Friday, January 2, 2015

Where did it come from and where is it going?

Though artists have always been with us, the term Fine Arts, as it is understood and promoted today, is a twentieth-century invention. It has its roots in the 18th century when it included architecture, music, theater, and poetry. By the mid-1920s it was applied solely to painting and sculpture. The term's purpose is to distinguish between works created primarily for aesthetic reasons and graphics developed in the applied or commercial arts. Nevertheless (ironically), it has been retroactively applied to the works of the great masters, who were both applied and commercial artists in their day.

Mid-Twentieth Century Avant-garde
Mid-Twentieth Century Avant-garde: Abstract Expressionist Artist Jackson Pollock at work in his studio, c1953.

Before painting and sculpture's relatively recent metamorphosis to pure aesthetics or "art for art's sake", artists had been ensnared within a cocoon of patron-fostered specifications and requirements so as to produce representational renderings of historical, mythological and religious scenes, as well as meticulously accurate and lifelike portraiture.

Tradition Ends
Visual arts departed from strictly realistic renderings and began resembling something akin to visual verse only after the proliferation of photography when academicians began to be displaced by the camera. The French Impressionists of the late nineteenth century would usher in the first avant-garde art movement of freely rendered images (read more: "The Seeds of Modern Art").

Academics vs. Impressionists
Academics vs. Impressionists: The painting Impression Sunrise (1872) by Claude Monet (above right) illustrates a major departure in paint application from the academic style of the day like Casting from Life (1887) by 19th-century academician Édouard Joseph Dantan (above left). 

However, it wouldn't be until the twentieth century, when the original Impressionist were either dead or infirm, that the movement began to be accepted by the managing decedents of the Paris Salon, the Royal Academy and a broader market of discerning collectors. With the exception of an enlightened few, it would take yet another generation for the broader public to acknowledge less than photographic likenesses of man and nature to be more than a fad. By then, Post-Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, and Cubism were well underway.

Before Impressionism, Fine Art's first formal avant-garde movement, the idea that someone like Corot or Monet or might choose to paint a field of wildflowers one day and a sailboat upon water the next was an unknown consideration. Even the earlier academicians would stay in close communication with their art agents so as not to labor over something which might not be well received. However, since the Impressionists were, for the most part, unable to sell their works, they became the first to express an unusual freedom of style and subject matter.

Pre-Fine Arts
Before the modern era, back when painted images not only had to be accurate likenesses of the commissioned subject, with few exceptions, the subject matter was dictated by the patron acquiring the work.

Historical art figures are today lumped together in that revered talent pool labeled the Old Masters. These artists were not only encumbered with realistic depictions and patron specified inclusions, more often than not they had to perform under the watchful eye of an architect, estate director or before an audience of the patron's family and friends.

Michelangelo, after finally getting his way to paint depictions of Genesis on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, was shadowed by friar Giles Antonini throughout the project's duration of four long years. Antonini's job was to keep the hired artist in line with the Pope's wishes while staying in tune to the Church's own scriptural interpretations of Genesis.

Applied Arts vs. free Fine Arts expression
Applied Arts vs. free Fine Arts expression: Michelangelo's controlled and supervised Sistine Chapel Ceiling detail (c.1512) in contrast to the freedom expressed by artist Kazimir Malevich with his canvas entitled Black Circle (c.1915) 

Consequently, the success of an Old Master was directly based upon a broad rating of ability and developed skill sets. This skill or talent was the result of years of training to become a qualified tradesman. It began as early as 9 or 10 years of age, which then developed into a full-time apprenticeship, then to journeyman. With any luck, a talented individual might eventually become a studio head. Only occasionally did an exceptional individual manage to break away to become an independent master, usually opening a shop of their own to accept apprentice applicants.

Consciously or otherwise, a somewhat anti-social, van Gogh stereotype is today applied to fine artists. However, before avant-garde, studio heads and masters were required to have the necessary people skills to survive in their posts. For those who could not entertain their audiences with charm or wit, their application of paint or clay often required a dandified approach required to entertain their audience. The exceptions, of course, were the likes of Michelangelo, whose grumpy passport was stamped with exceptional talent (referred to today as genius). Exceptional talent not only opened doors but also created schools of thought and followings. Just as Michelangelo reestablished the Greco-Roman adulation of the human form, Rembrandt applied his exceptional skills to elevate character portraiture from a grinding trade to a new level of class ennoblement.

