Artspeak in Renaissance Italy:
the historical and economic roots of the elite appeal of the visual arts.

by Heather A. Fraser.

To many "average" Canadians, visual art is largely enigmatic.

And when it is wrapped in artspeak, a jargon-laden arts writing found in art museums, commercial galleries and art magazines, it is nearly incomprehensible. Artspeak can extol a sublime postmodern building based on Suprematist theory, or deconstruct an angst ridden neo-post-painterly abstraction (I made that one up). Artspeak seems to breech an important law of marketing: it appeals to the smallest market possible, those who can understand it. And even most of those people don't read such writing. In effect, the art magazine and commercial gallery sell, and the museum promotes, an elite and intellectual lifestyle. By buying the artspeaky magazine or by associating with the museum, for example, one may have or appear to have such a lifestyle. How did the visual arts develop this superior status?

A mere 600 years ago, the western 'arts' of sculpting, painting and architecture were no different in status than the trades of smithery or shoe making. Historians believe that the intellectual status of the visual arts appeared first in Renaissance Italy. Two important factors were largely responsible for the new elite status of the visual arts: a strong Italian economy; and a mistake made by some over-zealous humanists.

In Italy prior to the Renaissance, guilds protected all art producers from disproportions of supply and demand. Under guild rules, all members were equal in status (and everyone had to be a member) so that no one lacked work. During the Renaissance, demand for art grew: towns and cities burgeoned with certain wealth; competitive (bloodily so) nascent duchies and other principalities commissioned civic sculpture and architecture; and, of course, the powerful and often lavish Church commissioned scores of works. Thus, the disproportion between supply and demand grew quite small and reduced the need for the protective guilds. Since an art producer unhampered by guild rules could charge more money, and there was a favourable market, many art makers wanted their freedom. Naturally, there was strong resistance from the guilds (and the unpopular artisans whom the guilds protected). However, a remarkable mistake made by the humanists (generally upper class men) assisted the rebellious guild members in their efforts to achieve liberation.

We must remember that the Renaissance is so called after the 'rebirth' of antiquity and its reverence for the human. The Italian humanists, scouring Athens and Rome for remnants of ancient Greek culture or Roman copies of it, became convinced, erroneously, that the ancients revered the sculptor, architect and painter as much as the divinely favoured poet and scholar. In The Social History of Art, Arnold Hauser states that Plato made a fundamental distinction between visual arts and poetry. And that, in the later years of classical antiquity as well as in the Middle Ages, there was no closer relationship between art and poetry than there was between science and poetry or between philosophy and art.

The humanists' mistaken claim that the ancients exalted the visual artist helped emancipate the artists and gave them an instantly marketable history and intellectual status. For the humanists, Hauser contends, visual artists and their art were means of propagating the ideas on which their own intellectual supremacy was based. And what the humanists did not know about antiquity while extolling the modern artists' affinity to it, they sometimes made up. A remarkable example of this form of inventive Quattrocento artspeak (which is more confusing than jargon-laden) may be seen in the biography of the Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi, Vita di Filippo di Ser Brunellesco, by Antonio Manetti (Florence, 1423-91):

From Filippo comes the rule which is the basis of all that has been done with this from that time on. It is the more remarkable, since it is not known whether the ancient painters of centuries ago, who are believed to have been good artists in the time when sculpture was at such a high level, knew perspective and whether they applied it consciously. Even if they [ancient visual artists] practiced it by rules (for not without reason do I speak of it just above as science) as Filippo later did, still those who could teach him had been dead for centuries and if any written record is to be found, it is not intelligible. But his hard work and acuteness either rediscovered or invented it.

When we think about the elite appeal of the visual arts today, it is instructive to look back at how it all began. For the Renaissance artist, as Hauser states, achieving superior status was not proof of the divine nature of his art but rather an expression of his market value.

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