Philosophers, historians and museum professionals more generally have spent a good deal of time and energy debating the utility and purposes of art and artifacts; especially as they are contextualized by display in institutions. However, these discussions are often inaccessible and largely irrelevant to the ways that most people perceive and consume these objects. I read an exceedingly long narrative article by Charles Homans called “The Dead Zoo Gang” this week and found it an interesting exercise in considering the way historical objects are valued and utilized by different groups. “The Dead Zoo Gang” is an article about the theft of rhino horns by a network of Irish criminals, and ties into the tension between utility and philosophical value of historical objects. As museums think about how to make their practices less colonial and paternalistic I think this article and the case it describes offer different perspectives on the ways in which people outside of the academy interact with the objects of display.Read More »
Characters looking into mirrors for the sake of the audience getting to know their appearance is a standard devise in film and literature. However even in the visual medium of portraiture there are artists who step beyond pure physicality of their subjects to bring the viewers into a deeper consideration of a person. These abstract portraits can be powerfully emotional and have a much fuller sense of a whole human because there is not easy mental image being formed. Works like Rebecca Belmore’s Mr. Luna are windows into deep personal relationships and demonstrate what is possible when an artist moves beyond traditional conceptions of portraiture. It is not unlike the deep inner life that stream of consciousness writing brings to classic books like James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a young man. For the viewer or reader of such works the impact comes from the emotions and connections of the person being presented, not some meticulous description of physical characteristics.Read More »
Books or movies are often described as an immersive experience but the ways in which these works are discussed means that it is difficult to consider whether a visual artwork could be similarly engrossing. In the world of contemporary art there are works that are truly immersive in that the viewer must directly participate in a performance or virtual reality program but there are also older, more traditional, works that build an immersive reality for the viewer. The example that comes up most commonly in art history classes is the Diego Velazquez painting “Las Meninas” but the Jan Vermeer work “The Milkmaid” provides and interesting contrast while still providing a similar viewing experience. The strategies that allow these paintings to function are often not immediately obvious as a viewer but they still give a sense of reality and physical space that is absent from other works. It is this sense of reality through artificial constructs that is worth considering not just for their use in visual art but also for the implications on other artificial environments.Read More »
Art, power, and wealth have been linked for a great deal longer than there has been a formal study of art history, but nature of the works has changed greatly as the place of art in society has shifted. In ancient times monumental art was built on scales that visibly demonstrated the power of the ruler who commissioned them, and the size of these works was far more notable than a precise monetary value that might be estimated for them. Large scale statuary is less common now and with advances in building technology much more emphasis is placed on either the utility of large-scale art or on the dollar value that can be placed upon it. Often these changes occur in response to societal factors that are impact the ways that the public views art which in turn moves the kind of art that is being created.
The monumental buildings of Ancient Egypt were directly tied to both religion and government as the pharaohs were god-kinds who demonstrated power and control through their building projects. Large scale art and architecture was a reasonable expression of the beliefs cross many levels of society so colossal statues and elaborate mortuary complexes fit into the Ancient Egyptian understanding of the universe. In fact, at the time the statue was build a statue’s practical place in a religious context may have drawn more consideration than the artistic value of the work. As a result, statues like the ones that appear in funerary temples would likely have been considered impressive rather than outrageous. These statues are sometimes displayed in pieces like the head of a statue from Amenhotep III’s funerary temple which stands over a metre tall on its own and is located at the British museum. Ancient artifacts like those of Ancient Egypt create challenges because the modern conception of art means that the places art is now viewed are unequipped to deal with large scale pieces (or cope with the ethical issues surrounding the movement of monumental artworks).
