T. Wignesan interviews Adam Donaldson Powell.

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T. Wignesan (Parisian author) has interviewed me on behalf of my publisher Cyberwit.net:

INTERVIEW QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS —
T. WIGNESAN – ADAM DONALDSON POWELL.

T. WIGNESAN: I – WHY WRITE?

ADAM DONALDSON POWELL: In all honesty, I did not choose to write; the writing chose me. It is both a passion and a necessity for my survival and expression; in addition to my personal contribution to the development and advancement of art, society and humanity. I do not worry about becoming famous. Being famous with the goal of ego gratification is a “useless occupation”.

I am but one small cog in a very big wheel — the Wheel of Existence; on the same level of significance as any other entity in our Universes … forever expanding and contracting in consciousness, expressing a myriad of ideas, emotions and behaviour patterns, and forever breathing the Eternal (the Breath and Essence of God). Surely, I have my own take on Existentialist and Nihilistic philosophies but my only “Truths” are my thoughts, words and actions — in each moment. And for me, each moment is the sum of the Whole of Existence, in any one instance in space and time, and from my individual perspective — which is co-created (together) with my environment. Thus to me, writing is breathing Creation. And the Spirit and act of creation are the seeds of renewal/renaissance, and the dissolution of concepts of past, present and future as well as the idea that anything is separate from anything/anyone else. By being creative I assert my role in the ever self-defining Divine project called Existence.

As regards celebrity, I actually know a bit about that having had many years where I was recognised from TV, newspapers etc. as an activist and artist/author. Sometimes it was pleasant, and there have also been incidents where I felt threatened when recognised as “that person”. Public personalities are clothing/roles that are taken on, but they are not the individual’s personality. Therefore, for me, fame is not a goal — but it can be a condition and lifestyle to which one must adjust and which bears great responsibility.

T. WIGNESAN: II – “Why write” does touch on both the personal motivations for indulging in words and having them bound in book form metaphorically by one’s own hand, just as much as they apply to the broader objective perspective in the light of the great masters and teachers (who never wrote – some likely were analphabète like Akbar – down their most influential teachings) who have for – better or worse – given us our ever evolving world: Zarathustra, the Hindu Rishis, Moses, Buddha, Mahavira, Christ, Lao Tse, Confucious, Bodhidharma, Mahomet (I’m not sure about the Hebrew prophets). The Tao Te Ching and the Confucian Analects cannot be legitimately attributed to the authors’ own hands.

ADAM DONALDSON POWELL: My writing is “published” in many formats: in books, in my paintings, on the internet, performed onstage etc. Books once represented a form of “permanence” for authors but now many libraries are digitalising their collections, bookstores have limited space and are selective with regards to which authors, titles and subject matters they give space to as well as impose limitations on how long a book can take up shelf space. In the fast-paced technological life of today authors must also adapt to both changing markets and publication arenas, as well as how to meet a public that is “on the run” and multi-tasking. I do not personally own many books anymore, as I have given away hundreds to libraries, organisations and private persons. Knowledge and joy should be spread around — not hoarded, and left to gather dust.

T. WIGNESAN:
Does one need to have something to say in order to want to write?

ADAM DONALDSON POWELL: No, not all writing is meant to be read by others, and by the same token not all writing has to have a serious message. I have written poems and made paintings that are essentially about nothing important, and also minimalistic works about “Nothingness”. However, longer works such as short stories, essays, novellas and novels would generally require a purpose that is larger than that of eg. a “haiku moment” — in order to hold the attention of a reading public.

That being said, I love to test out variations on minimalism in my novels; deciding myself how much descriptive verbiage I offer the reader, when and where. This in order to seduce the reader into an active role as co-creator of “the story”; and, yes, on “my terms”. In that way I can interact with the Reader who accepts what is written and how it is presented, and then suddenly meets upon a provocation that was embedded within the presentation all the while. That is Art imitating Life, n’est-ce pas?

This minimalistic style is closely related to my own philosophy of extreme art and literature. “Extreme literature” can be philosophical, political, religious, sexually-oriented, profane, or just downright “dangerous” because it rocks others’ boat(s) personally. Not all literature is “pretty”, and even humour can be considered provocative. Many authors have works they (and others) consider to be “extreme”. All throughout the history of art and literature, artists and writers have pressed against and played with society’s tolerances – in both “liberal” epochs, “conservative” epochs and (as now) in states of “moral confusion”, where Western concepts of freedom of speech sometimes butt against national and local cultural mores and social politics; and where danger lurks and thrives on non-specific and situational social codes and fears.

