Harlots Peddling Beauty…

Diary of an Arts Pastor recently listed his top 41 artist biographies.  The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone’s biography of Michelangelo, made no. 22. In 1965, there was a film of the same name, starring Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison.

While the book considers the entirety of Michelangelo’s life, the film focuses on the painting of the Sistine Chapel, specifically the relationship between the artist and Pope Julius, the pope who patronized and thus advanced art throughout Renaissance Italy.  It’s easy to look back on this ‘golden era’ of religious art with a lot of romanticism, especially when comparing something like the Sistine Chapel with contemporary Christian art.

This film was a helpful realisation that much of the fine art done during the patronage period was not driven by self-expression but was much more ‘commercial’ in origin.  The modern art world puts so much emphasis on the avant garde and does its utmost to shrug off the conventions of dictation. In the film, Michelangelo echoes this modern sentiment. Raphael retorts with the comment, ‘An artist will always be a servant… we are harlots peddling beauty at the doorsteps of the mighty.’ Yet it was in this context that some of the world’s most amazing art was created.

So my question: is it possible that rather than limiting the artist’s creativity, boundaries result in a more fruitful expression? Is our overemphasis on creative freedom causing damage that we can’t see for the cultural assumption within which we live?

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  • Jim says:

    Nice blog post! As I am sure you are aware, the artist as servant is a vision of creativity that appeals to me a great deal. I think that the great benefit of art’s embeddedness within a pre-modern commercial system was that it forced artists to consider how others would “use” or “consume” their work. And the Patron, in particular, would exert this kind of pressure upon the artist. The contemporary commercial system in which art finds itself today seems, to me anyways, to be oriented around the non-use of art (esp. the fine arts). The ultimate goal or resting place of works of art is ultimately the museum: a space that exists primarily for the facilitation of the continuation of art, and not for the facilitation of the use of art (except for the narrow understanding of art used for contemplation). It seems to me that modern art ‘infrastructure’ of which we are inheritors is oriented around the idea that art is primarily used by and for the artist (self-expression) and that the audience is expected primarily to appreciate and to recognize what the artist has done, rather than to engage participatively with the work or to allow the work to become integrated into their daily, ordinary life.

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