Thursday, 6 June 2013

The cultural-artistic moonwalk

This is the third in a series of blogposts that discuss art and its relation to the public, or, more precisely, how art is used. I think that this series started because of my critical appraisal of the way art is marketed today, with rigidly distinct spheres of influence, or loci of consumer interest. I don't think things were always like this.

The blogpost series started with 'Some notes on early speculative fiction', in which I bring attention to a couple of instances of artistic ingenuity that were overlooked by readers at the time, but that revealed themselves, in later ages, to have been prescient. In neither case, of course, can you say that the writings "changed the world", simply because noone noticed what had happened. But I think the notion of art "changing the world" is of interest because of the way art has become beholden to market forces; the question issues forth on its own once you become aware of the money dynamics. Art is funny in this way. "Great" art - art that is deemed by popular convention to contain originality or to have "said" things before the work of any other artist did - commands a higher price. This goes for books as much as for the visual arts; that first-edition Joyce your great-grandfather bought in 1925 is going to be worth a lot of money today. Art is also strange, especially in the age of modernity, because those works that eschewed the values of the market are more highly valued, now, than those that merely reflected convention. So the market appropriates artworks relentlessly, and runs like a steamroller over the values that inhere in them, turning them into mere commodities.

The second blogpost in the series, 'The children of the revolution', looked at the death of the Romantic ideal, in the 1850s, and also, at the same time, the radical split between "high" and "popular" culture. The period in which the "children of the revolution" lived is so dense with cultural signification, even today, that the works that were created at that time, especially in English literature and Continental music (particularly the Beethoven - Schubert inheritance), continue to fascinate people living now in a way that those of few other eras do.

I wanted to title this blogpost 'What is art good for?' but I understand that the scope implied by those words would be too ambitious for a single blogpost, so I changed it and decided to stick with a single cultural tendency instead: the act of looking back in order to move forward. Hence the title of this blogpost: 'The cultural-artistic moonwalk'. And I chose as the picture to accompany this blogpost a clip from an 1852 painting by Sir John Everett Millais, titled Ophelia, which many people will instantly recognise, so familiar we are with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an "art movement" to which Millais belonged. The date is significant because it falls right in the middle of my own tonic moment: the 1850s, when the surge of energy that had motivated the Romantics petered out, and art again became so beholden to the market that a group of young men in England decided that a new "art movement" was necessary to regain the authenticity they believed was characteristic of the true role of art. Of course, their own innovations would eventually be appropriated by the market, either through a kind of dead-handed emulation or through the act of art collecting (buying early and cheap and realising capital gains at a later date once the market caught up).

I suggest that the Pre-Raphaelites constitute the first "art movement". It was downhill all the way from then on because art became radically separated from the broader community. Art became, with the advent of Modernism, an elite concern, although that didn't stop it being deeply compromised by the market forces that it seemed always to try to subvert. Funny that. Fascinatingly, the politicisation of the proletariat occurred at the same time, and the chronicler of the proletariat, Karl Marx, was publishing his most famous works at precisely this time in history. Marx, of course, spent his whole life looking back at the past to find indications there of the nexus between labour and capital. For their part, the Pre-Raphaelites also looked back for inspiration and to embellish and furnish the aesthetic moment from which their "art movement" sprang.

Precisely, the Pre-Raphaelites rejected the popular and time-worn manner of the 18th century, and so they violently attacked the preeminent exponent of that kind of painting, Sir Joshua Reynolds; this kind of violent rejection of form is characteristic of all subsequent "art movements". To illustrate the depth of their distaste, the men turned for inspiration to Italian quattrocento art, denigrating along with Reynolds the Renaissance painter Raphael, and celebrating the artists who preceded him.

A historical perspective that is expressed in artworks is an optimistic statement because it presupposes the notion of progress: things are different now than they were before. This historical glance back was not new, indeed, in English culture, and so the Pre-Raphaelites plundering ancient literature for subject matter is not surprising at all. They enthusiastically embraced historical themes, as others had already done.

The act of looking back to mark an awareness of progress first emerged in the middle of the previous century with Horace Walpole’s gothic novel The Castle of Otranto (1764), which came out soon after Edmund Burke’s curious A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) and at the same time as Bishop Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). The antiquary impulse and the gothic novel would culminate in the historical poems and novels of Walter Scott and in some of the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Like Walpole, Scott also fitted out his house with bits and pieces from antiquity, making a sort of TV set full of suits of armour, heraldic items and plenty of leather. As for Coleridge, his weird poetry would subsequently energise Edgar Allen Poe, then Charles Baudelaire. After the energy of the Romantic age exhausted itself, in the 1850s, these aesthetic modes would be appropriated by popular genre fiction, starting with speculative fiction like that of Jules Verne.

Note to self: That moment in the 18th century when some writers demonstrated a sense of progress enjoyed by the broader community is worth spending more time studying. Both of the men in question were oddities, in different ways. The fabulously-wealthy Walpole - whose father was Britain's first "prime minister", a deeply corrupt and avaricious individual - never wrote another book. He spent his remaining time living in his palatial home at Strawberry Fields and writing letters to talented and intelligent women. Burke is another odd one; an Irish protestant who made his way to the bigger world of London, he leveraged the fame his 1757 work gave him and entered politics, eventually becoming a major player in the Whig party and, after the French revolution, a political conservative. Burke's words are often quoted today by people from both sides of the political divide.

It is time now to shear off from discussions of 18th- and 19th-century writers and return to the topic we started out with: the act of looking back to move forward. This brings me to a book I mentioned in one of my Monday blogposts ('Some notes on early speculative fiction'), The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt, a book I am still in the process of reading. The book chronicles much of the lives of two men: the 1st-century-BC poet Lucretius and the 15th-century-AD bibliophile Poggio Bracciolini, a follower of the early Humanist and vernacular poet Petrarch (1304 - 1374). While Petrarch is famous nowadays for his sonnets written in Italian - following the formal lead of Dante Alighieri, who was among the first to write in the vernacular - for Bracciolini Petrarch was rather notable for his enthusiastic collecting of classical Roman and Greek manuscripts. Greenblatt's entire book is dedicated to the story of how a long poem by Lucretius was reclaimed from obscurity by Bracciolini in 1417 and - presumably, I haven't got that far yet - how it influenced people living in what we call the Renaissance.

This cultural "period" - the very idea is symptomatic of the sense of manifest destiny embodied in the 19th century, when such neat historical labels were attached to past eras - is characterised by a change in the relationship of the individual to the world. This accounts for its appeal, its artistic repleteness. (The same can be said of the Romantic period; the American revolution changed the nature of the relationship between the individual and the world. In the case of the Renaissance the change touched on his and her relationship with God, in the case of Romanticism, the change touched on his and her relationship to the state.)

The question with regard to the Renaissance is: what caused it? What role did literature play in that change? Similar questions can be asked with regard to Romanticism, of course, but I suspect that we are still in the midst of that shift today, whereas in relation to the Renaissance the process I think has already played itself out. But perhaps these concerns have already been overtaken by other events. Perhaps the point, in fact, is largely moot. Perhaps it's time to broaden the discussion and shift the boundary lines in order to accommodate the aspirations of the global South, where so many avid fine art collectors come from. For this part of the world, the Renaissance can be looked on as well with eminent distrust as with a sense of patriotism, as it was the time when colonialism by the global North emerged. As for the Romantic period, it's probably worth remembering that when Burke was writing and publishing his famous book on aesthetics England and France were locked in the first global war.

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