A SHORT HISTORY OF ART, or “The Research Assignment I Never Wrote For AH101” – Bill Roseberry May, 2017
Perhaps the closest archetype for the labyrinth of rooms in an art museum with hidden treasures waiting to be discovered, or art gallery secluded among so many shops in the commercial district are the ancient tombs of kings, queens, their courtiers and wealthy merchants filled with loot. And perhaps the only thing missing in the modern art museum or gallery is a dead body or two. It’s too bad, frankly, that there won’t be anything here for future forensic scientists to examine for the cause of death.
As I sat at the first highly informative lecture (in a series of lectures scheduled to accompany the latest art exhibit, “Now More Than Ever”(, at The Washington Project for the Arts (WPADC) in Washington, D.C.) entitled, “Jeffrey B. Perry on the Invention of the White Race“, and wondering what the connection was with the subject of the lecture to the context of an art exhibit, I realized … the art gallery itself is the complete fabrication of a upwardly mobile elite. The history of western art is the history of colonialism and gentrification. They are identical even today despite the facade of ‘globalist’ intentions.
Though admittedly the current exhibit is distinctly more proletariat than that which is commonly found in the museum or commercial art gallery it retains a similarly functional format: objects and images with tacit messages displayed ostensibly with a common theme in an obligatory bare room with bare floors and white walls. (Also admittedly, the two things that do distinguish the art gallery from the vision of a king’s tomb are the explanatory brochures and the replacement of torches for an artificial lighting system – not to mention the high-tech security supplemented by low-paid guards who unsurprisingly enough also appear predominantly non-white.)
Until Europeans (Romans) began codifying and appraising the plunder they obtained from colonizing the rest of the world by force and to sell to one another on the market art was a practice – not a ‘thing’. Prior to that there was nothing known or described by anyone as an ‘art object’.
art (n.) early 13c., “skill as a result of learning or practice,” from Old French art (10c.), from Latin artem (nominative ars) “work of art; practical skill; a business, craft, “*ar(ə)-ti- (source also of Sanskrit rtih “manner, mode;” Greek artizein “to prepare”), suffixed form of root *ar- “to fit together.”
Certain objects had either a religious or a combination of semi-religious and cultural value and significance. That’s about it -besides maybe someone getting compensated for the cost of materials and hours fabricating the thing for someone else. And there was no ‘artist’ as we know except possibly for someone who could be said to have a high degree of skill or experience – very few objects of aesthetic significance were ever ‘signed’ by anyone. No resumes, no CV’s, just word of mouth and a perhaps a shop sign and membership in a Guild. A work of ‘art’ was a demonstration of skill and imagination, again, a verb, not an object.
A person blessed with an art or creative proclivity built boats, constructed buildings, made weavings and tapestries, sang poetry, delivered babies, mixed potions, and performed rituals among other things. Occasionally someone constructed the likeness of an animal or a god or a goddess, a demon or a dead person; more likely an image of a ruler vanquishing the army of another, or of the after-life, to be seen by the court, for commemorating an event, for a wealthy merchant’s villa, or placed in or about to guard the vanquishing ruler’s tomb.
As European expansion began its full swing, so too the forceful appropriation of precious minerals, plants and animals, and slaves and various curiosities as gifts for the King’s pleasure. Among those curiosities a small number, among countless numbers of cultural artifacts that weren’t deemed overtly “pagan” and destroyed or melted down for their weight in gold and silver, managed to survive in various collections including that of the Royal Court. Still, it wasn’t ‘art’, far from it, and more as an example of the depravity of ‘uncivilized’ or ‘un-Christian’ activity. Even today no one has yet decided whether these objects of ‘ethnic’ non-white culture can be definitively viewed as ‘art’ or ‘artifacts’.
The Greeks invented art around 1000 BC after the death of Alexander the Great and then it disappeared again sometime after the 121st Olympiad (296-293 BC). We know this because Pliny the Elder (AD 23-AD 79) says so,”Cessavit deinde ars” “then art disappeared”.
“In the days of our ancestors, it was these that were to be seen in their halls, and not statues made by foreign artists, or works in bronze or marble: portraits modelled in wax were arranged, each in its separate niche, to be always in readiness to accompany the funeral processions of the family; occasions on which every member of the family that had ever existed was always present. The pedigree, too, of the individual was traced in lines upon each of these colored portraits. Their muniment rooms, too, were filled with archives and memoirs, stating what each had done when holding the magistracy. On the outside, again, of their houses, and around the thresholds of their doors, were placed other statues of those mighty spirits, in the spoils of the enemy there affixed, memorials which a purchaser even was not allowed to displace—so that the very house continued to triumph even after it had changed its master. A powerful stimulus to emulation this, when the walls each day reproached an unwarlike owner for having thus intruded upon the triumphs of another!” – Pliny the Elder, The Natural History c. 77
‘Cave art’ was fluke and wasn’t discovered until well after Pliny’s death and cannot be associated with anything as vulgar as graffiti – even though the Greeks and Romans did their fair share of that, too.
