least Protestant ethos which kept the artistic atmosphere Spartan.

On the other hand, the French Revolution which followed, was a disordered affair full of bloodshed and violence. The French air was full of self-expression. The dominant religion that was taking hold of France and much of Europe was humanism. Although democracy was an up and down affair in French politics, often with very bad results for the losers in the shifting of political fortunes, the notion of a pure ideal driving the lone visionary against a sea of vulgar masses was here to stay. Therefore every citizen's vision was of equal significance. Democracy had taken hold of the imagination at a very personal level. Without social, political or religious factors to stop the artist, a new artistic ‘movement’ could spring forth wherever a willing audience could be found.

When Gustave Courbet's work and his realist theories were attacked by the Right, Courbet relished the opportunity it gave him to espouse himself all the more, (Myers, 1967. Page 346). While his paintings and what he had to say about them fades in significance, (Hughes, 1980. Pages 368-371), his outspokenness and willingness to shock the public with his ‘Realism’ makes him significant. He was living in the time of the Paris Commune of 1848, and fully believed in his own importance. The more that was said about him, positive or negative, the greater swelled his ego. He was delighted by the controversy which surrounded him. “My painting is the only true one,” he declared, “I am the first and unique artist of this century. The others are students and drivelers.” (Hughes, 1980. Page 369).

As an artist, Courbet was pronouncing his independence from all previous social bonds that held for the artist. While his liberation is not a singular event, for painters, Courbet was the most flamboyant of the early avant-garde. His high visibility makes him more than the father of Realism, but also the father of the avant-garde itself. The impressionist who followed were very consciously revolutionary.

The concept of revolution has never strayed very far from Modern art. Revolution comes in several stripes. Herbert Spencer published his Principles of Psychology in 1855, the same year that Courbet finished his painting 'The Studio' that shocked Paris by its banal allegory in monumental size (12' tall by 20' wide). Only seven years earlier, 1848, The Communist Manifesto was published, and the Paris Commune brought down Louis Phillipe, bringing Napoleon to power. Courbet stood in the capital of a revolutionary whirlwind. While Courbet's technique was still entrenched in tradition, he tantalized the public in a new way. 'The Studio' called into question contemporary notions of what was proper subject matter, or more provocatively, what is heroic stature. Unlike the socialists of the Paris Commune, Courbet was questioning the viewer's assumptions.

Courbet's puffery aside, he had exposed a cultural nerve. Like it or not, the grand epics of history, the stories of noble victory or tragedy, were becoming superfluous to a society caught in industrial transformation. Nobility was losing all significance in the new politics of industry. By focusing his sights on the small and insignificant, Courbet gave a naughty wink and skipped away from the hollow shell of a dying age. Spirituality in France had declined to a very low ebb. Protestant reformers, the Huguenots, had been brutally suppressed, while the Roman church was so intertwined with the monarchy that scores of priests and nuns were led to the guillotine during the French revolution. Courbet was pointing out flowers sprouting up in a fire ravaged landscape.


Radical Technique

Courbet's independence as an artist is further capitalized on by the Impressionists. “Never before in history have artists been so isolated from society and from official sources of patronage as were the so-called Impressionists. Their sensuous approach to landscape through the medium of colour seems to have no connection with the intellectual currents of the time.” (Clark, 1969. Page 341). While the patronized art continued with little change, in their isolation, the Impressionists were free to carry out bold experiments in aesthetics. Monet, Cezanne and Van Gogh, inspired by the aesthetics of Realism, were free to try new color theories and test new pigments. Of the three, only Cezanne remained in Paris. Monet and Van Gogh retired to the countryside to paint. Their isolation protected them from public criticism.

The Impressionists completely divorced art from any political, spiritual or religious roots. By choosing mundane everyday subject matter, itself a political statement of diffidence, Impressionist painters toyed with atmospheres and techniques. Impressionist paintings are about painting. Impressionism takes no interest in politics or religion. Impressionism is not sentimental. It is as if the subject matter where the most uninteresting snapshots of life.

When the Impressionists did broach their isolation, they had crystalized many earlier experiments in a startling new ways. “Their eight cooperative exhibitions, held between 1874 and 1886, usually irritated the public. But their technique was actually less radical than it seemed at the time; in certain respects they were merely developing the color theories of Leonardo and the actual practice of Rubens, Constable, Turner, and Delacroix.” (Gardner, 1959. Page 662). The impact of the Impressionist's paintings was nothing like that of Rubens or Delacroix, the saturated colors were so prominent as to startle the unprepared viewer. The choppy strokes of brilliant color, common to Rubens and Delacroix, made all the more obvious by the subdued subject matter of Realism suddenly rushed to the surface. The bland subject matter faded in brilliant impressionistic atmospheres.

