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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Greatest Impact

As the year 2013 draws to a close, journalists and pundits love to expound upon "the year in review." I could do the same with regard to art but...pfft... Why bother? Art this year didn't exactly deprive anyone of their socks. Instead, I thought it might be interesting to discuss which century had the greatest impact on the fine arts. As a matter of necessity, I've limited my consideration to those eras from the Renaissance to the present. Before that, progress in the fine arts was simply too widely dispersed and disorganized to have had much of an impact. Thus I've chosen three centuries as contenders. First, the Renaissance itself, basically the 15th century to which we'll add an extra twenty years (1401-1520), inasmuch as the era doesn't fit neatly into a typical hundred-year span. Second, would be the 19th century (1801-1900), and finally, the 20th century (1901-2000).
Spanish Mannerist painting, ca. 1550.
Why not the 16th, 17th, or 18th centuries? The 16th century period following the Renaissance was saddled with the misbegotten excesses of Mannerism, whose only saving grace was in planting the seeds of the Baroque era. The 17th century had the Baroque style over much of Europe and the Dutch Golden Age--impressive, a real contender, but not quite making the cut. The 18th century had French Rococo, a tasteless overindulgence that would easily, and deservedly, place it at the bottom of any list of great art eras.
The Renaissance--Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, the big three, almost a mantra in academic art history classes, and deservedly so. But bolstering these three great masters are names like Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Alberti, Donatello, Masaccio, Titian, Ghirlandaio, da Massina, Verocchio, and some others of lesser stature. The period began with Lorenzo Ghiberti winning the Florentine Baptistery door panel competition in 1401 and ended with the death of Raphael in 1520. In between, Brunelleschi taught Italian artists how to use linear perspective; Bramante got St. Peter's Basilica off to a good start; Michelangelo's David hopped up on a pedestal outside Florence's Palazzo Vecchio while his Pieta took up residence in the Vatican. Leonardo had a disastrous Last Supper, but succeeded in making Mona smile (sorta). Meanwhile, Raphael did some pretty impressive redecorating for Pope Julius II and nearly made a career out of painting baby pictures of Jesus. Art and science had a race to see which could make the most progress. It was neck and neck at times, but in the end, art won by a furlong.
The 19th Century--Jaques-Louis David, Jean-Auguste Ingres, Eugene Delacoix, Theodore Gericault, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Auguste Rodin, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cezanne--quite a cast of characters and every last one of the stars of the show speaking with a French accent. England provided J.M.W. Turner, America added the names of Whistler, Cassatt, and Sargent. Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, Gauguin, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, Morisot, and a few others all turned in superb performances in supporting roles. Eiffel raised his tower; Manet had a picnic on the lawn, Rodin did some thinking and kissing; Whistler proved to be a mama's boy; Monet made quite an impression; and Seurat invented the dot. David, Ingres, Delacroix, Gericault, Cabanal, Bougeureau, Gerome and way too many others, manned the Academic ramparts against the likes of Monet, Courbet, Millet, Degas, Renoir, van Gogh, and Cezanne. For all its fame, faults, and frivolities, nothing like the French Academie des Beaux Arts had ever existed before (or fortunately, since) nor had such a powerful impact on the arts. Only the Catholic Church during the Renaissance came close to the near total artistic domination of the Academie and its all-powerful Salon competition. The century began with David's Classical Oath of the Horatii (above, left), and ended Georges Seurat taking a day off on A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte (above, right). Both were massive paintings but had little in common beyond that. In between, photography poked its nosed into the art world, trains carried artist into the countryside to paint, and a little guy with one ear ended his painting carreer prematurely with a gunshot. It was a wild and crazy century.
The 20th century--Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky, Kasimir Malevich, Norman Rockwell, Salavador Dali, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, Frank Lloyde Wright, Walt Disney, Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, Steven Spielberg, Jeff Koons--the list of stars grows longer and longer with each century. The list of secondaries becomes longer than both your arms--Braque, Chagall, Duchamp, Vlaminck, Balla, Boccioni, Munch, Gaudi, le Corbusier, Mondrian, Frankenthaler, O'Keeffe, Griffith, Hitchcock, Moses, Close, Gottlieb, Nevelson, and about a hundred more. The list of 20th century art "isms" is enough to choke a horse, starting with Fauvism, Cubism, Dada, Art Nouveau and Deco, Expressionism, Futurism, Orphism, Surrealism, Constructivism, Suprematism, Abstract Expressionism, Op and Pop, and finally a kind of artistic suicide in Minimalism. The 20th century, fortunately, had no institutional dictatorship even faintly reminiscent of the Academie des Beaux Arts, though some might suggest Hollywood's Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPASS) comes close. If the technology rather tiptoed into the 19th century with the advent of primitive photography, the 20th century art world literally got WALLOPED by it, starting with motion pictures, then television, and finally the computer. Painting peaked with Abstract Expressionism, Popped a decade later, then Minimalized itself into irrelevancy shortly thereafter. Frank Lloyde Wright epitomized architecture, the Bauhaus reinvented the box on a grand, soaring scale so we could watch in horror as two of them came crashing down during 9-11. Modern Art became Post-modern. Pixels replace pigments. D.W. Griffith gave birth to a nation of racists, Selznick went with the wind, and Spielberg phoned home with Schindler's List in hope of Saving Private Ryan. And finally, Stanley Kubrick taught us how to love the bomb and then summed up the entire century with an psychedelic, overly optimistic space odyssey scheduled for 2001.
And the winner decide. Not to unduly influence the outcome, but my vote goes with the 20th century by a landslide. Alvin Toffler had it right in Future Shock. It's not a matter of change itself, but the pace of change that counts. The 20th century changed many things. The 21st century will change every thing. There will always be change. In the most fundamental sense, "change" is, in fact, the very definition of life. If you don't change, you die. And even the dead change physically. When people can no longer cope with change, especially the pace of change, that's when they face death. Daily we read about the divisions, not just in American society, but the world as a whole. A great deal of what accounts for this division boils down to those who can and do deal effectively with change and those who can't, don't, or won't deal with change. In art we see a microcosm of the ever-increasing pace of change in the world. Any attempt to slow down this pace of change (or worse, reverse it) is fruitless. The only hope is to try to guide change, and perhaps lessen somewhat its impact. At this time, the second decade of the 21st century, it's way too early to evaluate the impact of this century's changes in the fine arts. The year 1913 gave no hint of two world wars, nuclear weapons, television, or space travel, much less microwave ovens, the Internet, in vitro fertilization, digital photography, or virtual reality. 2013 and the year following is likewise ignorant of the future. Coping with change is best achieved by hoping for the best rather than fearing the worst. Happy New Years!


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