The concept of “EXTREME ART AND LITERATURE” changes all the time. What is actually “extreme” today – in a mixture of globalised, regionalised, nationalised and localised perspectives? My own opinion is that “extreme art and literature” today takes its starting point in the accepted banalities of everyday life, experiences and consciousness on the respective and combined levels (social, philosophical, political, economical, sexual and spiritual). Contemporary “extreme art / literature” no longer attempts to shock in an obvious way, but rather entices the public to feel that he / she is a “member” of the experiential understanding and consciousness, only to interject a “triggering” aspect that creates a sense of uncomfortableness caused by the realisation that one has been busted by a banality. These “trigger mechanisms” are (in fact) integral parts of the art itself – often passing by in fleeting moments, sometimes blended in with an obsessive and “flat” (journalistic or photojournalistic) expression or a long tirade of banalities that do not even pretend to be surrealistic. These small “electrical shock” triggers will hopefully ignite an inner experience within the public so that the viewer / reader begins to investigate his / her own personal reality, his / her actual contributions to a collective reality and hopefully to re-evaluate his / her own concept of what one prefers to create as an individual and collective reality. The illusion of spiritual and emotional separation (the illusion that we are all separate, individual and self-sustaining entities that can determine our roles on Terra or in the Interlife totally without contact or influence with / from others) is a vital element here, and that common illusion is therefore “fertile ground” for artists. Here we artists and authors can play, provoke, prevaricate, entice, seduce and fool the audience to believe in us as a part of “themselves”, and then trigger the reader / viewer to consider the possibility that there might be (in fact) a miscommunication or misconception running loose … a sense of everyday reality that is inconsistent or which has consequences that one was never aware of.

Perhaps the most meaningful and interactive way to help another person to “wake up” from their perceptual drowsiness is to enter into their everyday dreams and illusions (their banalities) and suddenly say “BOO!!!” Artists and authors who attempt to shock through their art with the blatantly obvious, often thus fail to explore and exploit the deeper, symbolic depths of the subconscious and the more mystical elements that make up our everyday and banal thoughts, activities, attitudes etc., and therefore are denied “personal access” by some viewers / readers who may consider the art to be too intellectual, too elitist, too directly confrontational, or too foreign.

Sex and religion are often used today in art and literature as “shock elements”. It is not necessarily sex or religion which are provocative or interesting in themselves, but rather the unspoken and quietly accepted perceptions that we chain ourselves to unquestionably, and which can totally be set in chaos just by the artist and author changing or adding one simple element or context that we do not feel belongs in our reality-defining “picture”.

“Extreme art and literature” is thus not blatantly provocative in itself; it rather shows the audience the possible ramifications of acceptance, non-involvement, personal meanings and behaviour by confronting us with triggered or mixed in “extreme” moments, and then lets the audience choose to begin its own personal creative life process of evaluation and re-creation (if desired) … without commentary or guidance.

When I presented myself to Marina Abramovic as a “retired activist” she responded by asking me if an activist can ever be finished with activism. Of course, she is right. The process of rebellion is nothing more than one intermittent set of activities and actions in a constant redefining and assertion of the Self, both individually and collectively. Art is the ultimate expression of the process of rebellion. If an artist loses that quality, he/she “dies” in a certain way. My art and literature are not just extensions of me … they are my created persona: a sweet mixture of heaven and hell, with a pinch of banalities for flavouring.

T. WIGNESAN: (b) Does the old dictum: “Poetry is made with words, not ideas” still apply?

ADAM DONALDSON POWELL: What is a poem? It is definitely not a daydream. A poem is a carefully constructed literary bonsai, cultivated with loving discipline and good planning. The air of spontaneity and dreaminess is only an illusion, and it is the result of great craftsmanship. Yes, poetry is comprised of several tools; and words are perhaps the most important device. But words, silences, punctuation, structure, rhythm, colour, sounds, visual associations etc. all play together in order to make a successful piece of writing. Poems are essentially just one facet of the diamond; of a story; of a possible reality. Do poems represent ideas, and are they made with words? Yes, of course. But a successful poem is an instance of Déjà vu— often recognisable beyond the words alone.

T. WIGNESAN: III – You have now given us your “cosmovision”, as Carlos Bousoño would describe it, a philosophical standpoint that is rich with implications for art and literature – “extreme art and literature” as you put it – which impinges on the average individual’s (average reader or viewer’s) reality with its consequential attributes of jolting consciousness through the shock of subversive “trigger mechanisms” (to be read also as “rebellion” against the norm or status quo?) — all of which makes of you a veritable activist. Now, how do you transcribe this engagé attitude to the specifics of writing, on the one hand, your own considerable output and, on the other, appreciating the works of others?
In my view, judging by your critique of my books, you have willy-nilly chosen the psychological approach to aesthetics and hence the overwhelming impressionistic taint in your pronouncements. Not that they are not valid – far from it – but it would serve to clarify your ultimate critical stance(s) if you could elaborate on your acceptance or rejection of the critical concepts of “affective fallacy” as opposed to “intentional fallacy”.

ADAM DONALDSON POWELL: Hmm … Wimsatt and Beardsley on intentional and affective fallacy. First let me respond to your premise that I have “willy-nilly” chosen a psychological approach to aesthetics in my criticism of your novels. Since you have taken my criticism of your novels as an example, I will answer you in the same fashion.