History is spotted with similar instances of genius shaping the trades then known as only painting and sculpture. This continued until the advent of the photograph which proliferated via the first portable cameras. The photograph began to manifest at a time of artistic style saturation when an abundance of similar painting styles had resulted from uniformly unvarying academic training. Nevertheless, photography and market saturation would not be the only forces to topple strict representational depictions. The Industrial Revolution would play a major role.

Photography and Children in the Industrial Revolution
Photography and children in the Industrial Revolution: The proliferation of photography (early portable camera above left) was accompanied by the displacement of children from early apprenticeships to assembly-line positions during the early days of the Industrial Revolution, c1880.

Industrial Revolution
As many an industry expert has proclaimed "Saturation is a bitch!" With today's housing, software, computers and the like, a point is often reached where X amount of goods roughly equals Y amount of buyers. Total saturation is rarely met, but a threshold of saturation is often reached where most competitors fall by the wayside. Exceptions would be things like fuel and food.

Traditional Trade Apprenticeship
Traditional Trade Apprenticeship: Angel(s) painted
by Leonardo while an apprentice to Verrocchio (from
The Baptism of Christ, c1472 - Uffizi Gallery)
In any event, around the time the photograph began to be embraced, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Now, money was being spent on seemingly countless new, manufactured products. Art, with all its repetitive subjects and themes, was suddenly considered to have hit a never before experienced threshold of saturation.

Sending children to work in factories was far more lucrative than most previously established trades, including the arts. For centuries their tiny hands and incredibility keen eyesight had been employed in detail painting or scrupulously refined sculpting. Suddenly, these gifts were in demand in factories. Early apprenticeship in the arts (painting, sculpture, music, architecture, theater) would be replaced with children entering the industrial labor force. Quick profits and easy earnings would supplant hard fought careers in many trades, while new trades of plumbing, electricity and mechanical repair began to emerge. The world had changed and, for good or bad, its artistic priorities along with it.

The Impressionists and subsequent generations of avant-garde artists were revolutionaries and, like political revolutionaries were often kept at arms-length during their lifetimes. They arrived from all walks-of-life. A lucky few came from wealthy families with established allowances, but many were poor. However, almost all embraced a bohemian, somewhat monastic, lifestyle. Luckily, artists' colors were just beginning to be manufactured in collapsible tin tubes, so costs were often less than grinding one's own paint. At the same time, manufactured canvas was pouring out of weaving factories, again at an all-time low cost.

Over time, subsequent avant-garde movements would arise including Post-Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, Dada, Futurism, Geometric Abstraction, Modernism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism. In total, more than a hundred identified avant-garde movements have occurred in almost as many years since Impressionism (click to view listing).

Europe's Priceless Art Treasures
Europe's Priceless Art Treasures: American GIs recovering artwork stolen by Nazis are impressed with monetary value as well as the sheer quantity of artwork which existed throughout Europe. 

However, it wasn't until the end of WWII, when American GIs returned home with tales of Europe being littered with priceless art, that a broader interest in art and, in particular, the economics of painting and sculpture spread throughout North America. Soon after, New York joined London and Paris as the world hubs for Fine Arts. Art museums began, for the first time, to outnumber museums dedicated to displaying natural history and man-made artifacts. Today, hardly a city exists in North America, which does not claim its own art museum.

21st Century Economics
Today's population growth continues to compete with the declining availability of jobs. Consequently, the art buying public has declined to become the buying few. As photography, the motion picture and television increasingly diminished an interest amongst the working class and bourgeoisie to purchase artwork, recent global economic downturns limit the purchase of today's artwork to those with the greatest disposable incomes. Purchases by the wealthy tend to be of high-end artwork ($60k and up) and fall into two categories: 1) investment and 2) decorative. For many of today's nouveau riche, appreciation of artistic merit is not necessarily a purchasing requirement. Being professionally focused away from Fine Arts, familiarity with some 100+ schools of avant-garde remains increasingly unlikely. This has resulted in today's art sales being broken into three distinct categories:

  • High-End ($60K and up into the tens of millions) 
    • Premier galleries, auction houses, museums
  • Medium ($10K - $40K) 
    • Local private galleries 
  • Low-End ($100 - 10K)
    • Retail galleries, art fairs and the Internet* 
*usually never exceeds $2500

The Fine Art Industry at Work
The Fine Art Industry at Work: High-end art auctions annually yield billions of dollars in revenues from fine art paintings and sculpture.

