Art was originally associated with magic. It had sacred purpose.
It is claimed that Tan-Tan, like the later and more famous, Venus of Willendorf (now called the “Woman of Willendorf) were reputedly fertility symbols. It is more likely that they were talismans, not merely symbols
Unlike an amulet, which is an object with inherent natural magical properties, a talisman ha to be specially worked by hand, to be charged with magical powers. Amulets weren’t specially made and were used more generically for good luck, or to combat evil.
Art and the talisman were inextricably intertwined with the lives of ordinary people and had a deep and powerful purpose: magic. Animals painted on caves such as El Castillo in Spain (40,800 years old) and the Chauvet in France (at least 37,000 years old) were also probably talismanic.
Why bother going to all the trouble of finding and crushing pigments, making brushes, then, using valuable materials such as tallow or firewood spend countless hours painting figures on the walls of cold and inaccessible caves, knowing that few would ever see them? It’s likely they believed that if you captured the image of an animal, or person, you also captured their soul; you had power over them.
This is no fanciful notion. Many Native American tribes were reluctant to have their photographs taken because believed that if you took their photo, you captured their soul. This belief was common in many parts of Africa and even, ironically, Japan, as reported by pioneering Japanese photographer, Ueno Hikoma in the 19th Century.
As far as we know, the first idolatrous, as opposed to magic, or talismanic images appeared during the Neolithic era. The difference between the two is that the idolatrous object itself was worshipped, as opposed to simply having magical properties. These include the “Enthroned Goddess” terracotta figurine of Catal Huyuk, in Turkey (6,000 BC); and the Fish God of Lepenski Vir in Serbia (5,000 BC).
The veneration of statues, or idols such as the Golden Calf in the Old Testament, was common throughout the world.
Idolatrous and magical art was taken to a different level and operated on a vast scale from circa 3,500 BC – 400 AD in Egypt. Egyptian artists created a wide range of artefacts, but mainly architectural or sculptural. They believed that through rituals, statues became actual living beings and were immortal.
In ancient Greece, temples were also built for the gods during the period 600 BCE – 400 CE. Religious Greek art such as the Parthenon, was dedicated to the Goddess Athena on the Acropolis in Athens. Until 400 CE, surviving sacred artworks these too were mainly architectural and sculptural. The Ancient Greeks believed that their gods had human form and that the human body was both secular and sacred. For this reason most of their work was figurative.
Pliny, the Roman historian stated that Roman art was heavily influenced by Greek art. However, as the republic and then empire expanded, it drew on many diverse influences from other cultures, such as Egyptian and even Eastern (when Constantine moved the capital of the empire to Byzantium, now Constantinople).
The Romans too, built temples to their gods and many of the statues themselves were venerated.
In the Christian era of the late Empire, from 350-500 CE, wall painting, mosaic ceiling and floor work, and funerary sculpture thrived, while full-sized sculpture in the round and panel painting died out, most likely for religious reasons.
Byzantine Christians continued the tradition of icons, often in secret. To overcome the charge of producing man-made idols, a tradition arose, called Acheiropoieta, which means “made without hand”. In other words, they claimed that the images were made by God, not man.
In 730, Emperor Leo III banned image veneration. This was continued by his son Constantine V. The ban was lifted and reinstated by succeeding emperors and empresses.
The veneration of images was practiced in many cultures, in the Far East, The Americas and Africa. However, in Europe and the Middle East, the rise of the three monotheistic, Abrahamic faiths, Judaism Christianity and Islam, forbade the making of any graven images or likenesses and the practice virtually disappeared.
The difference between religious and idolatrous art is that, with the latter, the images themselves are venerated, or worshipped. This is not the case with religious art, where originally, before the advent of the printing press, they were used to illustrate biblical scenes for societies, who, for the most part, were illiterate.
Tertullian, who lived in Carthage (now Tunisia), circa 200 AD, argued that all art that seeks to look like something or someone in nature, could be worshiped as idols. He urged artists to give up art and become craftsmen.
In 387 AD, St. Augustine objected to illusory art on different grounds, which surprisingly were raised, although not with the same intent, by Renee Magritte in his “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” Augustine claimed that the image lies because it is not the thing it claims to be. He couldn’t reconcile the illusory lie to divine truth and therefore felt that images were incompatible with Christianity.
