A Brief Material History of Western Fine Art Painting.

Chris Brady chris_brady at SPAMearthling.net
Tue Nov 7 03:04:39 MST 2000

My thoughts about art have emerged from a practical engagement over a
period of years.  I was primarily involved with painting, until I traded
art for politics and took up history as my major preoccupation.  If you
must know why, my sympathies were won and my intellect engaged by a
piece of literature that painted a historical panorama: The Manifesto of
The Communist Party.  As Charles noted, the ruling ideas are the ideas
of the rulers.  Here is my synthesis:

A Brief Material History of Western Fine Art Painting.

Western Art History can be understood as a linear progression from the
anonymous artificers, builders and decorative trades of the Medieval
Church.  There were masters.  They rose through apprenticeships and
journeymen to finally show their stuff, all that they had learned in one
grand work called their masterpiece.  A master really only produced one
masterpiece.  And then it was into a guild and a fair price for good

Of course art objects were manufactured prior to the so-called Dark
Ages.  Specialists carved stone and wood, wrought silver and gold, laid
tile and mosaics, turned ceramics and painted with dyes on textiles, or
pigments mixed with egg, glue or wax on wooden panels.  The big change
that happened in Western Art, the difference that set it apart from
Asian arts or African arts, was the development of capitalism and of a
bourgeoisie with wealth of the degree that could make some of them
competitors with the Church for the talents of certain craftspeople. Out
of the melange of cooperative tradesmen arose the competitive
virtuoso-as in the case of music, so in the case of art: the individual
NAME artist of superlative talent desired by the cognoscenti, which was
then as today a fairly limited few. Thus arose Raphael, Leonardo,
Michaelangelo, and Donatelo (with no nod to half a millennium later when
the same names appeared together as teenage, mutant, ninja, turtle crime
fighters, still virtuosos, albeit cartoons.) and thus began the
dwindling of the guilds.

The merchant princes of Italy became models for the European ruling
class.  These self-aggrandizers purchased their glory makers, their
destiny creators.  Frescos that could previously only be afforded by
Popes and Bishops were within the grasp of commercial condotierri,
conspiratorial Doges and enterprising dukes.  The papacy itself was the
treasure fought over by Medicis and Borgias, Guelphi and Lombards.

But it was from the Northern precincts of the Hanseatic League, from the
marshes of Frisia and the chilly damp of Amsterdam that far-ranging
Dutch traders brought the innovation that freed Western Art and set it
on the road to commodification and privatization by covetous
individuals.  From Flemish flax came both woven linen canvas and linseed
oil, the flexible, transparent medium that could carry pigments and
would not set immediately so that they could be worked around the
stretched fabric support.  Star artists could apply the new oil paints
to heavy linen canvas in a manner both new and exciting.  Colours could
be blended and worked so shading became easier and more effective.
Modeling and mass made forms almost seem to pop out of the picture
plane.  The Dutch masters became expert at trompe l'oeil.  And Dutch
traders could do what their competitors in sunny Italy could not--for a
short time: they rolled up the paintings and carried them to sale, or
took them along when they moved.  Thus Fine Art painting became
transferable and no longer physically located in a cathedral or palace.
The privatization and commodification of art proceeded with the new

At around the same time, Italians artists explored perspective through
the utilization of devices that would add even more depth and spatial
sweep to the new art: the camera lucida and the camera obscura.
Modifications of these same devices would centuries later again
revolutionize Western Fine Art during another revolutionary period with
the advent of the photographic camera.

This is where modern art as we know it, in all its abstraction(s),
begins: with the photographers Daguerre, Henry Fox Talbot and Matthew
Brady.  That is because the camera and photography took away the
representational rendering once provided by painting.  Draughtsmen could
still find work as illustrators for publications until
photo-reproduction took over from hand-drawn lithographs and etchers.
But as Fine Art painters had to re-evaluate their art, so did art
dealers and a whole academy that lived off the arts.  So they abstracted
art.  They analyzed it, and rationalized it and broke it into pieces to
sell it off.  Artists concentrated on line, on light, on colour, as with
the Impressionists, on mass and form for Cezanne, on the emotions of
art, the psyche, psychology, dreams, Chagall, surrealism, Dali,
expressionism, pattern, op, Pop, process, performance, etc. They
squeezed everything they could out of the concept of art until they were
left with conceptual art and then Art History reached its logical
conclusion: it was extrapolated out of the precious, fetishized object
and into the aesthetic experience of the mind.  (The real Death of the
History of Western Fine Art preceded any premature End of History claims
by bourgeois political philosophers).  Then, logically, came
post-modernism.  Post-modernism in art came in advance of pomo literary
adventures.  Post-modernism could take whatever it wanted from whatever
had been done with no need to be in any vanguard in the furtherance of
Art History.  The notion of the avant garde had always been anathema to
the ruling class anyway.  The logical development of the Western History
of Art was over, finished, concluded.   Post-modernism is only a long
drawn-out epilogue.

But with all the stylistic changes throughout the history of art, a
certain recognizable style identified with specific NAME artists was
tantamount to the elite's new and improved market commodity.  Whether it
was Mannerism or Manet's Dejeuner sur L'Herbe, or Man Ray's rayograms,
they were all important in Fine Art because they were vanguardistes in
the culture of the bourgeoisie.  Meanwhile, all along, there was another
class, and another world, apart from the Western bourgeoisie.

At this point we must integrate various notions of "The Arts" not just
the Fine Art painting we were taught to admire in school, or the High
arts of sculpture, poetry, music, and non-Western (for want of a list),
but folk art and the notion of the artist as worker, and as commodity,
and then the liberation from commodification and how socialism can make
life a richer, more aesthetic experience for everyone. To do so we must
re-materialize, redistribute and recognize the means.

It will take a revolution.

Chris Brady

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