People used to respond to art with strongly-worded judgment. They might declare a particular piece to be good, bad, dangerous, correct, incorrect, beautiful, or overwhelming. They put their fists were their words were, too. For instance, a calculated and bloody riot occurred over one of Victor Hugo’s new plays, and it included beating up critics who opposed his Romanticism. People would also incur financial losses for the sake of their artistic judgment. For example, Theodore Roosevelt refused to sell a large screen of Tiffany glass back to its creator and instead ordered that the “decadent” piece be smashed.* I am struck by how seriously people once took art. How many of us today would riot about an offensive painting or drama? How many of us would take a fist to the mouth for literature, or strain our throats heckling a playwright? Imagine the scandal if we did! Nowadays, simply criticizing the ideas behind a work of art can be enough to earn one the reputation of an uncouth, would-be censor.
I find it curious, as well, that so much great art was created by people who were viewed as craftsmen and, in a sense, merely well-trained laborers. Leonardo da Vinci worked during an era in which artists did not even sign their work, and when many pieces were the work of a studio instead of an individual. Johann Sebastian Bach was a mere church organist whose workaday compositions happened to be rather brilliant, but which were not seen as particularly artistic (he did not fit the mold of an Enlightenment musician). Nowadays we have elevated the status of artists. We tend to speak of art and artistic creativity as something romantic, high-brow, and rebellious. Artists must be uncensored and unfettered. They cannot be “wrong.” They should challenge prevailing notions. They must not follow any specifications but their own inner vision. They should wear their hair differently from everyone else. Their work is seen as different from workaday, useful, mechanical skills and endeavors. It is at once freed from the practical sphere and the moral sphere (this is a change from the day in which Roosevelt would smash a stained-glass screen because of its supposedly immoral effect).
Yet by freeing artists from limitations, we have also lowered the place of art in the world. How many ordinary people think that it really matters? How many elite people act as if it could really threaten, improve, or derange society? By claiming that art cannot be wrong, we have made it irrelevant.
As always, Chesterton said something highly applicable (and this is one of the quotations that Chesterton actually did say).
“It is foolish, generally speaking, for a philosopher to set fire to another philosopher in Smithfield Market because they do not agree in their theory of the universe. That was done very frequently in the last decadence of the Middle Ages, and it failed altogether in its object. But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter, and this is done universally in the twentieth century, in the decadence of the great revolutionary period.” From Heretics.
Some sort of philosophy is behind all art. I was fascinating by this discussion of the Enlightenment’s revolutionary (and damaging) reinterpretation of the nature and meaning of art. Suzannah explains that the music (and other forms of art) that flowed from the Enlightenment was frothy. Pretty. Intended for temporary enjoyment, not deep study, because according to the Enlightenment, what you see in this world is what you get, and therefore there is nothing profound for art to say. This is in contrast to the deep symbolism and complicated patterns of Christian art.
Surely these two things (the elevation and romanticization of the artist, and the Enlightenment's rejection of meaning behind art) are entwined. Perhaps, in slowly losing our interest in the meaning of art, we found it easier to romanticize the role of artist instead of passionately critiquing each artist’s work, thus leading to the decline of art’s importance. If so, I have to wonder if perhaps we should instead do a bit more rioting and screen-smashing. That might revitalize the arts more than public funding does.
*Incidents as described by Paul Johnson