However, in spite of their protestations, sculptors and painters continued to depict Christian images., particularly as the new faith increased in popularity around the Roman Empire.
After the decline and fall, or, as some historian now maintain transformation of Rome, in 476 AD, the Eastern, or Byzantine Empire, based in Constantinople, flourished, while the West disintegrated into separate states.
The use of images in Christian art was finally agreed at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. However, it is believed that, as a result of the long-running controversy, after that, Christian images became less naturalistic and more stylised, as can be seen in the mediaeval period, when most art was religious.
As Germanic and Eastern-European people (the Barbarians) moved into the former Roman Empire and were eventually Christianised, new forms of art, like the illuminated manuscript was introduced.
During the Carolingian Period of the Frankish Empire which covered a vast area including modern France and Germany, circa 780-900 AD, Christian monumental sculpture was introduced.
Throughout the Mediaeval period, which also included Romanesque and Gothic Art, Christianity spread and with it, in spite of fluctuations in population, an unprecedented number of cathedrals, churches and monasteries were built. During the Romanesque period, many churches and sculptures were richly (some say even gaudily) painted.
By the 13th Century, Gothic art had replaced Romanesque and many cathedrals and churches were altered to conform to the new style. The introduction of panel paintings for altarpieces, led to the development of a new highly realistic Western style of painting by artists such as Cimabue and later, Giotto.
What of Islam, which arose in the 7th century? According to Zarah Hussein, “Unlike Christian art, Islamic art isn’t restricted to religious work, but includes all the artistic traditions in Muslim culture.” There are other differences too. For example, calligraphy is regarded as a major art form and crafts and decorative arts are regarded as art too. Conversely, painting and sculpture are not thought of as the noblest forms of art.
Between1400 and 1600 Italian Renaissance art was financed primarily by the Christian Church but also by secular rulers such as the Medici and Gonzaga families in Italy. However, a huge proportion of Renaissance painting and sculpture had religious motifs or themes.
It was probably the greatest period of Christian art, which was dominated by giants such as: Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael, Donatello, Botticelli and Bosch. So much has been written about this period, that there’s no need for me to expand any further.
Art was commissioned by rulers such as the medicis and the church for:aesthetic reasons, propaganda purposes, to the glory of God, to demonstarte power, but never for investment.
Following the emergence of Reformation art, the Vatican introduced a propaganda campaign using very realistic and dramatic paintings that would appeal to ordinary people. The chief exponent of the new style was Caravaggio, who used chiaroscuro to great effect.
Between 1650 and 1750, the European art market changed from being public art aimed at the masses in the form Christian architecture, painting and sculpture, to private paintings for the middle classes. Weakened after the protestant split, throughout the 18th century the church spent significantly less than before on religious art.
After the Protestant Reformation leaders in Britain, such as John Calvin ordered churches to be stripped of their paintings and sculptures.
The 19th century produced even less religious art. A few painters continued to paint Biblical scenes, such as the Pre-Raphaelites, but the demand for religious work slumped – a trend that has continued through the 20th Century and the 21st Century. Religious art has become decidedly unfashionable.
The Reformation, humanism and portraiture.
In the age of the Selfie and Facebook it’s difficult to imagine what life would be like without photography and the mechanical image.
Portraiture had a number of different purposes, but it has never been purely utilitarian. In Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome and even Byzantium, portraiture was mainly a public art form. It was used as a display of power and wealth.
The Ancient Egyptians believed that through rituals, statues became actual living beings and were immortal. The likeness wasn’t of primary importance, but artists did attempt a resemblance with the person depicted. The faces on better statues were often individual and recognisable.
The Ancient Greeks produced sculptures and paintings of their gods, their rulers and important people. Some poems praise the likeness of statues of their contemporaries, so we can assume that this was important. The first portrait on coinage is believed to be that of Alexander the Great whose deified portrait of was struck in coinage of Thrace and Egypt after his death.
The Romans followed suit, but as the empire expanded, they drew on other influences, such as the Egyptians. Roman portrait sculpture is noted for its high degree of realism, particularly during the Republican era. Later Imperial portraits are more idealised because, after Augustus, the Emperors were believed to be gods. Some coins depicted the imperial family, or portraits of an emperor from boyhood to his later years.
With the rise of Christianity, during the Middles Ages portraiture declined and was confined mainly to donor portraits.
