The debate about the continuing use of the term ‘Old Master’ has been re-energised by exhibitions shortly to open or reopen, such as ‘Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company’ at the Wallace Collection and ‘Women Modern Masters’ at The Scottish Gallery.
I work with pictures and words because they have the power to determine who we are and who we aren’t – Barbara Kruger
From the late twelfth-century, the term ‘master’ was used of a ‘man eminently or perfectly skilled in something,’ who is also a teacher of another. From the 1300s this was specifically applied to a ‘master workman or craftsman,’ while the term ‘old masters’ is attested from 1733. Phrases such as ‘grandmaster,’ ‘headmaster,’ ‘master-mind,’ ‘masterpiece,’ ‘master-stroke,’ ‘master’s degree’ and ‘master-work’ all contain the implicit assumption that authority and achievement pertain to men.
Its derivation from the late Old English word mægester, which means ‘a man having control or authority over a place,’ demonstrates those patriarchal origins, while by 1705 the word had been paired with slave in the legal language of the American colonies in Virginia and from 1935 the term ‘master race’ began to appear in Nazi ideology. So, this is a term freighted with meaning, much of it associated with control or oppression. As a result, the term ‘Old Masters’ is increasingly out-moded; being gender-specific and having associations with imperialism and the slave trade.
The artists termed ‘Forgotten Masters’ in the Wallace Collection exhibition were forgotten because those with power in their day and time and subsequently – the ‘masters’ – did not esteem them in the same way as their work was esteemed. To speak of ‘Women Modern Masters,’ as with the Scottish Gallery exhibition, risks the perpetuation of patriarchal language, rather than its subversion. The cultural assumptions of the past continue to impact us through language we have inherited and often use without questioning the presuppositions by which that language was shaped.
In terms of the aspect of the visual arts on which I write most frequently, I need to acknowledge that, in the spaces which connect religion and art, the same assumptions have often held sway. The Dominican Friars Marie-Alain Couturier and Pie-Raymond Régamey, for example, argued in the journal ‘L’Art sacré’ that ‘each generation must appeal to the masters of living art, and today those masters come first from secular art.’ When we look at those they commissioned, reflecting the assumptions of their day, those ‘masters’ were primarily (while not exclusively) male.
Words shape people and cultures as they are a primary tool for expression and communication; although sight precedes speech. Religions recognise this power, with the Judea-Christian tradition containing stories in which God creates by means of speech and where we exercise our creativity by naming what we see around us. From Joseph Kosuth, onwards, many artists have also made language central to their creative practices. The work of Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Guerilla Girls, Ed Ruscha, Corita Kent and Colin McCahon, amongst many others, testifies to the creative power of language in forming and reforming cultural norms.
Barbara Kruger said, ‘I work with pictures and words because they have the power to determine who we are and who we aren’t.’ Museums are increasingly and rightly reviewing their collections; the invisible collections of uncollected works as well as the visible collections of works previous generations deemed collectable. We are all the richer for the untold stories and little-seen works that have emerged from such reviews. We will benefit similarly by reviewing and subverting the assumptions that exist within the words and phrases used to describe the value of art if that process also enables those untold stories and little-seen works to be seen and heard.
Those who question the value of continuing to utilise words and phrases that encapsulate notions of oppression are not saying anything that artists haven’t already said before or that hasn’t already been explored within their work. When the Art world listens to artists and the questions they raise, it is on the right track.
Words: Revd Jonathan Evens Top Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2020