The medium and low-end markets are prevalent in most cities. The high-end United States market is centralized in New York and Los Angeles (and to some extent Chicago and Dallas). In Europe, Paris and London dominate, with emerging markets in Germany and China. For the broad public, the most common venue is the Art Fair, where Arts and Crafts along with Jewelry share half or more of the display space traditionally assigned to painting and sculpture.

Heavy Hitter: Paul Cézanne
Heavy Hitter: Paul Cézanne - The
Card Players sold for $274. It holds the
record for highest valued sale of artwork
In addition to a broadening of the low-end with additional art objects, the high-end market has recently seen an influx of reputable publication artists, like Norman Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth, commercial artists whose works were, until recently, considered taboo by most fine art institutions.

Regarding high-ranking worth, the Mona Lisa by Leonardo, c.1517, is considered to have the greatest (unknown) insurance value. However, Paul Cézanne's The Card Players (c.1894) saw the highest yield sale for artwork, selling at $274 million in April of 2011.

Modern Saturation
As photography and the Industrial Revolution paved a distinct path for the transition from trade-based art to art for art's sake, so too does the computer and collapsing industrialization impact today's art culture. Clearly, the word on everyone's lips during the 19th and first half of the 20th century was "progress". However, if indeed "progress" meant work for all and accessibility to affordable goods during the Industrial Revolution, the term simply does not apply to today's economic conditioning.

Moreover, an unexpected spike in population growth over the past century greatly magnifies this change in condition. Global population has increased by 400% from 1.8 billion in 1914 to today's overwhelming 7.2 billion. Consequently, along with the escalating global unemployment, more artists breathe air today than at any time in the history of mankind, quite possibly a greater number than the collective total of all artists to have lived to date.

Traditional Bohemian lifestyle
Traditional Bohemian lifestyle: Burdened with excessive student debt and escalating costs of materials, many art graduates today have had to move in with their parents and forego the bohemian lifestyle as being altogether too expensive (artist Francis Bacon's studio shown above).  

With this exponentially increased global population, universities and art academies are today churning out more art graduates than ever before and doing so within a recessive (depressed) economy. Add to this student loans, inflated art supplies, an excessive cost-of-living and the bohemian lifestyle of earlier avant-garde artists becomes, by comparison, today, a luxury.

The Future
How difficult would it be to uncover the most precious fruit from a mature apple tree yielding 40 bushels if suddenly it produced four times as much? Taking this a step further, how difficult will it be to uncover a Raphael, a van Gogh or a Pollock amongst the overcrowded field of artists which exists today? Will galleries and auction houses decide upon genius or will the compelling and unique nature of artwork overcome all obstacles?

Considering the variety and influences of art movements and the overwhelming number of artists, an undesired yet unavoidable side-effect in more than a few instances is mediocrity. Consequently, critics and gloom and doomers continue to proclaim art to have played its last card. Obviously, these same individuals are apparently unfamiliar with the artists themselves. Like those tenacious roaches we've all heard of surviving a nuclear holocaust, it will take more than a crowded bench and a downturn in the economy to rid the world of them.

Similar to the impact of the photograph, the Industrial Revolution and market saturation of two centuries ago, it's not too difficult to imagine current circumstances ushering in yet a new era of artistic creativity.

In The Beginning
In The Beginning: Above is a photograph of a late 19th-century art classroom. Unbeknownst to the artists in this photo, the portable camera which took this shot, along with the accompanying Industrial Revolution and a redundant art market, would forever change their world. 

The future remains as a glass to be viewed by many as half-empty, yet considered enthusiastically half-full by the truly creative. As when photography, the Industrial Revolution, and a saturated art market would seem to forecast a bleak outcome, today's crisis is compounded with computerization, failed industrialization, militarism, revolt, expanding poverty, and pending global famine. Based upon history to date, this would seem to be a recipe for rebirth, not demise. Therefore, whatever comes next should be quite riveting.

Continue Reading


The seeds of Modern Art: A suppressive government, industrial innovations and apathy towards Salon sanctioned artwork all contributed to a world-changing artistic rebellion.

Visit this later update by CLICKING HERE

Romanticism and Modern Thought
Uncovering art history... 

Romanticism and Modern Thought: include key movements that continue to have a lasting impact since the Industrial Revolution and Impressionism. Modern Art is just a few clicks away.  

Visit this later update by CLICKING HERE

Art Capitalized
Romanticism and the Avant-garde 

Art Capitalized: Passions and innovations in painting techniques begin to impact the conservative world of neoclassical art as artists begin to question tradition. 

Visit this later update by CLICKING HERE

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