There isn’t as much attention given to physically large works of art anymore, instead colossal art is best defined by the price tag attached. A Banksy piece can sell for over a million pounds even after it has been shredded while the abstract expressionist creations of Jackson Pollock run in the multi million-dollar range. These are not pieces that most people would say fit into their world view, in fact for those outside the art world taking cracks at abstract painting can be the most accessible avenue in fine art. Unlike the monumental statues of the Ancient Egyptians the subjects being depicted in art are no longer a central part of how society is ordered. The scale of art for the lay person is often defined by its value and even then, the average person would probably be quick to disagree with the amount of money being spent. Although this is perhaps most clear in the modern context it is a change that began much closer in history to Ancient Egypt than to today. The Colossus of Constantine had the head and extremities carved from marble while the main body had a brick or wood framework covered in bronze which was later scavenged. What was originally an imposing testament to the power of a great leader at some point became a place where resources could be reclaimed. By the time Michelangelo was looking at the stature during the Renaissance it was more a matter of imaging how pieces may have once fit together than it was looking at true statue of Constantine.
The political climate has obviously changed a lot since then and governments can find themselves in art spending controversies. Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire offers an interesting case study because it is a painting where both large scale and large price tag overlapped to be part of a notably controversy. The Voice of Fire painting is blue with a single bright red stripe in the middle third of the painting, it is over five metres tall and was purchased by the publicly funded National Gallery of Canada. After the purchase price of the painting became public there was widespread outrage over the use of public money to buy such a simple painting for so much money. This was not a debate in art community over what a painting in that style was worth, but it was far more attention than traditional media usually gives to the purchases of the National Gallery. In recent Canadian history this is what colossal art has become: expensive and certainly not representative of the ways most Canadians view themselves.
Whether talking about giant stone statues or abstract paintings the scale of artwork is impacted by the cultural attitudes of the larger society. The progressions of scale in art may encompass both the physical size and their price tags but these changes are representative of the shifts in the place art holds in the public view. Even the fragmented pieces of colossal statues like the one on display in England can suggest the place of the god-kings of Ancient Egypt while the controversies of expensive prices on works like The Voice of Fire demonstrate some of the modern concerns over what is ‘good’ art. How society understands art, its purpose, and its worth, changes and thinking about large scale art by any factor can illuminate some of those changes.
Media outlets are often accused of partisanship and interest groups run video ads but the kind of direct relationship between the artist and politics is usually seen as one of commentary rather than true propaganda in the modern context. However, before the advent of new technologies the mediums of the artist and the medium of political messaging often overlap. Oil paintings are no longer a primary means of dispersing propagandistic messages but during the French Revolution, as well as in the centuries before, fine art was a viable medium for dispersing political messages. And like the oil painting Thomas Carlyle’s Great Men of History theory is part of an academic culture that has come and gone. But propaganda never represents the true extent of the historical period it comes out of and in the case of Jacques Louis David’s Death of Marat painting the narrow focus of Carlyle’s theory and David’s message overlap.
David’s The Death of Marat is an ode to propaganda, not only was it painted to rally people around the death of a prominent revolutionary figure, but that figure was also part of the propaganda machine. Marat was a printer who was killed in part because of what he printed, and David includes this aspect as a central part of his painting. The corpse of Marat as David depicts it is still clutching the letter that was used to gain his assassin access, the letter that requested his protection is shown alongside the papers of Marat’s regular work. By celebrating Marat as a revolutionary hero David is also celebrating the revolutionary propagandist. David himself had, or at least developed, an understanding of the power of propaganda when he was thrown in prison during the later part of the revolution before eventually becoming a painter for Napoleon. The Death of Marat painting is a masterwork that captures the place of propagandists in David’s experience of the French Revolution and the depiction of Marat is tailored to reinforce this perception with the viewer.
Thomas Carlyle’s Great Man theory is now a theory of the past that has been set aside for a more comprehensive view of history, but its framework is useful when considering a work like David’s Death of Marat. The current view of history is much more complex with its consideration of social context, but great man theory does apply well when examining the ways in which martyr figures are used in propaganda. The idea of the martyr is that they have died in service of some great cause and propaganda often celebrates these figures as essential to that cause: asking the viewer to step up and fill the revolutionary shoes of the person who died. This is the kind of emphasis on single person that the is central to Carlyle’s understanding of history which rests on the shoulders of individuals of extraordinary ability. So, while Great Man theory may be an idea of the past in terms of history it is a view which can be easily applied to David’s painting of Marat following his death during the French revolution.
