The Invention of Art: A Cultural History
By Larry Shiner. University of Chicago Press, 382 pages, $35.00
The Invisible Masterpiece
By Hans Belting. Translated by Helen Atkins. University of Chicago Press, 480 pages, $45.00
How the mighty have fallen. From such soul-vaulting achievements as Michelangelo's David, marble buttocks and glowering determination fit to shake the world, the splendor of art has vaporized. Take your own potshot. Here's mine: Last year at the Venice Biennale -- an international showcase of new artwork -- the U.S.A. pavilion featured installations by Robert Gober, several rooms bare but for a few framed news clippings, empty gin bottles, and a toilet plunger stationed on a plank.
What happened? How in the name of Art did we get from the rose window of Chartres Cathedral to Gober's pint bottles? Larry Shiner's Invention of Art and Hans Belting's Invisible Masterpiece take up such questions. Shiner, a philosophy professor, and Belting, an art historian, have different stories to tell, but they agree on several essentials: Art can't deliver the goods of truth and beauty anymore, at least not with the self-confidence and immediacy of old. And for this failure, we can't entirely blame today's atonal composers and postminimalist sculptors. Though contemporary artists do seem to have retreated, their skills and ambitions pitiably diminished since the days of Raphael, in fact they have been desperately hard at work, grappling to survive art's own cumbersome history.
Shiner marks the eighteenth century as art's Great Divide. His book sets out to prove that our present-day concept of art is a relatively new idea, "invented" some 250 years ago. Most surveys of art history put the turning point much earlier: in the Renaissance, when craft guilds began to lose their monopoly, the earliest art academies opened, and art's first superstars -- Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo -- shot over the horizon.
Shiner concedes that the status of painters and sculptors improved during the Renaissance, but he argues that its artists were a long way from today's bohemian free-birds. He writes that even in the fifteenth century, the "norm was cooperative production from workshops that fulfilled specific contracts"; in other words, even Leonardo was working for hire. Our notion of art as the self-guided, original expression of an individual genius could only develop later, between 1680 and 1830. During these years, Shiner contends, the combined forces of Enlightenment philosophy, a growing middle class, and new cultural institutions (public libraries, concerts, and museums) transformed the conception of art.
For centuries before, art had been made to order and presented in lively and specific social contexts, as adornments for a church or entertainments at the palace. Only after the political revolutions of the eighteenth century did art develop an autonomous life. Musical performances moved from the background at chattery parties of aristocrats to the hushed center of bourgeois attention. Madonnas who once sighed behind altars were taken down and strung against the white walls of the Louvre.
Kant, Schiller, and other theorists set down new definitions of "the aesthetic," prescribing not only the right kind of art but the right way to enjoy it: in quiet contemplation. Archbishops and countesses hadn't fretted much about their taste (their taste was taste), but the middle-class public was intensely uneasy in such matters. To the rescue, enter a whole new caste of cultural intermediaries: curators, art dealers, and, for that matter, book critics.
One may have to be a philosophy professor to tingle over how conceptual categories have changed, but Shiner insists that such gray matters merit genuine concern. We have been blinded, he argues, by a narrow artistic ideal, taking our "art" for the whole of art. Invented in the 1700s, a "modern system" of beliefs, markets, organizations, and practices has become entrenched and now both emaciates creative effort and warps our understanding of the past. "So long as we remain in thrall to the assumptions of the modern system of art," he writes, "we will think it a compliment to emphasize Shakespeare's 'unfettered' independence, whereas his actual achievement was to have crafted a series of magnificent dramas within the limits of a particular set of actors and the necessity of pleasing socially complex audiences in a volatile political atmosphere."
Craftsmanship, purpose, pleasure giving -- these are the qualities that Shiner claims were lost as art crystallized into an independent realm. Most lamentable of all for him has been the split between artist and artisan, how we worship the artist-genius and see the craftsperson as a technician, even a drone. (Would a culture that values craftsmanship represent its art to the world with gin bottles and a plumber's friend?) In Shiner's view, the advance of modernism looks "less like a great liberation than a fracture we have been trying to heal ever since."
Hans Belting begins his story of art at Shiner's "fracture" point, the late eighteenth century, taking as his central trope a short story by Honoré de Balzac, "Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu." In Balzac's tale, an aged painter toils for years on the work that will be his "masterpiece." When friends at last persuade him to reveal it, they see only a muddle of pigments and effacings, an obsessive old man's "failed attempt to make art itself visible."
For Belting, this attempt -- doomed as it may be -- has been art's mission for 200 years. He, too, finds that an "idea of art gained mastery over works themselves," but this circumstance piques his fascination rather than his scorn. Art could never again come to rest in the form of a "masterpiece," for to do so would be to abandon its utopian ideals. With deep-throated ardor, he writes, "This then is the hell of art: one chases a phantom."
Each chapter of The Invisible Masterpiece enjoys another milestone along this chase: Géricault's Raft of the Medusa, where the heroics of history painting tell a new story, of national disgrace; Gauguin's will-to-primitivism in the South Seas; Malevich's Black Square backed up with manifestos; Tinguely's Hommage à New York, a sculpture of scraps set on auto-destruct. Here are all the familiar myths of modernism and several less familiar ones, each chronicled as the effort to mark some progress toward "an impossible ideal."
