Art In History Art Blog
In my last post, I promised to put out some additional posts on the major trends which led up to the phenomenon of Modern Art. One of these was a new way of looking at paintings, one which isolated the aesthetic qualities of the work and appreciated them independent of the subject matter.
In 2000 I did an article called "The Aesthetic Attitude" in which I looked at this phenomenon, and I will include a big chunk of that post here:
[QUOTE]One of the most fascinating of the developments that occurred during the 18th century was the recognition of an independent aesthetic attitude toward art, and indeed toward the world. Of course, this is not the first appearance of such an attitude in mankind__™s artistic history; far from it. But in mainstream European thought, the attitude toward art had since the Renaissance been closely tied to its function, whether religious, patriotic, or at least a reflection of the nobler side of human endeavor.
In the artistic academies of Europe, the principal basis on which a painting was to be judged was the nobility of its subject. There was a hierarchy of subject matter, at the top of which was ___history painting___--great battles, the affairs of kings, and anything from Greek and Roman history or mythology-- and at the bottom, ___genre painting_____"scenes of ordinary life, such as the work by Chardin shown here. Critics were quite able to recognize that the Chardin was wonderful, ___excellent of its kind___, but could not allow that it should be considered in the same breath with a work that set itself to elevate your mind to higher thoughts.
A work which gave 18th century aestheticians fits was the ___Flayed Ox___, a work with a subject so inherently repulsive that it could not even enter the spectrum of acceptable subjects for painting. And yet, they were able to appreciate its wonderful passages of paint __" in short, its aesthetic appeal __" without being able to explain how it was possible.
Finally, toward the end of the 18th century, philosophers like Berkeley hypothesized that we are able to separate one kind of reaction from the other. He proposed that when we are contemplating an object aesthetically, we do not for the moment consider its ___utility___. An old hag, who would necessarily be an object of abhorrence, or at least pity, when contemplated from the viewpoint of ___utility___, might be thought of as beautiful when we contemplate her purely as an aesthetic object. [END QUOTE]
This way of looking is second nature to us now, and we have difficulty understanding that it was a revelation at the time. It's importance cannot be overestimated. To look at a work purely as an aesthetic object, even for a moment, provided the essential component of what would become modern art: the concept of Art for Art's Sake.
The single most important figure in championing this new attitude was Manet. He comes after a half-century of revolutionaries like Delacroix and Courbet, but his own revolution is markedly different than theirs: it is a revolution on the battlefield of art itself.
It is telling to compare Manet's "Olympia", above, with Courbet's "Sleepers". roughly contemporary works. Courbet aggressively attacks traditional standards of nobility and acceptability in subject matter, and it is easy to understand the outrage of his viewers. However, the battle is still all about subject matter. Manet's "Olympia" starts there and moves onto another plane entirely.
Manet uses subject matter to force the viewer to see that it is finally irrelevant. His painting is an obvious reference to Titians' Venus, which would not have been lost on any contemporary viewer. But if you insist of viewing the work in the old way, you soon find that you are a "john" visiting a courtesan, who has just been presented with your bouquet of flowers and is fixing you with a bold and uncompromising stare. Manet seems to be saying "if you won't look at the painting for itself, I don't much care what you think."
The painting, looked at aesthetically, is marvellous. There are wonderful passages of pure paint, in the torso, the bedclothes, and of course the bouquet, which functions much as did the gratuitous still life in Manet's earlier "Luncheon on the Grass". In other words, "get over it and look at my painting." This is the essence of Art for Art's sake. A similar attitude is seen in his "historical" painting, "The Execution of Maximilian", seen here in the preliminary sketch. The treatment of the subject completely vitiates its emotional content, leaving only the paint and the play of lights and darks.
Monet and the Impressionists were a major beneficiary of this new approach. Monet explored the rich aesthetic possibilites of recording the perceptual world BEFORE the mind has had a chance to interpret it, to have an attitude toward it. This "retinal reality" is made up simply of lights and darks, and fragments of color, the stuff out of which we construct the visible world. You could call this "vision for vision's sake".
However, this is still "true to nature"; the following generation saw that this also was unnecessary. Gauguin took the stance that color should stand for the world, not imitate it: if a subject feels red, paint it a pure, intense red. It is a short step from this to Kandinsky and his exploration of the intrinsic emotional content of colors independent of what they describe. As I said in my last post Kandinsky took his inspiration from music, an art form which clearly touches our emotions without any connection to an external reality.
I could end with any of dozens of artists who inherited this new way of looking at art. Arbitrarily I will show a Pollock, "Lavendar Mist", a work which is powerful in its effect, but where a viewer would be hard pressed to associate it with anything in his everyday experience. The power is in the colors, in the restless movement, and most of all (for me) in the clear evocation of the act of creation itself.