A Republic of Taste

Thomas Crow

  • The Political Theory of Painting from Reynolds to Hazlitt: ‘The Body of the Public’ by John Barrell
    Yale, 366 pp, £16.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 300 03720 1

We inhabit at present a culture that assigns absolute priority to the simple existence of an art object over anything we might find to think or say about it. The latest overnight phenomenon in the galleries of New York enjoys an automatic claim to attention that the most seasoned critic will never possess. The history of art as an academic discipline is by and large aligned with this hierarchy of value. Accounting for the existence of objects consumes the time of most people in the profession: documenting the facts of patronage, original locations and arrangements, details of technique, iconographic choices, provenances down to our own time, states of preservation. To recount these things is what it means to speak about the art of the past in an authoritative voice.

Little thought is normally given, however, to the considerable anachronism that this priority represents in relation to the learned discussion of art in the past. The sort of art-historical industry familiar today was not unknown prior to the 19th century, but it lacked the prestige it now commands. In 1660, for example, the French philosopher and essayist Samuel de Sorbière wrote the following on the subject of the amateur art historians in and around the Royal Academy of Painting:

Their great aptitude consists in knowing how to identify the artist after glancing at a picture, then being able to pronounce on his manner of painting: if the artist made vertical strokes or horizontal, how many pictures he painted, which are the most highly regarded, through whose hands they have passed, and so on. In all this I see nothing of more than mediocre intelligence, and I suspect there exists some degree of servility in this enthusiasm. Dare I say what I think of this debauchery and corrupt curiosité? One must somehow enjoy a swindle so to apply one’s mind to studying pictures.

It could be said generally, for the 17th and 18th centuries, that a gentleman or a man of letters attracted to the visual arts would have had higher priorities in mind. For Sorbière, the work of documenting objects and artistic careers was a job normally conducted by ‘the servile and mechanic’ (to adopt the contemporary English terminology), calculating dealers, and self-interested artisans who wanted to be taken for something more exalted. The disinterested observer was free to dismiss from consideration most of the art produced since antiquity. It was the perceived absence of art worthy of elevated attention that prompted many of the most influential writings on art in the Early Modern period. So in no way were their authors expected to secure their authority by illuminating, let alone celebrating, ‘the object’. Even their chosen instances of exemplary achievement need not have been physically accessible. Writers on painting particularly could discuss the unparalleled works of the ancients on the basis of Classical literary accounts alone. Such practices were fully consistent with period attitudes toward contemporary art. Eighteenth-century Paris possessed the most advanced and self-conscious audience for art in Europe, yet genuine enthusiasts and serious patrons remained exceptional. Reading through the cultural press of the time or in the journals of prominent society figures, one encounters a striking absence of attention to artists or their works. Playwrights, poets, novelists, actors, composers, dancers, carnival charlatans are discussed with great frequency, but references to living painters and sculptors are rare.

This general absence was not, of course, the result of a shortage of worthy objects of discussion, and there were intermittent episodes of excitement around a Watteau, Greuze or David. When an artist had something revelatory to say, when he found ways to represent previously latent perceptions and structures of feeling, an audience was ready to respond. But in the absence of such exceptional art, the business of painting and sculpture became a matter of secondary cultural importance. Those who disagreed with this prevailing indifference were compelled to argue over and over that the visual arts as a category called for and represented a serious intellectual commitment.

The subject of John Barrell’s immensely important new book is how such arguments were put forward over the course of the 18th century in one artistic community. Though he keeps one eye on the Continent, the authors he discusses were all addressing an English audience. As is well-known, England was less able than France to sustain the kinds of epic historical painting that British writers from Shaftesbury to Fuseli agreed was the one truly worthy and redemptive pursuit of the painter. Virtually every writer of consequence took the deficiency of such painting in Britain as his point of departure, and Barrell subjects a representative series of texts to extended, searching and consistently illuminating analysis. In the process, the reader learns what it was like to talk about art when its very legitimacy as a pursuit, its moral and intellectual standing, was perpetually open to question.

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