Is the value of art inherent or shaped by its historical context? While it is widely accepted that the value of art is subjective, there is also the belief that certain works are considered great and have value in their own right, regardless of time and place. This article invites the reader to consider different perspectives.
Every discipline has to justify itself. When it comes to art, is its value inherent or shaped by its historical context and therefore subject to constant change and revision?
The appreciation and study of art has always come up against this controversial question and has never fully resolved it. Despite the widespread acceptance that value in art is subjective— that is, a matter of “taste” — there is also the idea that there are such things as great works, whose value is simply in their own inner artistic merit irrespective of time and place.
In other words, despite art being largely a matter of personal preference, there is also a sense that certain works are simply better than others. But then what is art’s relative value, specific to culture and other socio-economic or environmental factors? Do some works of art transcend such relativism?
A heritage of greatness
One of the foremost historians of art was the sixteenth-century Florentine scholar and artist Georgio Vasari. He is remembered primarily for his seminal book, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, originally published in 1550 (1). It is a series of biographical accounts of Italian artists. At its heart, it tells the story of the growth of Italian art from Giotto in the fourteenth century to Michelangelo in the sixteenth.
The book’s long-standing importance is two-fold: firstly, it was the first time anybody had attempted to write a systematic history of art; secondly, Vasari bequeathed a model of artistic development that has persisted and still underpins much of how we think about the history of art today. Ever since Vasari, writers on art have tended to refer to a heritage of greatness, even when adopting the premise that art has universal properties.
Vasari’s concept was that sixteenth-century Italian art was the culmination of three centuries of progress in skill and technique, an advancement that had an overall aim of representing the world more realistically.
The trouble with Lives is that Vasari was writing from an extremely partisan position, since he was principally interested in advocating Florence and Rome as the centers of artistic excellence. As a result, he made little mention of the artistic activity outside of Italy, such as in Northern Europe, where a separate artistic scene was thriving. As for art made outside the European continent, Vasari made no reference to this whatsoever. Our view of “great” art has been skewed ever since.
A new class of “men of taste”
Like so much of art history that has been written since, Vasari’s model of art was based on a fundamental notion: that the first flowering of art in any substantial way occurred in Ancient Greece.
When later artists, especially during the High Renaissance in the late fifteenth century, looked back at the art of Ancient Greece and Rome, they saw a form of art that they perceived as timeless, archetypal and, in a very pertinent way, authentic.
The idea that ancient art somehow contained a type of original perfection has remained remarkably persistent up until the present day. Indeed, the seed of our original dilemma can be traced back to this notion, since it hides a generalized prototype inside a culturally specific moment.
Throughout the centuries that followed the Renaissance, European artists and writers repeatedly returned to the classical model as the yardstick of tasteful and harmonious art. This created what the art historian E. H. Gombrich called the “norm” of art, against which all other styles of art — be they Gothic, Romantic or modern — have tended to be measured and contrasted, often negatively by conservative critics. (2)
The virtues of ancient cultures became codified in a very real sense during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when significant numbers of wealthy young men undertook a “Grand Tour” of Italian sites of interest, visiting important monuments from the Pantheon in Rome to the ruins of Pompeii in Naples.
The age of the Grand Tour coincided with a new concept of artistic appreciation. Scholars such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann, writing in the 1750s, argued that the real emphasis in the study of art should revolve around the viewer’s ability to appreciate artistic merit rather than to bow down to a more nebulous sense of artistic genius (3).
The distinction was subtle but important. A new class of “men of taste” were now in ascendency. Captured in the German term Bildung — a tradition of self-cultivation based on education and personal development — the value of art became intimately connected with proper training (through the best universities and personal connections) and with the upward mobility of the individual through society.
It is in this framework that Immanuel Kant’s notion of “disinterested satisfaction” found root (4). The idea was that appreciation of beauty in art ought to be disassociated from any motivation of personal pleasure. Instead, objects of art should be valued dispassionately, to reach across the void of time and place that may divide the viewer from the work — and significantly, only the most cultivated of individuals could perform such a task.
In this way, the seeming contradiction of a subjective yet somehow factual reading of the “greatness” of artworks was now apparently bridged.
The history of taste
Today’s historians of art tend to regard taste as having a firmly historical dimension. Throughout the twentieth century, they have steadily embraced social history by using Marxist-derived critical approaches, leading to new branches of art history such as feminist and post-colonial art history.
Such an approach accepts that each society defines art differently, and that the value of art can only be explained historically.
In these models of art history, a crucial part of the process of understanding a work of art is to refer back to first-hand reports, to gain a sense of how the artwork was initially received. To this end, contemporary writings such as newspaper and magazine reviews are of great interest, as well as artists’ letters to one another, along with any other evidence of the nature of the period’s wider aesthetic values. In other words, they will look at how the object was acknowledged and judged by its first audiences.
Still, the definition of art remains a real problem, largely because a historicizing approach to art seems to render the object out of reach of being appreciated and enjoyed today. Is beauty, for instance, only to be understood as a historical category? Can we only look at a work of art meaningfully if we see it as a past event, irrespective of how we respond to it today?
Is there a way to deal with this issue?
The poet T. S. Eliot once wrote that a genuinely significant work of art “is something that happens to all the works of art which preceded it… the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered.” (5)
This quote provides a useful way of understanding how art shapes and changes over time. Eliot’s idea was that artists and writers make their work within — or sometimes against — a tradition, and we understand their work through their engagement with that tradition. “No poet, no artist of any art,” Eliot wrote, “has complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.”
For Eliot, a new work of art necessarily alters the chain of all the works of art that went before it. Why? Because every new work of art adds to the greater weave of fabric that every artist is tethered to. In other words, our definition of art is malleable, unstable even. Tradition exists, but with every new work of art — as T. S. Eliot suggested — the tradition adapts as we revise our ideas of what art is or can be.
In this way, we can look down through the ages at how beauty and taste have changed, and we can include our own time in that vantage point.
Christopher P Jones
- Vasari, G., “The Lives of the Artists”, 1550
- H. Gombrich, “Norm and Form: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance”, 1966
- Winckelmann, J.J., “Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture”, 1755
- Kant, I., “Critique of the Power of Judgment”, 1790
- S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, 1920