The concept of the Avant-Garde was coming of age. The artists were now clearly independent and capable of taking a leading role in re-defining aesthetics. While Corbett was as much a political animal as he was an artist, the Impressionists stood apart from the politics of the time. After several hundred years of clashes over religion followed by the fall of the French crown, and now a bitter political chaos, many in France just wanted out of the violence. The Left wanted the artists to follow Courbet's lead. To quote Hughes, “The idea of a fusion between radical art and radical politics, of art as a direct means of social subversion and reconstruction has haunted the Avant-Garde since Courbet's time.” (Hughes, 1980. Page 371). In fact, very few artists have been comfortable with radical politics.

The Impressionists perfected Courbet's Bohemian diffidence into an art form in and of itself. By retiring from the cultural circle and cultural style in opposition to contemporary trends, they established an archetype of reclusiveness, which Tom Wolfe lovingly dubs the ‘boho dance’, (Wolfe, 1975. Page 19). He likens this to a brief dance craze called the Apache dance, where the female alternately stamps about wildly or feigns indifference, always enticing the male, while resisting his every advance. The dance builds in passionate fury until the female submits in one last crescendo of ecstasy. So the artist retires to Bohemian purity, but continues to wave the red banner of aesthetic superiority before the bulls of culture. They almost always eventually come in the door and claim their prize, an invitation to all the best dinner parties and a prominent place in the discussions of the day. The history of modern art is a history of Bohemian invasions of the meccas of art.

While the political left is arguing for structural change, the artist is engaging the individual through the senses. Outside of blatant propagandistic ‘art’ there is no attempt to analyse or engage the political structure. The revolution in the arts being first of all one of aesthetics, modern art is built on a string of changes in the way we see art; subsequently, in the hopes of many in the artistic community, the way we see the world.

It is difficult, if not impossible, for an artist to believe in structural change the way the Left does. The belief that changing a political institution will magically transform the world makes little sense to someone who gazes at a leaf looking for a way to express its unseen character. the artist knows that the solution lies in an place the eye cannot see.


Escape from Freedom

“Already the writers are complaining that there is too much freedom. They need some pressure. The worse your daily life, the better your art. If you have to be careful because of oppression and censorship, this pressure produces diamonds.” (Tatyana Tolstaya, Russian author, 1990).

France released an anarchy of thought on so many different levels that Europe and French polity reacted against it. But the genie could not be put back in the bottle. Once the notion was established, “I am the captain of my own ship”, it spread throughout the Western World. Our modern culture is by now so thoroughly democratized that leadership seems impossible. Every individual's opinion is just as important as the opinion of the President or the Prime Minister. As a result, every decision is picked apart by the press, by interest groups and by the political opposition. Approaching anarchy is kept in check by convulsions of repressive backlash. In the vacuum of vision, style outweighs substance. With so many opinions, opinions cease to count. The appearance of leadership is much safer than leadership. An actor can play the part of the president better than a seasoned politician. The success of a company is determined not by the admiration of customers and employees, but by the value in the stock market and the success of its latest advertising campaign.

“The ultimate irony is that the democratization of art has resulted in the most undemocratic situation: how you look determines who you are, and cash determines caste. In this situation, it is no surprise that art has turned into fashion. When people line up at discotheques and restaurants not to dance or to eat but to look at the decor, you know that life, not art, has become the spectator sport.” (Rose, 1988, pp.292-293). Out of this statement two issues emerge. First, modern art has to be sold. For art to have value in the marketplace it needs its own market mechanisms.

Has art become elitist? The democracy of the situation has not ceased to exist. The undemocratic nature to which Diane Rose refers above is caused by institutions which are designed to separate ‘Art’ from the anarchy of artistic output. ‘Art’ is sanctioned by showings in major galleries, museums, or other institutions of the ‘Arts’. Much of modern art is an elite enterprise, because it is filtered through those cultural channels. The result is that “Fine Art” is created by specialists for a small portion of the public who have been well educated to be able to appreciate the various -isms of the arts. Those pieces highly esteemed by the mavens of art, reach incredible prices at auction.

The democratic nature of taste, is not so easily controlled. The gatekeepers of the arts have no choice but to acknowledge the art that comes to signify a social trend. The energy of the street must be allowed to creep into the sanctuary of the museum space. Whether it is Ken Keasey's bus or tagger art, any enshrinement of artistic revolution must acknowledge the revolution that gains traction. The cultural elites are dragged by their own dogma.