However, with the advent of Humanism, rise of Protestantism and renewed interest in classical art during the Renaissance, realistic portraiture was revived. Portraits were now commissioned not only by royalty and, to a lesser extent, the church, but by the new, wealthy middle class, led by merchants.
The Elizabethans through Hilliard, Holbein, and Oliver, introduced miniature portraits and, because they were more affordable than large canvasses, the practice spread to other parts of Europe and flourished until 1840.
In 1840, the world’s first photographic portrait studio was opened in New York, by Samuel Morse, yep, the inventor of the telegraph. In following years, thousands of daguerreotypes were produced around the world, particularly for portraits, because they captured likeness accurately and were relatively inexpensive by comparison with paintings. When daguerreotypists started to hand-colour their photographic portraits, many portrait miniaturists found themselves out of work almost overnight.
From the Renaissance up to the mid 20th Century, most major artists included portraiture in their oeuvre. They had to, as it was an important source of income and was demanded by the rich and powerful. These include: Da Vinci, van Eyck, Hans Holbein the Younger, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Velazquez, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Goya, Rossetti, Watts, Manet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Picasso, Modigliani, Sutherland, Freud and Hockney.
According to Roland Barthes in his ‘An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative’, “There are countless forms of narrative in the world… indeed narrative starts with the very history of mankind; there is not, there has never been anywhere, any people without narrative.”
The phrase, “narrative art” was coined in the ‘60s. It was called, “history painting” from the Renaissance to the 19th Century and “history painting”, “subject painting” or “anecdotic painting” in the late Victorian era.
The Ancient Egyptians and Assyrians produced a number of monuments in relief sculpture, showing sequential narratives of hunting and victories in battle.
Ancient Greek vases were decorated with historic and mythological events, such as The painter and potter Exekias, who lived circa 540BC, was one of the best black-figure artists of his time.
Standing 125 feet high, Trajan’s column in Rome, commemorates the emperor’s victory in the Dacian Wars. Completed in 113 AD, it tells the story using thousands of relief carvings which wind up the column.
The 15th Century, mathematician, architect, author, art philosopher and all-round Renaissance man Leon Battista Alberti, stated, “The great work of the painter is the narrative.” From then on, until the 19th Century, High Art, depicting events from history, mythology, the classics and the Bible, was regarded as the highest form of painting.
Low, or Genre Art, which depicted scenes of everyday life (usually sentimental), was ranked third, after portraiture. Genre art reached its zenith during the Victorian era. By today’s standards, much of the work, and a lot was produced, strikes us as mawkish and sentimental, best epitomised by “Bubbles” and “Dignity and Impudence”.
Writing about an exhibition called ‘Victorian Sentimentality’ at Tate Britain in 2012, Serena Trowbridge wrote, “The first painting I saw was Landseer’s “Dignity and Impudence” (1839)…” (The painting depicts a large Labrador and small dog of indeterminate breed sitting together in a large kennel) My first response to the painting is a kind of disapproval, almost disgust, and yet it’s well-painted, and I like dogs. But its sentimentality, which, like nostalgia, is viewed with deep suspicion by academe, puts me off…But what is wrong with it? A lot of it must be about a mistrust of the cliche. The title is also unhelpful, something which I noticed throughout the exhibition; it tries to transform a picture of two dogs into something higher, something human, even, and that seems rather – facile, or trite. Perhaps it is academic snobbery…”
Shades of Damien Hirst’s equally pretentious titles, such as, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.” Methinks. His title tried to elevate a dead shark and himself into something higher too. But I digress.
Narrative art was vigorously rejected by the Impressionists and other modernists. It prevailed in the USA until the end of WWII, which I covered earlier. The chief exponent of genre art in the USA was Norman Rockwell, whose work was branded mediocre and old-fashioned by the abstract expressionists. He was also branded and illustrator, not an artist.
Responding to criticisms, Rockwell wrote: “The critics say that any proper picture should not tell a story but should be primarily a series of technical problems of light, shadow, proportion, colour and voids. I say that if you can tell a story in your picture, and if a reasonable number of people like your work, it is art….I feel that I am doing something when I paint a picture that appeals to most people.”
His work did appeal to most people, but the tide had turned against realism and narrative art in general. Both Edward Hooper and William Wyeth’s work was also rejected by the abstractionists and they never regained full recognition.
Art as an investment.
Before 1945, most new art was not bought primarily and overtly for investment by collectors. Works had to prove their worth over time.