In my opinion many of your novels (that I have read) have an exciting underpinning of the existential and psychological, if you will — a degree of playing with the minds of the reader(s) … perhaps sometimes seeking to test or out-smart him/her. There is nothing wrong with that; it is fairly common in literature. I would classify that as an “intention”, supported by various situations, emotions and feelings illustrated in certain ways and with certain styles of writing. Obviously, when I become aware that the twists and turns that you often create in your stories are finely tailored then I instinctively begin to evaluate both the literary mechanisms that you are using and their degree of success for me as Reader. To me, art is not entirely (or even primarily) accidental — but rather is based upon ideas, intentions and plans for execution. In addition, I personally believe that all art created is in part biographical — i.e. possess some thoughts, experiences, personality traits, memories etc. known, imagined or dreamed about by the artist/author. Art is by nature both subjective and objective. That means that art is not just public, but also personal — to the author, and to his/her audience who must process the effects of the information, visuals etc. in relation to one’s own personal framework of ideas, attitudes and experiences. For me, assessing the success of a work of art is by nature based upon whether or not the perceived intention of the representation “works for me”. Why? Because I am both subjective and objective in my attempts to find meaning and personal relevance in a work of art that I am inviting into my consciousness. But it is not enough to merely say that “I do not like it because it does not work for me.” I should hopefully be able to relate what does not appeal to me/function for me — and why. I do not particularly like much modern rhyming poetry, and I can explain why in both subjective and objective (technical) terms. So yes, I do offer authors and publishers bits of objective and textual criticism … i.e. criticism based upon the relative success of technical aspects of the writing, style, form, etc. However, my job as a literary critic is not to serve as a professor of creative writing and to go into great detail about what exactly does not work (for me) technically. That is not popular with the writers, nor with the publishers — who want a positive review that will help to sell books, rather than a critical one (which potential book buyers may want). Often I write those comments in a separate note to the publisher and author. Usually authors are thankful — both for my insights, and that it is done in that way.

I list quite specifically what I look for objectively in my answer to the final question.

T. WIGNESAN: IV – Correct me if I’m wrong, I would have thought what gives your critical responses to any creative work depth and infinite modulations is your own trained ear for music. You are an accomplished pianist, and in your own words have avowed having earned – by more than half – your income in New York by playing at restaurants, bars, weddings, etc. Do you agree?

ADAM DONALDSON POWELL: While I studied piano under some well-known concert pianists for several years in New York City, and before that played the violoncello in a youth orchestra, I would be the first to take issue with being called “an accomplished pianist” or an accomplished anything else. Back then — in New York City — everyone I met was an artist, a writer, an actor, a musician etc., and thus the “litmus test” was earning at least part of one’s income in that profession. Being a musician, artist, actor, writer etc. is a job — in fact a 24-hour job which includes many hours of practicing, rehearsing, thinking, and planning before a final work or performance is executed. It is a work that is never finished, because the possibilities are endless and the Mind of an artist never seems to stop chattering. In my own mind, each poem, story, novel, painting is part of one larger ongoing work of art — that of me reacting to Life and my environment(s).

For me, the transition from classical music to poetry and then to painting was fairly natural and logical. In all of those art forms ideas are converted to pictures and sounds which evoke a myriad of reactions and recognitions in the viewer/audience. Each artistic discipline requires a balanced combination of technical skills, some understanding of the history of artistic traditions throughout modern history, and the ability to translate abstractions into suggestions of something seemingly “tangible” to our senses, recollections and feelings. So, in that sense, yes I can agree that much of my sensibility as regards visual art and literature (especially my poetry) has its nascence in music — sounds, rhythms, colour, speed, action, movement … all interpreted within (and sometimes beyond) an ever-evolving framework of techniques and styles pressing toward new forms of expression. To me, art (performance or visual) is not about being or becoming “accomplished”. One never fully arrives as an artist, as there is always some new peak to climb — stumbling, crawling, and running towards an infinity that can never be reached, by definition.

T. WIGNESAN: V – What may your thoughts be on these heroic couplets? (This is not a required “test”. You are welcome to ignore it.)

One science only will one genius fit;
So vast is art, so narrow human wit:
Not only bounded to peculiar arts,
But oft in those confined to single parts.

ADAM DONALDSON POWELL: Ahhh — excellent! — an excerpt from Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism”. Well, T. Wignesan, as you well know these lines must certainly be judged in the larger context of the poetic work — namely the importance of self-knowledge (rather than mere literary theory) to criticism, as well as understanding that individual tastes and preferences of both Critic and Artist have both their limitations and their “genius”. However, in my opinion, because all art forms have history (of style and technical development, culture and politics), being an artist can also be considered to be an expression of a “studied and skilled science” that is heightened by intuitive and philosophical genius.

I personally believe — and have stated many times as a literary critic — that it is important to periodically specify what I personally look for in literary works that I am asked to comment on. I believe that it is important for the Reader both in relation to understanding the nature and framework of my criticism, and also as a possible “guide” for aspiring writers who wish to look beyond so-called “standard rules of writing” in their understanding and assessment of possibilities in their own artistic development.