Hence Europeans spent the next twenty odd centuries looking for the art Pliny said was lost in 300 BC. Simply put, if it didn’t conform to “The Golden Mean” proportionally, if it didn’t extol the virtues (not the vices) of the Gods of Mount Olympus (Jesus and Moses were beside the point), if it wasn’t framed like an elaborate gold olive wreath to invoke the greatness of Alexander (and the flamboyance of King Midas), or if it wasn’t placed trophy-like on a marble or velvet covered pedestal or a velvet covered wall mausoleum-style, it couldn’t possibly be Art. Of course, lighting was a problem back then. Tombs weren’t meant to be lit but we’ve solved that with spotlight to make the work look like it was never lost but now manifests itself supernaturally as if on a beam from Olympus.
Then one day in August 1792 art that had been lost since Pliny discovered it missing suddenly reappeared. Louis XVI of France was imprisoned and the royal collection in the Louvre became national property by decree of The National Assembly of the Revolution. The museum opened on 10 August 1793, the first anniversary of the monarchy’s demise. The public was given free access on three days per week. The collection showcased 537 paintings and 184 objects of art. Art now officially belonged to the masses. That also meant that the masses now had a collection of loot to rival any king or wealthy slave-owning merchant in the world.
The Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture whose home had now been inundated with common sightseers was not deterred. Like The Royal Academy of Arts in London, it was they who had the final word on what was art and what wasn’t. Membership to the Academy was limited by internal vote and then only when a vacancy happened to occur. The Academy “ensured that a ‘royal style’ was enforced which in practice meant a classical style”. They also approved or rejected entry to various “salons” or exhibitions.
Of course that didn’t go over too well with the increasing numbers of artists who flocked to Paris and London seeking a medal or a title that would subsequently insure sales and commissions. Like today’s artists they revolted. To placate the unrest Napoleon III instituted the “Salon des Refusés” in 1863, thereby preceding the “Salon des Indépendants” “sans jury ni récompense” (without jury nor reward) in 1884, the “Salon du Champ de Mars” in 1890, and the “Salon d’Automne” in 1903, and countless other salons each with a manifesto or an official axe to grind. “We are the painters of the wealthy. We work for the mansions in the district of the parc Monceau. We paint society women and we make them princesses. You can ask us to create even the most mysterious images in compliance with today’s fashions. Come see us and you will find us settled in real palaces. Our studios are the salles des fêtes.“, wrote the organizers of Salon du Champ de Mars, the Société des Artistes Français.
And thus began the incursion of commercial concerns into what constitutes art that was once purely the prerogative of royalty.
Booksellers and book publishers were also quick to capitalize on this newest fashion of the nouveau-riche to collect art as royalty did and fill their salons with self-styled courtiers. They hired the most expertise printers and underwrote artist’s editions of prints that could be sold at a moderate price. They offered select artists stipends or advances on their monthly or yearly production, the best of which they would select for themselves. They created rooms at the front of their establishment for the display of the paintings and sculptures they had obtained from artists to sell at profit and advertised the event via notices and articles that were published in newspapers and magazines by writers they also had on their payroll. These were not unlike today’s independent galleries or artist cooperatives or ‘art spaces’, but they did serve wine and cheese sometimes accompanied with musical entertainment; as well as being noted for THE place to be seen and to socialize among the spoils of a newly-liberated class of merchants and intellectuals. They were businessmen for writers, artists, and intellectuals. They kept stacks of paintings among the shelves of books which they would selectively show to well-known collectors only that valued their advice. The term ‘gallerist’ would eventually evolve to a similar class of merchants who only dealt with art.
