I’m having a little crisis.
Long, musing, stream of consciousness.
A couple of weeks ago someone asked me something like “Are we going to talk at all about why some art is really famous? Like, the Mona Lisa?” And all I could answer (aside from how the western canon consists of the exceptional-for-its-time, not the typical, and hence Leo’s work shows new high Renaissance innovations like the 3/4 view, half length portrait and sfumato and an interest in internal psychological/ emotion states of the sitter yaddah yaddah) was that that picture in particular is famous because it’s famous. Like, you know, Paris Hilton. It’s the Paris Hilton of art.
(I was out of the country when Paris ‘happened’ and came back into the thick of it, thinking 'who are they talking about?" I still don’t know what she does for a living or why her name is known, and I gather I’m not alone in this.)
So. . . the western canon is a strange duck-- at least in art history, maybe lit and music people can pitch in some thoughts here. If I look through 5 different survey texts, especially in the section up to, say, 1950, they will in large part reproduce the same works. Some of these works are particularly notable for one reason or another-- Mike’s Pieta or Sistine ceiling, for example. I can say “this is why THIS one is important.” But a lot of the other stuff. . . why the Mona Lisa, rather than any of Leo’s other portraits in that format? Is it because it was in France early on when the academies started to call the shots? It’s in the Louvre and well known? It it a cycle of well-known leading to even more well-known?
So the academy/ canon is one issue. But then why does the ‘popular’ canon differ so much in other ways? Why does every university student coming in know Escher and Klimt and van Gogh and Bosch and Archimfuckingboldo (of all things), but none of them have heard of Masaccio?
But I almost feel like popular taste is starting unexpectedly to affect the canon: things that weren’t in our survey texts when I was a student have suddenly appeared in the more recent editions (I wonder what the thinking is in the textbook publishing business that’s feeding this trend?). What things? Klimt and Vienna Secession stuff. Symbolists. Art Nouveau. Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Bourgereau. I’m not saying these things are bad but it’s interesting in that they were popular-popular before they were added to this textbook-fed 1137 Canon that’s perpetuated. It’s like a trickle-up effect. I’ll look through the new edition and think, “what’s Maxfield Parrish doing here?! Wait, they replaced Jean Arp with Dali. . .”
So. . . why is what’s popular popular? Is this the basis of this?-- the popular canon is ‘what we like’ and the 'highbrow canon" is what’s putatively “important,” historically, and rarely the two shall meet? What about those things that are both? Does anyone really love the Mona Lisa in it’s own right, aesthetically, above other portraits of its ilk? Why are some of the highbrow canon works more famous than others? Why are people standing in line at the Louvre to see this thing, rather than anything else in the museum? Why van Gogh’s sunflowers? Is it the dorm-poster market creating taste?
(BTW, can we please have a visual art thread that doesn’t turn into a “bitch about ‘modern’ art”-fest? I know you hate Jackson Pollack and Damian Hirst and they’re all a bunch of scheming charlatans like your uncle Mike said. It’s not a new thought)