I have written the following (several times) regarding what I aspire towards in my own writing, and what I also look for in the work of other writers whose work I have been asked to comment on: “I look for many qualities, including evenness in quality, diversity in content and form, artistic intent, planning, execution and polish (the degree of polish being both intentional and commensurate with the desired expression), and an overall concept of the book as a complete work of art – beyond an arbitrary “stew” of individual poems. In addition, I pay attention to the author’s sense of originality, political and social awareness, mastery of storytelling, and visual, musical and philosophical expressions indicative of the author’s experiential personal history. I further look for: balance of intellectual rationalism and emotional presence, a solid command of the full palette of language(s) used, descriptive colour, clarity, intentional usage of abstractions, entertainment and theatrical/performance value, humour and occasional irony, and an overall sense of when to use poetic economy versus poetic rapture. And finally I am concerned that the author has an understanding of how to arouse within the reader a sense of personal identification, emotion and engagement – enabling the reader’s ‘inner artist’ to enter into a creative cognitive dialogue with the author, and hopefully even to inspire the reader to embark upon his/her own creative process. I believe that art is both an intentional and an intuitive process, with many pitfalls: eg. overwriting, non-attention to levels of language used ($5 words can sometimes be more appropriate than $5000 words), stylistic and punctuation liberties that sometimes work and sometimes not, mimicking famous (and usually deceased) writers without sufficiently developing one’s own signature style, and getting all too caught up in – or ignoring – traditions of literature without having thought through why one has consciously chosen this or that style, or a divergence … just to name a few. At the same time, I believe that artists must always keep experimenting in order to grow and to develop further. That means taking risks … and sometimes even falling flat on one’s face. That is okay. We eventually learn from both our own … and others’ mistakes.”

As to whether literary criticism is, in fact, a “science” or a literary art form in itself, well, I think it can (and perhaps should) be both.

T. Wignesan (for Cyberwit.net) – https://www.cyberwit.net/authors/twignesan
August 31, 2017 – Paris, France

Dialogue with an Art Historian: Part Four — On Patrons, the Church and Artists in the Renaissance Era

On my many trips to Italy, I have often taken guided tours of museums, churches, and medieval buildings. In those tours, I learned to recognize faces — of wealthy Renaissance and Medieval families, art patrons and sponsors, and Church officials, and the artists themselves — painted into religious scenes. While I understand the need for models, I also understand the ego aggrandizement and status importance for the art patrons and commissioners of being a part of these scenes. Was this a common and accepted practice mostly in the Italian Schools of religious painting? Was it not considered idolatrous and blasphemous? And how did the Lutheran Reformation movement react to this practice?

It would seem to be more than a mere novelty or joke; and rather a conscious and accepted practice. I am surprised that the Church allowed it. It is a way of affirming that those patrons were “closer to God” than many of lower social, political, and financial stature.

But then again, its allowance says much about the importance of recognition by the Church (as documented by inclusion in important paintings). They did not have social media, biographies, or photographs to establish their status beyond their communities.

Equally important are questions of profiteering and status for artists who took part in this trend. I remember seeing some religious paintings where scenes staged in Jerusalem were envisioned/transported to Italy. Of course, ancient Romans saw Israel as an important part of the Empire, and Renaissance art explored Greco-Roman art and traditions in the religious artistic expositions.

When I think about the speculations of collectors vying to commission and purchase works by the most esteemed artists of the day and the eagerness of those elite artists to be included in the collections of the wealthy and influential — along with their colleagues and competitors — it strikes me that the Italian Renaissance was perhaps the beginning of the same speculation, “Art is an Elite Business”, “there is only room for the elite few” etc. that we experience today. And that includes collectors storing away works by artists they hope will become even more famous, or already famous iconic works until the day those works can make a surprise appearance at an art auction and capitalize on their initial investment manyfold. Perhaps it was not art in the churches that was the big problem, as much as the popularity of using art in private homes as a sign of status, and a speculative form of alternative currency … much like bitcoins today?

NB. «According to the convention, Italian painters during the Renaissance tended to avoid producing formal self-portraits but frequently inserted images of themselves in their painting. The artist Masaccio appears as an apostle in his Brancacci Chapel frescoes (c.1426), while Piero della Francesca inserted himself as a soldier in the religious mural Resurrection (1463). Sandro Botticelli used an image of himself in his Adoration of the Magi (1481), while Michelangelo Buonarroti used his own face when painting St. Bartholomew in the Last Judgement fresco in the Sistine Chapel (1536-1541), and Raphael included himself among the characters of School of Athens (1510). The Venetian artist Titian is believed to have included himself as well as his son and a young cousin in his Allegory of Prudence (1565-70). Occasionally, a painter would depict a true-life group portrait in which he had a legitimate presence. For example, in the picture of The Gonzaga Court (1474) by Andrea Mantegna, the artist appears as himself. In addition, some artists – like the Florentine Gentile Bellini and Leonardo da Vinci – did execute more formal self-portraits.»

Above quote excerpted from: 

Ricardo:

The Visual Artist in Western Society

As for visual artists and their status: I believe that, contrary to some historians, they were never “anonymous” — we just don’t have historical records, so their names are unknown to us. But artists as creative beings (and I’m including of course architects) necessarily had a reputation once their works were seen in their own time. And, in one way or another, they always “advertised” their existence and skill(s): an interesting essay by Meyer Shapiro that analyses the role of the artist in tenth and eleventh-century France suggests that the better ones were well recognized and in demand and their roles as visual interpreters of Church tradition and dogma were part of their skill, even if they weren’t themselves members of religious orders. (See M. Shapiro, “On the Aesthetic Attitude in Romanesque Art”, reprinted (pp. 1-27) in Romanesque Art (George Braziller, NY, 1977).) And early in the Italian Renaissance, we find Giotto signing a painting of St. Francis from about 1300 (now in the Louvre).