Secondly, and more importantly for this discussion, there is underneath Rose's statement a creeping concern that the substance of art, spiritual depth, has been entirely lost. In Diane Crane's observation, in the preceding section, the two dominant roles of modern art are the iconoclast and the aesthetic innovator. Both roles suggest and continue resistance against the art of yesterday, except in the museum space. In essence, the revolutionary notion has so dominated modern arts that it has eaten away its own soul from inside out. It has picked its bones clean and left nothing but a shell which mocks its very existence. Without a revolution the artist has nothing left to say. Or to use the theme of another artist, Modern Art is the art of the Hollow Man.

Modern art, as an art of revolutionary innovation, struggles with the fact that it is constantly sawing off the branch on which it sits. In the end the tree itself is used up. Popular art is all about capturing the attention of enough people to make its production lucrative. In a world self-absorbed and without direction an enticing vulgarity seems to dominate. There is no shortage of desire to lead in a fresh spiritual vision. But no vision seems able to push aside the self-absorption, until the social situation becomes desperate. At this point, the reactionary vision seems to take hold, whether it is Communism, Fundamentalism, Sharia, Fascism, or whatever the future comes up with, it is all ultimately an attempt to put the genie back in the bottle and to enter into some mythic spiritual perfection.


The Media and Art

How do these specialized arts institutions gain their significance. First they are in constant communication with the artists and the artistic community. Artists advance ideas and new work with the hope of gaining influence with the reviewers and the gallery owners. The larger institutions are often intimately associated with and often supported by academic institutions. These same academic institutions teach the courses and publish the books which teach us what to look for in ‘Art’. Moreover the artists of tomorrow are being developed in these academic gestation tanks.

On the other hand, there is ‘art’ which arises outside of the artist community. This includes the art of niche cultures (‘hippies’, ‘inner city’) or the art of other political or cultural movements which develope outside of the standard culture channel. It is cliché to bemoan the lack of new artist access to publishing and other media outlets. The mere fact that you can read this attests to the fact that there is no lack of outlets for the artistic or scholarly enterprise. The issue is how an artist can be heard above the din of so many voices. I have worked in the arts for several decades and can assure you that talent is not enough, not because there are so many barriers, but because there is so much talent. The barriers are there to so that the decision makers don't have to listen to all the American Idol hopefuls. Genuine talent will natural rise above the rest. Talent that gains an audience will attract the publishers, the pundits, the studios, etc. Museums and other institutions are on a constant lookout for new ideas and fresh approuches.

Outside of the high arts scene there is the popular art of style, fashion and entertainment. Popular art is controlled by large movie studios, publishers, media producers and commodity producers. They gain their significance by media attention, sheer volume and accessibility. Advertisers heavily influence the popular arts. But with so many new social network channels opening, there are many new ways for a look, a movie, or an idea to push its way through the crowd. Ultimately, this is a world that bends to the buzz no less than the high arts do. In this case, however, the judges are the millions of buyers, internet clicks, or other recognitions that generate the financial market that causes the popular art market to expand in the direction it does. It may not have the sophisticated reasoning of the high art scene, but it is ultimately the real democratic art.

The ultimate force limiting the arts is the public's appetite. The public is willing to support the fine arts through the National Endowment for the Arts and through corporate grants. Corporations generally make these grants based on the image that it projects to the consumer of their products. Popular arts are directly voted on by the tickets sold, the books sold, or the number of viewers willing to sit through the advertising. Essentially this means that all the talent in the world means nothing unless there is a large enough, or significant enough slice of the public interested.

If our appetites rule, what does the current artistic climate tell us about ourselves? It used to be common to hear the sophisticated public decry the vulgarity of the arts of the masses. It would seem the sneer has no home any more, as the vulgar has thoroughly invaded the most sophisticated museum, ballet or opera house. I remember viewing an exhibit of an Italian artist at a local museum. My brother and I kept remarking to each other, “he seems to have an issue with the church”. The spiritual content had been reduced to how the artist felt about the church. Needless to say, I don't care how clever his sneer, I have a difficult time calling this art at all. Since I don't share his sympathies, I was particularly put off by this display of vulgar hubris. My brother is not a lover of the church, but was no more impressed with this petulance. Is this the extend of spiritual depth that we can share? Has all vision, hope or dream been dissolved in the constant revolt?


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copyright © 1999 Wm W Wells. All rights reserved.