As royalty lost its status (if not appeal) to a wealthier merchant class, their collections of art and ethnic collections of unclassified curiosities hoarded over centuries of colonial rule and courtly commissions gave rise to more and more public museums with surrounding gardens and fountains reminiscent of those at Versailles where the King had moved after abandoning his royal quarters at the Louvre. Encouraged by incentives for a tax write-off as a non-profit establishment, private collections of art were transformed into museums and opened to the public (if only on a limited basis, as a paid member or for a fee.) “Professional curators didn’t exist in the 19th century; in fact, it was this issue of overcrowding that led to the creation of the job in the early 20th century.” (1) … along with a host of other salaried professional art-related job titles and board members. Art became not only an institution, but a growing business in the corporate manner. Art by today’s estimates generated an estimated $45 billion in global market sales in 2016 with prices of old master paintings up 13% from 2015. That’s a lot of art objects acquired at nowhere near the cost of production. (2)
Soon every city and every neighborhood in every large city in the world was to have their own obligatory art museum and art galleries, art fairs, spring salon, and state and municipal art councils.
Ultimately, any definition of art is not determined by rules of aesthetics, or according to social and cultural relevance, or by artists, or by public opinion (“I know art when I see it.”) – but by those who collect art, by those who manage art collections and by those whose job it is to speculate on the financial value of art objects, and more importantly by the commercial advantages of a tacit message conveyed by the art object in a controlled context.
But not to worry… somewhere in a rented garage just beyond the art museum and the recently gentrified gallery district is someone wrestling with the definition of art for himself, or herself, or like another James Hampton who isn’t so much concerned about making Art as much as laying the groundwork or digging through the leftovers from another kind of culture to create and preserve his own; the artist who isn’t making art as we know it, who doesn’t have a resume or a CV, an MFA or a BFA, who doesn’t know any curators or collectors, art directors or gallery owners, art historians or art critics because all of those people are only standing in front of or distracting his vision.
James Hampton ‘The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly’ 1950-1964.
WINNERS AND LOSERS
“… like any juried or selection process, there’s people who can be perceived as winners and people who can be perceived as losers.”
So says the executive director of a prominent D.C. non-profit arts organization in a recent article in The Washington City Paper.
He’s right. There simply aren’t enough public-sponsored venues and exhibit halls for every artist who wants to be seen. And it would be a losing battle even if D.C. didn’t have the number of federally-funded arts institutions it has, all competing for the share of attendance and visibility local arts non-profits might otherwise expect. The MD and VA suburbs are bursting – and as is the numbers of artists who now work and reside there – all wanting to take advantage of the city arts opportunities and limited arts funding.
(Funny it is how the topic of D.C. Statehood is nowhere to be heard among those speaking of DMV arts and culture. As if there simply isn’t any relationship – or if any attempt to define the difference between those with state representation and those without is divisive or irrelevant in a discussion of art and arts funding?)
What to do…? Concede to the sports analogy of “winners and losers”? Why can’t D.C. become like a major-league player in the arts? Why shouldn’t D.C. attract wealthy arts patrons like the big-league owners, and class-A administrators and curators with competitive salaries and seasonal contracts? Not to mention that D.C. real-estate development would be nowhere without quality arts and entertainment. No, we mustn’t disappoint the owners, the developers, the managers, the team … or the fans.
So it’s a good thing that there are so many artists and performers (makers and creatives) in and around D.C. It “raises the bar”.
Another question I keep returning to is, “Since when did the arts become a competitive endeavor and why?
Is the sole purpose of arts organizations to establish even more competitive arenas with more entrepreneurs and even greater stakes (and subsequently more “losers” than winners) in the pursuit of a more “refined” or “progressive” culture …??
Awards, prizes, grants, exposure, sales are not what all artists want or need; but it is the only thing they’ve come to expect will ever be offered if only by some stroke of fortune or dogged placation that those who control the rewards of cultural labor might look upon them and give a blessing to their effort.
So despite what artists are being told they need and want, the last thing (…ask any artist) is to be informed that they are a “loser” and not among a select team of “winners”. Not this time. But maybe next? Everyone receives his or her turn? Not likely.
What’s the alternative?
(First it must be recognized that there is a significant difference between visual and performing arts organizations, their audiences, as well as their function. There are a few similarities but I wish to focus on the visual arts as that is my area of knowledge and not attempt to draw too large a picture or create too many generalities).
Museums of contemporary art, arts institutions of contemporary culture, and arts organizations – profess to support more community-centered arts and culture – but, also serve for the promotion and marketing of contemporary global culture as an incentive for art collectors and the strata of a young urban business class seeking the status of institutions that likewise caters to them for donation funding. The differences between their vision to serve as education centers, as showcase venues for artists, and as arts advocates varies as much as those functions may be blurred or be said to overlap. As centers for arts education, organizations and institutions may be eligible to receive non-profit status and much needed tax deductible donations – even though the direct impact or supplement to school-based arts education is also heavily abstracted – particularly where those centers for arts education are estranged geographically from the actual communities and neighborhoods they claim to serve as a condition of their 501c3 applications.