So, the apparent uniqueness of the modern obsession with “fame” is perhaps overstated.  

As courts developed in the major cities in Europe during the Middle Ages and bourgeois classes grew thanks to increased commerce, trade, and worldwide exploration, the demand for and ability to pay for sophisticated, often opulent works of art likewise increased. Naturally, artists sought commissions from the newly-wealthy and powerful, since artists were trying to make a living. Partly impelled by a desire to earn more money they sought more prestige, as well. Some were able to align themselves with Humanist scholars whose writings became as valued as the Church’s theologians. All classes became interested in Europe’s debt to their Roman and Greek ancestors. Scholars kept finding and reproducing texts from ancient times that had been long thought lost and ancient artworks kept being dug up (the most famous find, in Rome in 1506: the Laocoon, a sculpture that is a Roman copy, mentioned in an ancient text by Pliny the Elder, of a Greek original and, as the text indicated, signed!)

Scholars fleeing the Ottomans in the Near East in the later fifteenth century brought their knowledge of Greek with them, as well as ancient texts.

This interest in the Roman and Greek past naturally was picked up by visual artists and, so, beginning especially in the early 1400s, aspects of Roman architecture began to be found in the frescoes and panel paintings and in the designs of new buildings themselves.  Rulers as disparate as the Gonzaga in Mantua and Rudolph II (HRE, 1576-1612) delighted in being identified in their artists’ works for it associated them with the glories of Rome in one way or another.  

Of course, the conceit that Rome and its heritage was somehow “lost” and then refound during the early Renaissance is a bit of a legend without much basis. Monasteries and other centers of culture in the Middle Ages preserved some of the Roman heritage and there’s certainly evidence throughout that writers and artists still reflected on that history.  To cite just one example, in the Morgan Library the Stavelot Triptych, created around 1155 AD, on its side panels contains miniature silver columns with Corinthian capitals and bases evoking Rome and the Constantinian era, consistent with the period of the legends depicted in enamel roundels on the panels.

The clients’ idea of having themselves pictured via portraits in painted works — both secular and religious — seemed to develop slowly in the early 15th century, but then caught on. So we find in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s frescoes in SM Novella in Florence on the life of the Virgin (ca. 1490) various Florentine “notables” in the crowds attending the various episodes. The work was commissioned by a banker of the Medici’s, Giovanni Tornabuoni (contract signed 1485). In the ducal palace in Mantua we find a room frescoed by Mantegna in 1464-75 with the Gonzaga ruling clan prominently displayed on several of the four walls. The semi-private functions of the room, the Camera degli Sposi, helped to create an air of exclusiveness that was meant to impress viewers with the wealth and cultural prestige of Gonzaga without an overt or gaudy display. 

It’s common in art history to teach that the first profile bust in marble since the end of the Roman Empire was done by Mino da Fiesole in 1453. Appropriately enough for our purposes and point of view, it was a portrait bust of the son of the patriarch of the Medici’s in the 15th century, Piero de’ Medici, who de facto ruled Florence 1464-69. The sculpture is now in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello. This would have presumably been for display in the patron’s home and not publicly. The great ‘boom’ in portrait art in Florence in the mid to late 15th century was featured in a recent Met Museum exhibition.

Even in Northern Renaissance art, we see contemporary donors or clerics being portrayed in historical or Biblical works. Thus, there are several masterpieces showing Chancellor Rolin of the Duchy of Burgundy, including one by Jan van Eyck (ca. 1435) where he is shown kneeling in front of the Virgin and child!  Hans Memling painted an altarpiece of the Crucifixion (ca. 1470) where the patron/donor, a cleric named Jan Crabbe, is seen kneeling at the base of the cross, while on the side panels (now at the Morgan Library & Museum in NYC) are his mother with her patron saint and his brother with his. There are countless other examples of donors being pictured within scenes that nominally are set in Biblical times but feature contemporary architecture and cityscapes.

Presumably, the Church in Rome had no problem with this. It was certainly a way to encourage the spending of large sums by patrons or wealthy clerics in order to have colorful works of art created which could adorn their churches (sometimes inside chapels ‘owned’ or sponsored by the patrons). For the Strozzi family, rivals but sometimes allies of the Medicis, in their chapel in SM Novella, Filippino Lippi painted a fresco (1502) depicting a legend of a saint’s deeds and pictured in it a very elegant Moorish man, wearing an extremely tall turban, which seems to be a portrait of Filippo Strozzi’s Moorish slave.

And, as you pointed out, artists took the opportunity to represent themselves as well as their patrons in some of these scenes. So, it’s thought that the man on the right peering out at the viewer in Botticelli’s “Adoration of the Magi” (1475, Uffizi) is Botticelli himself!  Likewise, we probably see Pontormo among the men holding the dead Christ in his “Deposition” in Santa Felicita (1528) in Florence.

