A SHORT HISTORY OF ART

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-with-Throne

James Hampton  ‘The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly’ 1950-1964.

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