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Friday, December 30, 2011

The Popular Versus the Uncommon

The Haarlem Painters Guild, 1675, Jan de Bray, second from left, seem perplexed,
perhaps about many of the the same market elements which distress artists today.

Gypsy Girl, 1628-30 Frans Hals
When artists complain about the present art market in which we all either sink, swim, or at least tread water, the complaints cover a whole range of so-called "problems." From cheap reproductions masquerading as investment quality art to copycat, assembly line "original" oil paintings imported from second world countries at so much per square yard in which the retailer makes more from the sale of a grandiose, gold leaf (really bronze leaf) frame than from the painting; the list of gripes is nearly endless. Of course, one man's problem is another man's opportunity. We lament the fact that the "good" art we laboriously turn out in our eight by ten studios cannot be differentiated by buyers from "bad" art with million-dollar marketing machines behind it. If it will make you feel any better, artists have fought these problems, or similar ones, ever since the model for our current art market developed in seventeenth century Holland. Hals (above, left), Vermeer (below, right), and Rembrandt all had largely the same complaints we do, and suffered many of the same economic indignities.

The Milk Maid, 1658-60, Jan Vermeer:
genre was in.
To understand their plight, one has to understand the Dutch art market of the time. Perhaps the easiest way to describe it is to note the traditional market elements that were absent. First of all, in Calvinist Holland, the churches were all largely unadorned and the clergy intended that they should stay that way. There was virtually no religious patronage. Some religious painting was done, but not for the church. Second, there was no monarchy. Holland was one of the earliest European democracies. And likewise, there was no hereditary aristocracy to commission massive painted works of art. Yet, in spite of this, there was great bourgeois wealth; and wherever there is that, there is also an abounding art market. Perhaps just as interesting as the forces absent from this market were the subjects also absent. There was little or no demand for mythology. History paintings was out, pretty flowers were in. Huge fresco murals were out, modest living room art was in. Stuffy, individual portraits were out, stuffy group portraits (as seen at top) were in. Genre was in (below), landscapes were in, still-lifes were in, while paintings of butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers plying their trade were out.

The Young Bull, 1647, Paulus Potter: animals
competed with their owners for canvas space.
If an artist could work within those constraints he (and sometimes she) could paint and sell for a reasonable price about everything they could produce; and hundreds did just that. Never before in the history of painting was there so much good art and so little great art. Moreover, those who did produce great art did so at their own risk, and often at considerable loss. This was especially true of Hals and Vermeer. And while Rembrandt was immensely popular for a decade or two near the start of his career, in his declining years, he too suffered for his efforts to move beyond that which was so popular to that which was uncommon. Therefore, as we grouse about the inequities, the outrageous, the fraud, deceit, and execrable poor taste that seems to be the driving force in today's art market, keep in mind that those elements literally "come with the territory" and though we can try to change things, and cry because we can't, few of us would want to go back to medieval or even the Renaissance times and the crushing creative restraints dictated by the religious and political forces which drove that market.

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