Presumably, this reflects that by the late 15th century the most well-known artists had gained a status well above that of a mere member of a workmen’s guild (painters and sculptors often were lumped with other trades in large guilds). When they did have their own guilds, artists often used it as a way to keep out competition from artists emigrating from other cities or regions.

Certainly, your thought that being seen via portraiture in a painting of a Biblical scene might somehow suggest to the patrons that they were that much closer to Heaven is a correct one. I always found it somewhat amusing that this same thought led many aristocrats and members of other privileged classes to attempt to be buried in floor tombs within the church and as close to the altar as possible!  

The Maggiore chapel in Santa Croce, Florence, has frescos by Taddeo Gaddi’s son, Agnolo Gaddi, painted in the mid-1300s.  Agnolo was considered the artistic heir of Giotto.  The fresco is notable for details and curiosities that have nothing to do with the legend’s iconography.  In it, you can spot portraits of Taddeo, Agnolo, and Giotto.

I’m sure that artists were not oblivious to the concept that one way to gain business was to suggest to a wealthy patron that he/she commission works for a church in which the patron would also be pictured. But my sense is that the wealthy and powerful did not deal directly with artists and that agents or bureaucrats or scholars affiliated with the circle or court of the patron would have both recommended the artist and perhaps negotiated with him over the details of the work. Italy has a particularly rich archive of contracts for artistic works (the Northern Renaissance countries don’t) and in some of the contracts, there is a fairly precise description of what the picture should look like and what colors and materials were to be used (to impress one’s neighbors you’d have the painter use a blue made from lapis lazuli — extremely expensive — with gilding throughout; in the Middle Ages the gilded area often suggested Heaven).  

We should remember that painted images were not the highest form of ‘conspicuous consumption’ in the Middle Ages and Renaissance/Baroque: you showed you were especially wealthy by owning woven wool tapestries and sculptures (including table-sized ‘miniature’ bronzes by the likes of a sculptor dubbed “Antico”). Thus, the Medicis were sufficiently wealthy to commission Donatello to create his sculpture “David” that was probably intended for a garden. And the Medici pope Leo X commissioned Raphael to create “cartoons” for 10 tapestries (based on the book of Acts in the Christian Bible) that were sent to Brussels for weaving around 1516. All European rulers of stature until the 18th century owned often large numbers of very expensive tapestries.

Granted, these were the wealthiest and most powerful of secular and religious figures who had vast amounts of assets to draw from to pay their artists. By the seventeenth century, in more bourgeois societies such as those in the Dutch Republic cities, status seemed to depend more frequently on your ownership of paintings, including the new genres of landscapes and still lifes.  

Nonetheless, the Roman Church and its new orders such as the Jesuits continued to commission large projects, including the frescoing of ceilings and domes of newly-built churches, such as the dome of the Jesu Church in Rome. 

In terms of when the concept developed that “Art is an Elite Business”, it depends on your viewpoint.  As noted above, the artist was not necessarily the one creating the impression that his works would lend status to an owner. It partly required a knowledgeable patron with intelligent advisors to commission the type of work that would reflect grandly on the patron. Michelangelo gained his fame from the Pieta, the David, and the Sistine Chapel ceiling, all commissioned by “the Church”, though the ceiling reflected on the apparent good taste and sagacity of Pope Julius II, who also commissioned his own tomb from Michelangelo that Michelangelo was working on fitfully for decades after the Pope’s death. By the time the Pope commissioned the ceiling, Michelangelo was already “a rock star” and many of the era’s notables were nearly begging Michelangelo to make even a drawing for them.  

So, by this point in the sixteenth century, some artists had received the kind of acclaim we see today and could almost literally “name their price”.  What Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) spawned in his work on the lives of the painters and sculptors (1550; 1568) – a view of art as a kind of competition judged by people who did not have to be either artists or patrons – created a new profession: art critic, someone who was a kind of intermediary between the patron and the artist.  Was this the beginning of history’s tendency to “forget” certain artists who were not deemed of the highest rank, even though their works might well be worthy of attention and provide joy to those who beheld them?  (Vasari, of course, was himself an artist and architect, but that was not a requirement for art critics in succeeding centuries.)

But to answer your main query: Yes, clearly wealthy families or individuals hoped to gain both public prestige and a step up on the ladder to Heaven by commissioning frescoes and altarpieces that were, indeed, very visible in a church setting and, thus, would be viewed by other citizens who undoubtedly would marvel at the amounts spent by the patrons (often chapel-owners) to have had such magnificent works created. And some of the works of course involved sculptural settings and statuary/busts for their own tombs in a church if they were so fortunate as to be permitted such a permanent “residence”.  

The Roman (Catholic) Church clearly favored this approach and during the Counter-Reformation and Baroque periods, their churches became almost over-burdened with decoration. As you’ve noted, certain break-away sects among those that came to be called “Protestant” were more ascetic in their approach and, hence, we have the wonderful paintings of white-washed, brilliantly-lighted (via clear windows, not colorful stained glass) interiors of Dutch churches by numerous seventeenth-century Dutch painters. (See The Wake of Iconoclasm: Painting the Church in the Dutch Republic, by Angela Vanhaelen, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press 2012. 222 pp, 56 illus. ISBN 978-0-271-05061-4).     