After the precision of van Eyck and the luster of Titian, what could artistic "progress" possibly mean? As a disheartened Delacroix complained in his journal in 1847: "The traditions are exhausted. All the great problems of art were solved back in the sixteenth century." Hence, we find modern artists not so much trying to build on the achievements of the Old Masters as breaking them down to disclose art's hard quintessence, abandoning one by one every visible means of support: narrative, figuration, feeling, space, and -- in works by the Fluxus group of the early 1960s -- even authorship. In the last chapters of The Invisible Masterpiece, conceptual artists have left objects behind and the minimalists are striving to make objects as grandly mute as possible, plopping down industrial-looking grids and wedges. Performance artists have crossed over the line into theater with Houdini-like antics. If you think I'm exaggerating, consider Chris Burden, who arranged to have himself nailed to the roof of a Volkswagen and shot at his own gallery opening. In time, these tricks lost their magic, too.
Though both Shiner's and Belting's books concern "the concept of modern art," their approaches differ dramatically. The Invisible Masterpiece focuses on the visual arts between the founding of the Louvre (1793) and a 1991 film based on Balzac's story. Even those well versed in modern-art history will encounter surprising anecdotes. One of my favorites, in Belting's chapter about Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, reveals that Picasso bought his first primitive masks from the poet "Apollinaire's secretary, but without knowing that the secretary had stolen them from -- of all places -- the Louvre, whose stale museum atmosphere Picasso thought he was so determinedly leaving behind." This reader was also surprised to learn that van Gogh, not Monet, originated the "series" painting with his sunflowers in Arles, and that Rodin's Gate of Hell wasn't cast in bronze until nine years after the artist's death. An "invisible masterpiece," indeed.
A host of literary sources -- Stendhal, Baudelaire, Proust, Breton, and Gertrude Stein -- light up this study with both authority and wild insight. Belting himself writes imaginatively and well, though some points haven't made smooth passage from German to English. "The perfection of art now became, paradoxically, merely the metaphor for a conceptual beauty." Are these distinctions too fine for the sieve of an English lexicon? Elsewhere, translator Helen Atkins captures Belting's humor and deliciousness, as when describing the painting style of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres: "His whole oeuvre soon radiated the eroticism of a beautiful corpse."
Shiner's Invention of Art offers a more tangled history of music, theater, literature, and the visual arts across 25 centuries, from the dramatic contests of ancient Athens to Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This immense scope leads inevitably to repetition and switchbacks, as with one medium after another Shiner poses his argument about the "invidious categorical division" that stripped art of its former purposes.
More frustrating, however, is Shiner's dependence on colorless secondary sources, especially in his chapters on ancient and medieval art. Rather than quoting Aristotle and Plutarch, he overwhelmingly relies on paraphrase and modern-day commentaries. These summaries may be accurate, but as his book labors on, impassioned points about the skilled handling of materials and "right proportion" become lukewarm. Shiner quotes scholar Lydia Goehr, for example, to claim that Baroque "musicians did not see works as much as they saw individual performances." This intriguing contention, like many others, cries out for better proof, preferably in voices of the day. Furthermore, as long as we're turning to scholarly commentators, where are Thorstein Veblen and Pierre Bourdieu? Nowhere in Shiner's book.
In what may be an occupational hazard of intellectual history, Shiner has an odd habit of treating ideas as semi-animate objects. "Although a category of literature was beginning to emerge in the late seventeenth century and many people were beginning to associate music with rhetoric and poetry, and although painting, sculpture and architecture were widely accepted as liberal arts, the modern category of fine art still did not appear." Says who? And no fair quoting another twentieth-century cultural historian. Categories don't matter a whit unless people act on them, and throughout The Invention of Art, too many disembodied concepts drift through logical archways.
As Shiner investigates the eighteenth century itself, his book becomes meatier. He moves in closer with case studies and much more convincing detail. Through the career of manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood, Shiner explores the industrialization of craft. According to long-standing custom, the individual potter had always carried out each step of production, from digging clay to throwing, finishing, and selling a bowl. Wedgwood industrialized ceramics by hiring specialists in modeling, glazing, and firing, working potters in assembly-line fashion to mass-execute his own designs.
Shiner also gives us a short biography of printmaker William Hogarth. With the savvy of Bill Gates, Hogarth took on the printers who were pirating his engravings; he undersold them. And witty as Warhol, Hogarth attacked the pretensions of contemporary art snobs by organizing an exhibition of pub signs. Stories like these pump blood into Shiner's argument about the shattering changes of the eighteenth century.
One great value of Shiner's book is its tracking back to sources in early Romanticism the tortured commercial position of artists in our own time. "The dialectic of art and money," he writes, "had already taken on the form it has retained to this day: the artist's need to show independence of the very people whose approval is necessary to success." Here are the roots of author Jonathan Franzen's recent snub-a-thon with Oprah. Albeit clumsily, Franzen was just playing the part that William Blake, van Gogh, and Breton bequeathed to him.
Behind both Shiner's cultural lamentation and Belting's episodic history stands Grandpa Hegel, who foretold art's irrevocable flight from the world of forms into the realm of ideas. Hegel saw the seismic shift from Classical to Romantic art as a change not just of style but of "element." Art's very constitution had changed, he wrote, "from sensuousness to inward reflection. . . . What is apparent to the senses alone sinks into worthlessness." For Hegel, this move toward abstraction was evident not just in art but in the overall dominance of ideas, which art forms would never again be able to contain.
The Invention of Art and The Invisible Masterpiece, both immersed in Hegel's situation, present two very different attitudes toward it -- the difference between polemic and elegy. By Shiner's account, artists have for 250 years been duped or swallowed by a narrow, omnivorous system. Belting tells us they put up a wondrous fight.