Beyond David’s choice of which figure to depict, his neoclassical style continues to reinforce Marat’s position as a great hero of the revolution. Marat is shown in his bath because he had a skin condition that forced him to spend a great deal of time in the water resulting the unusual location of his death, but that disfiguring condition is not at all visible in David’s painting. Instead the body is shown as smooth and almost marble like, harkening back to the statues of antiquity. So, while the David doesn’t change the location of Marat’s assassination, he does refuse to depict the reason that the printer was at work in his bath. Instead the smooth appearance associates Marat with the heroes of the classical world who were the subjects of other, older, works. It is not just the representation of Marat that creates the neoclassical feel, David has also chosen to place the bath and table in an otherwise empty formless room. Rather than the elaborate backgrounds of other contemporary styles like rococo there is just a smooth grey expanse behind Marat, softer in the top right to add dramatic lighting. David’s Marat is a fallen hero who’s surroundings are far less important than the fact of his death and the viewer’s attention is focused on Marat because of the way David staged the scene. The propaganda of this painting comes not just from Marat as a martyr of the revolution but also through how David associates his subject with the ideals of classical heroes – the great men of history who were still celebrated during David’s time.
Carlyle’s interpretation of history may have been abandoned in the actual study of history, and rightly so, but the narrow focus on singular heroes fits with many of the strategies of propaganda. David’s Death of Marat painting is a propaganda piece that sets up Marat as a martyr of the revolution in order to further its ideals. Not only that but Marat was involved in the revolution as a printer and as such he was a part of the propaganda machine. This is the kind of singular individual effort that Carlyle is trying to capture in his theory and while Great Man History is restrictive and rather elitist it is the view of history that results in paintings like The Death of Marat. Looking at pieces of propaganda often times hides the way history actually happened, but it does show the ways in which those in positions of power wanted their work to be viewed.
The Western art tradition is filled with repetitive motifs, that appear across many periods with variations and adaptions to fit current trends but are ultimately of the same event. Due to the development of Christianity alongside this art tradition Bible stories and religious themes are often the basis of those motifs. However, society has been moving quickly away from the days where Christian symbols are easily understandable to the average person just as art has moved in to new areas like advertising or popular media. Its is this movement into the more publicly accessible sphere that enables an interesting endeavor in comparative art history through the examination of several hundred years of David statues. The biblical story of David and Goliath begins with the Renaissance but continues into modern times with thriving tourist industries to the old statues and usage in other forums like ad campaigns. The examination of these statues shows the way that David has moved from a young man blessed by God to a figure who is used in reference to a statue rather than religion.
Artists whose names are now mostly associated with ninja turtles begin the creation of the well-known David statues during the Renaissance period – although Donatello and Michelangelo took very different approaches. Donatello’s David is shown as a young boy, the encounter with Goliath being the looming threat of manhood on his horizon. This version emphasises the relative weakness of David while the viewer is aware that he will ultimately go on to defeat the giant. Michelangelo’s version is in many ways quite distant from Donatello’s even though they are completed only 64 years apart. This more famous version of David is larger than life and in the form of an idealized man who is well muscled and completely naked. Michelangelo shows David looking contemplative as if he is taking the time to consider when to release his stone.
Bernini was working over a century after Michelangelo and in typical baroque fashion his David is dynamic and shown in motion in a way that the earlier versions were not. This David is neither excessively young nor excessively beautiful and instead has his face screwed up in concentration as he hurls the stone out of his sling. This sculpture is not interested in David as he was before Goliath, or even as he was after but rather considers the moment of action and transformation.