Certain Protestant sects, such as the Lutherans themselves, came to accept aspects of the decorative scheme and theology of the Roman Church and so permitted painted pictures, even of saints (the cult of saints had been roundly criticized in the initial phases of the Reformation).

But one senses that the patrons and artists were less likely to try to be “show-offs” publicly in the context of a Lutheran or Reformed church.

Again, this was a period when the opulence of art went back into private, but now bourgeois, residences (parallel to the palaces of the Medici, the Strozzi, Sforza, and other Italian wealthy families).

Collecting:  An Aside

As one of your points suggested, we shouldn’t overlook the idea that “consumers” of art drove the market, too. Commissioning or buying “fine art” was not always an aesthetic decision per se, but, rather, made in order to have something in one’s home that was deemed by others to be desirable.  Around the time of the Renaissance, the idea of forming collections of things as a goal in itself – pictures, tapestries, gems, items related to amateur scientific study, medallions, small bronzes, etc. – seemed to gain momentum. Vasari, an artist, and architect, was also an avid collector of other artists’ works, especially drawings. Reasonably well to do people who could not afford oil paintings much less tapestries, could perhaps afford drawings or prints. In any event, all these “objects” that were collected presumably meant to the collector that he had a certain prestige as a member of the cognoscenti by virtue of ownership of multiple numbers of fine visual works by more talented individuals who were acknowledged as such by the arbiters of taste at the particular moment in history when the collecting was carried out.

Given the secularization of society in general in the 18th through 20th centuries, religious art tended to be accorded less value than before and artists sought fame and fortune through portraiture and decorative floral and other still-life paintings and “genre” painting. (Mythological and historical paintings were still acquired most often by institutions.)  So the Church had less influence on the picture- and sculpture-making. Thus, artists threw their lot in with the nouveau riche and bourgeoisie.

One might have expected that extreme times would have brought changes in art – the subject matter, even the materials. After a wave of neo-classicism in 18th century Europe (France, especially), the French Revolution might have been expected to overturn all aesthetic “norms”. Instead, it seems to me that artists were wary about trying anything too new that might be deemed “aristocratic” and literally be a risk to their lives (at least in France). Even in French “satellite” countries, like parts of Italy, we see more “classicism”, such as Canova’s pure-white marble sculptures.  Elsewhere, like England and Germany, there develops a Romanticism that seems to be a “cry” back to the calm of pre-Revolutionary times rather than a direct response to the Revolution and its ideals and chaos. There were notable exceptions, of course, such as the work of the brilliant English poet, painter, printmaker, publisher William Blake.  


Adam:

Thanks, Ricardo. That was awesome!


This intriguing article is a good one for those interested in more information on this and related topics:

https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-italian-renaissance-wealthy-patrons-art-power

Do read this excellent piece on the history of Renaissance art:

https://www.history.com/topics/renaissance/renaissance-art

Here is more about the evolving status of Italian Renaissance artists:

The escapades of Isabella d’Este — a Renaissance art collector:

http://www.italianrenaissanceresources.com/units/unit-8/essays/isabella-deste-collects/ 

For those interested in more information about the Northern Renaissance, and about the Protestant / Lutheran Reformation and its effect upon Church and Religious Art, check out these excellent links:

http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/history-of-art/protestant.htm 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_in_the_Protestant_Reformation_and_Counter-Reformation

https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-arthistory/chapter/the-northern-renaissance/ 


“Masquerade: COVID-19”, oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm., 2020, is self-explanatory at first glance. However, here I have left certain features slightly unfinished: the naked eyes, the disintegrating painted frame, etc.; this to suggest vulnerability and a sense of incompletion. COVID-19 presents the unanswerable questions of how effective we really are at masking fear of the unknown, and which “me” peers out from behind the superficial protective covering. This painting is a continuation of my self-portrait series, in which I explore different ways of seeing and presenting myself — with various styles and painting techniques.

 

Found in an old chest — cartoon from 1987, but still relevant today.

 

«Il tessuto dell’uomo», oil on canvas, 55 x 46 cm., This self-portrait by Adam Donaldson Powell explores Florentine textiles and the noblemen who adorned themselves with them. On a more conceptual scale, the painting alludes to «the fabric» of humanity itself.

NB. Photographs and paintings by Adam Donaldson Powell. All references and links are credited to the best of my ability. The artist who made the cartoon is unknown to me (unfortunately), but the magazine name is above the artwork.

 

Dialogue with an Art Historian: Part Three — The Continuation.

Dialogue with an Art Historian: Part Three — The Continuation. 

 

I have a further follow-up to your previous questions regarding comparing artists from different eras. 