The truth is that contemporary arts institutions and organizations are less educational than promotional in their programming – serving more as proxy venues for artist promotion and sales as well as training grounds for the careers of curators, administrators, consultants, assistants and the host of arts-professionals whose competitive salaries must paid from an ever-increasing requirement for funding. Managing gallery and performance spaces are also very costly, contributing to a large percentage of an organizations overhead expense (and volunteer time) while serving only a small percentage of artists and a highly limited range of cultural views.
However, from the artists point of view (and similarly like any unobstructed lawn with a goalpost and bleachers becomes a potential playing field for sports enthusiasts) any public building with bare walls and lights becomes a gallery, or a performance space and a potential sales and promotion venue… or more to the point, a source of revenue to be “managed”.
As there is never enough space for all of the art and performance that is produced selective management becomes absolutely critical to its continued function as a viable space – choices must be made and curatorial standards and narratives must be devised to substantiate those choices – however dubious or artificial those choices, standards and narratives are to reality and relevant to the community in which they are displayed. Hence, “winners” and “losers”; those who are assisted in selling their work or their brand, and those who are left to fend for and support themselves.
But what if… arts organizations were NOT in the business of promotion, of giving support to some artists but not others? What if arts organizations supported ALL artists both equitably and more directly without preference to gender or race, style or substance? What if arts budgets went directly to the communities they represent to strengthen the cultural infrastructure, providing incentive for artists and cultural workers to remain within those communities, to thrive, and both preserve the native culture and provide for the unique cultural requirements of which the artists have an innate and natural relationship? What if arts organizations did not serve as a proxy for the commercial market as galleries and theatres to promote art and ticket sales or as a career platform for transient arts administrators, transient curators and transient non-artist professionals? What if arts organizations were not players in the cultural gentrification of communities but the glue that held those communities together to resist urban expansion and cultural homogeneity?
What would arts organizations do otherwise?
Perhaps the most effective, the most significant (and the least costly) thing arts organizations could do is to formally recognize the difference between art and artists; between culture and its potential for marketing. (Many of those who annually profess “support for the arts” could care less about the welfare of artists or community cultures. To them “the arts” are either a collector commodity or a refined source of entertainment that likewise must be codified, qualified.. to be entered into competition; to earn approval or disapproval through critical judgment.)
Rather, artists and culture share a living relationship, a symbiosis, by which one is not likely to survive without the other. For art to survive requires nothing more than a museum and those with the means to collect it. For artists and cultures to survive requires a great deal more imagination and committed effort.
“Art has no ‘dominion’ really – it just exists and sometimes in the unlikeliest places made by the unlikeliest people.” (1)
Functionally speaking, arts organizations could raise money along with awareness to do little things that would actually help all artists thrive and by extension to build and secure a more vibrant, viable art community that the public would be proud to call their own and in a way that would set a newer, higher and directly productive standard for arts organizations everywhere.
How would they do this?
As an advocate for artists rights, affordable housing and studios, as advocates for fair practices, create job banks for artists, create emergency funding for artists and their immediate families when there is a serious medical need, fire, or job layoff, underwrite group insurance, to advocate for health safety in the arts workplace, as a representative for artists with the local government with regard to city planning and arts education in the public school system, in conjunction with other arts organizations to advocate for artists in federal arts legislation, as an advocate for elderly and handicapped artists, as an archive for local artist’s documents such as with the Archives of American Art, as an historical library or repository of the Arts in D.C. or to assist artists with the compilation of their own personal and community art archives (2) …
The truth is there are plenty of things that D.C. arts organizations could be that are fully inclusive that doesn’t presume to select one group of artists or selection of any individual artist over another; that doesn’t contribute to divisiveness, that doesn’t require a curator or even a scheduled exhibition space; whose budget isn’t merely self-preserving, and that doesn’t presume that the only need artists have is greater exposure (“people die from exposure”).
The idea that artists and the public must be educated to the latest trend in contemporary art or to the newest big-names in a list of this year’s emerging artists – or that artists are somehow uniquely gifted or visionary in voicing the needs and issues of communities while remaining silent with respect to their own issues of livelihood – and that somehow manifests as a cultural service – is not only short-sighted, it’s redundant and proven to be of little if any long-term effective value.
It’s time to stop seeing arts organization as arenas. Art is not a competition. Artists are not players. Culture needs to be served, not sold; it is its own reward, and a city with its diverse neighborhoods and cultures deserves to be treated fairly, unequivocally, with equanimity to all – that art and art practice might be the one human endeavor by which NO ONE LOSES. Ever