In 1944, Mark Rothko wrote to his sister, “I am framing my own pictures, seeing loads of people, going miserably into debt, because it takes money to put up a show right. I hope to sell enough to cover that expense. Such is my life.”
He sold only three paintings for a total of $265. Shortly after this he shifted away from surrealism and, influenced by his friend, Still, began painting abstracts.
Just six years later, in 1950, he completed a painting, “White center (yellow, pink and lavender on rose)” which was sold to good old David Rockefeller for an undisclosed sum. In 2007, at Sotheby’s New York it sold for more than $72 million, making it one of the most expensive contemporary artworks ever sold at auction.
How did this happen?
Briefly, after WW2, as part of Eisenhower’s new popaganda war programme, the CIA was charged with promoting cultural freedom and chose Abstract Expressionism as a uniquely American style of art.
Like the Nazis, the USSR and China promoted realistic art and condemned everything else as degenerate.
The CIA spent untold $ millions to support and promote the abstract expressionist movement with the help of the Museum of Modern Art and the Rockefeller family . Realism became passé as art critics praised action painting. Galleries, museums, and private collectors spent fortunes collecting Abstract Expressionist works. Rockefeller’s personal collection of over 2,500 Abstract Expressionist works ended up being worth an enormous fortune.
The cultural centre of the art world switched away from Europe and artists such as Picasso, who was a Communist, to the USA.
Following Rothko’s suicide in 1970, Kate Rothko, his daughter, later sued the painter’s estate executors and the directors of his gallery in a dispute over 700 of his paintings. Commenting on it, John Corry of the New York Times wrote, “The case involving Mark Rothko’s paintings has nothing to do with art at all. It has to do with money and power in a very small world, and that is what so much of the art world has been about all along.”
Many Abstract Expressionist’s work appreciated dramatically in value in a short period and, surprisingly, is still appreciating.
In the late 50s, the Fluxus movement rejected and reacted against the rigid aesthetics and rank commercialism of Abstract Expressionism. But, like the Dadaist before them, they were marginalised by a new art movement.
Sex, love and Rock ‘n’ Roll – enter Pop Art.
Baby boomers weren’t interested in big, moody abstracts. For them, art should reflect their interests, which were: films, advertising, comics, packaging, sex and music.
Richard Hamilton listed the ‘characteristics of Pop Art’ as follows: “Popular (designed for a mass audience), Transient, Expendable, Low cost, Mass produced, Young, Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous and Big business.”
The obsession with money in art was epitomised by one “artist” who trained as a commercial illustrator, Andy Warhol. In his deeply superficial book ‘The Philosophy of Andy Warhol’, he wrote, “Making money is art and working is art, and good business is the best art.”
He made vast quantities of money and collectors are still making huge profits from buying and selling his work – and that of his assistants – although no-one’s too sure of whose is whose. Ironically, his “200 One Dollar Bills” sold for $43.8m in 2009. Isn’t that amazing? It’s almost on a par with turning water into wine. His “Eight Elvises sold for $100m in October 2008 and “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)” sold for a staggering $105.4m in 2013.
According to Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, “…as Jerrold Levinson and others have pointed out, a work can be an important artistic achievement without being an important aesthetic achievement. This, I suggest, is how we should think about Warhol’s Brillo boxes.”
I would go one step further and state that Warhol’s Brillo boxes (and most of his ouput) are an important achievement of art as business and investment.
In 1973. Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Henry Geldzahler said about Warhol, “Andy’s going to feed a lot of artists for a long time.” He has, because he introduced a number of practices which have been taken up by artists such as Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Dickie Prince. Like him, Koons and Hirst have hordes of assistants who do much of the work. Like him all three have been sued for plagiarism, referred to euphemistically as “appropriation”. Warhol called his studio, “The factory”. Damien Hirst calls his “Science”.
The art market was manipulated for political means, for America, for freedom, for the West, for democracy, but ironically, the lasting legacy was that, it had become a political pawn. In spite of what the public thought, it was validated by the critics such as Greenberg; by one of the world’s richest collectors, Nelson Rockefeller and by the Museum of Modern Art.
Art had been manipulated and traded like a whore. Art had become a commodity. Once the CIA got the ball rolling, for the best of reasons, everyone involved: museums, galleries, dealers, critics, curators and collectors were obliged to maintain prices and interest.
Investment had torn the heart out of art.