I think there’s a basic problem in comparing artists, either in their own era or with respect to artists in other eras. Certainly, it’s interesting to try to detect “influences” (e.g., Japanese prints on some of Van Goghs later paintings). But ultimately, as you well know, what’s key in a work (to my mind) is the ‘sensibility’ (for lack of a better word) of the artist — to his materials and to himself (his soul, if you will). It’s that kind of ‘expression’ that subtly appeals to many of us, even if unconsciously.  That sensibility may involve her/his reactions to events of their time, their era — political, social, cultural, scientific, etc. But, even if a detailed analysis by a critic or art historian can seem to “tie” aspects of the artist’s work to public events or other artists past or present or things happening in the artist’s life, an exercise that seems peculiarly satisfying to other critics, art historians, and even the public, the final reckoning is the viewer’s/receptor’s “reaction” to the work. When you stand in front of the work, it’s just you and it. And each viewer brings her or his own ‘baggage’ — life experience, viewpoints, mood, preferences.  

That’s why, as I stated earlier in our exchange, I have a healthy suspicion of the whole idea of “judgment” in relation to art-viewing and discussion. Yes, I think one can speak intelligently and even non-judgmentally about one artist’s use of a medium vs. another’s. In an online discussion of “The Renaissance of Etching” (a Met exhibition and catalog last year), recently held in connection with the International Print Dealers Association ‘fair’ here in New York, it was interesting to hear several of the 3 member panel note that Durer’s few etchings reflected someone not comfortable with the medium but, rather, who must have preferred engraving (hence, he made only a few etchings). This is a probably historical fact, and interesting in itself, but should not necessarily ‘cloud’ our view of his etchings. What is our personal reaction to these etched images? Can we look at them and ‘appreciate’ them without drawing on our knowledge of how spectacular his engravings are? (Probably not….but we can still appreciate his effort at employing a new technique … and maybe enjoy the images themselves without any comparison with his other works … or with other artists’ etchings.)

As I stated earlier: it seems to me this idea of judging artists and eras began with Vasari here in the West and has not always been helpful in our attempt to understand what really happened in various eras of Western history in the visual arts. (If that’s what we want to understand.) We’ll always have a view skewed by what earlier critics and historians have determined was good or bad and by the ‘canon’ that they have implicitly created. This may leave we who are readers and observers without a real understanding of what earlier societies ‘valued’ in the visual arts and who they thought were good and not so good. A totally comprehensive overview of any era’s visual output is probably not practical, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop trying to get a ‘broader’ view of all that humanity has accomplished — to the extent we have the time away from our own work!  

Adam:

Artists and writers are a cross-section of society … with diverse political affiliations, social and moral values, and financial connections. While I affirm that all artists and writers have a right to their own views, I do wonder whether critics, art historians, museums etc. might have an obligation to present the artist in a context which gives insight into the connections between who they are are personalities and the art that they produce. But what are the boundaries of accountability — for art and literary historians, of critics and teachers, of publishers … and of artists? This includes the many instances of artists, writers and musicians who supported their sponsors in order to gain renommé, political and financial gain, and artistic opportunity. Is there a difference between that and museum benefactors who are known for politics and investments that are no longer politically correct? 

I have pointed out Gertrude Stein’s (and other famous authors’) fascist leanings previously. What do you think of the survival of her art collection purely due to her support of Petain? Is it excusable? How do we separate our valuations of famous writers and artists from their “madness” and opportunism as persons and personalities? Does genius supersede all judgment? 

I have personally reacted to known artists and writers who have expressed themselves to the media and in their art and literature in ways that I considered to be derogatory to women, to persons with physical handicaps, etc.; and I have also defended artists’ and writers’ right to self-expression, but only as far as I feel that s/he makes an attempt to present the case and give context to their xenophobia and/or other discriminatory perspectives … rather than merely make bombastic presentations in order to shock and provoke. This is a sensitive issue and has perhaps always been so. 

Ricardo:

All good questions. In the contemporary scene: what should we make of art museums and others being renamed because the benefactor was tied to Big Pharma ‘pushing’ of opioids, especially oxycontin? Or of the Princeton School of Public Affairs being renamed from the Woodrow Wilson School to a more innocuous generic name after Wilson’s terrible racism was (re)exposed? And what can we say about artists? Should we disavow Caravaggio’s works and importance because he was a murderer? (Many artists were at that time, including Cellini … self-admitting in his autobiography). I think the works have to stand on their own … including Wagner’s. But with sharp-eyed observers pointing out aspects (if any) that may deliberately expose their (now) abhorrent views.

Adam:

Yes, we are all responsible: in our creations, our judgments, our criticisms, our thoughts, our actions, and our non-actions. Existence is an exercise in creation. My most valued compliments regarding my art and literature have been when viewers/readers have told me that my work and ideas have sparked creative thoughts, artworks, and writing in their own lives. I mean for my own work to be an existential and philosophical “dialogue” with the Viewer/Reader … a dialogue that can continue in his/her mind, and thus further, in many forms and perspectives throughout the planet. In that way, we are all inescapably artists/writers/philosophers etc. And we are all responsible. In the words of Jean-Paul Sartre: “L’homme est condamné à être libre”, a concept which resounds in his “L’Etre et le Nèant” and in his “L’existentialisme est un humanisme”. In his novel “Nausea”, Sartre played upon René Descartes’ “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”) with his own discourse: “I am. I am, I exist, I think, therefore I am; I am because I think, why do I think? I don’t want to think anymore, I am because I think that I don’t want to be, I think that I . . . because . . . ugh!” ― Jean-Paul Sartre, “Nausea”.