There are undoubtedly many more David statues between Bernini and the modern day, but they do not have the same recognizable power of the earlier statues and Samsung relied on the staying power of Michelangelo’s David for their 2018 ad campaign. In this “Domestic David” Michelangelo’s David is wearing a jock strap with a t-shirt draped over his shoulder instead of a sling as he stands atop a washing machine, in this context he becomes a commentary on masculinity and an attempt to sell products rather than a representation of a Bible story.
The early versions of the David statue explored the nature of the biblical feature and how that figure, as well as his actions, should be represented. The repurposing of David in the Samsung Domestic David removed those biblical elements because instead of relying on the audience’s knowledge of the Bible the statue relies on the viewer’s knowledge of Michelangelo’s David. The Domestic David is entertaining because it is a reimagining of original David statue in a context that the audience does not expect. The initial impression of the statue is not tied to the Bible story anymore but is instead connected to a notion of the David statue as an important art work. Religion is no longer the basis of the layers of meaning that art objects contain but is rather engaged in the history of Western art.
This chain of David statues is a testament to the influence that Christianity has held over Western art but its reappearance in advertising also indicates the changing place of both religion and history. David statues offer an opportunity to compare like with like and so wee how the view of the unchanged story of David has shifted over time from that of a young boy, to an idealized man, to an action hero to an icon that can be used casually in a capitalist setting. The journey of art from religion to advertising is a part of general Western art history but it is more obvious when there is the opportunity to examine the representations of a singular figure over time. David serves this purpose particularly well because unlike other popular Christian figures like the prophets, Jesus or the apostles David’s story is much more limited in scope and revolves around a singular event.
Lewis and Lewis The Power of Art third edition, 2019.
I dislike attempting to move through crowded spaces and this dislike is intensified when I am attempting to make a connection with art or history in an exhibition. However while trying to get a moment to take in the photographs at the Anthropocene exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario my distaste felt fairly ironic. I was being annoyed at people for taking up too much space while looking at an exhibition about how humans are taking up too much space in the environment. And if nothing else many years of English class have taught me that irony should be analyzed for more than just its entertainment value.
The Anthropocene exhibit is a collaboration between Edward Burtynsky, a photographer, Jennifer Baichwal, and Nicolas de Pencier who are both film makers. The displays blend photography, film and augmented reality in a confronting way that forces the view to take in the scope of human impact on the earth through images that are themselves smaller sections of a truly massive problem. Carrara Marble Quarries, Cava di Canalgrande #2 has been used on much of the promotional material, with the evidence of human engagement dwarfed by the walls of white rock and with the augmented reality is added in the gallery the viewer is able to see a larger scope through the canyon that has been quarried into the rock. We have taken from this spot to fill up our cities and homes and galleries with something beautiful and we continue to dig into the cliffs to get more, intruding into the natural spaces of the earth. The space in front of that photograph was not dissimilar to my experience trying to grapple with human impact on the environment, an issue that I will admit not to be particularly involved in otherwise, it is an attempt to find a clear space to think about issues that in actuality require collaboration because they are problems that humanity causes collectively. I expect people to grant me space in an art gallery to look at a photograph but I do not often consider the space that industry takes up on the earth.
In another part of the gallery I was Robert Houle’s In Memoriam forced a confrontation with where human expansion has created absences. Looking at the work with the names of First Nations groups that had been wiped out by European imperialism in the so called ‘New World’ was a different kind of uncomfortable feeling. Where in the Anthropocene I was one human among many who wreaked havoc on the world I view In Memoriam as a privileged white Canadian looking at art in a building that stands on land that once belonged to the First Nations peoples. I can not give back the space I exist in but I think I have an obligation to be aware of who my space was taken from in the same way that I have an obligation to know the cost of the modern world on the environment. In Memoriam makes me aware of the space I take up not with the stunning images of the Anthropocene but with a reminder of what used to exist in the space that me and my culture now take up.
My trip to the AGO was an exercise in many ironies that expanded not only on what I had planned my trip expecting to see but also in the ways that I will consider art and art exhibition in the future. Both Houle and Burtynsky force me to consider the place I occupy within the global environment and within the history of Canada and the world.