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Art and visual culture: medieval to modern
Art and visual culture: medieval to modern

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Bürger’s functions of art: bourgeois art

By 1800, however, the predominant category was what Bürger calls ‘bourgeois art’. His use of this term reflects his reliance on a broadly Marxist conceptual framework, which views artistic developments as being driven ultimately by social and economic change (Bürger, 1984, p. 47; Hemingway and Vaughan, 1998). Such art is bourgeois in so far as it owed its existence to the growing importance of trade and industry in Europe since the late medieval period, which gave rise to an increasingly large and influential middle class. Exemplary in this respect is seventeenth-century Dutch painting, the distinctive features and sheer profusion of which were both made possible by a large population of relatively affluent city-dwellers. In other countries, the commercialisation of society and the urban development that went with it tended to take place more slowly. Britain, however, rapidly caught up with the Netherlands; by 1680, London was being transformed into a modern city characterised by novel uses of space as well as by new building types. Here too, artists produced images that were affordable and appealing to a middle-class audience; notable in this respect was William Hogarth (1697–1764), who began his career working in the comparatively cheap medium of engraving. Even his famous set of paintings Marriage A-la-Mode, which satirises the manners and morals of fashionable society, was primarily intended as a model for prints to be made after them (Figure 11). Hogarth’s work, like that of many other artists of the period, embodies a sense of didactic purpose, in accordance with the prevailing view that art should aim both to ‘instruct and delight’.

Figure 11 William Hogarth, Marriage A-la-Mode: 2, The Tête à Tête, 1743–45, oil on canvas, 70 × 91 cm. National Gallery, London, acc. NG114. Bought 1824. Photo: © 2011, The National Gallery, London/Scala, Florence.

What fundamentally distinguishes ‘bourgeois art’ from previous categories, however, is its lack of any actual function. Its defining feature, according to Bürger, is its autonomy, which he defines as ‘art’s independence from society’ (Bürger, 1984, p. 35). As we have seen, a conception of ‘fine art’ as a category apart from everyday needs was formalised in the mid eighteenth century. What this meant in practice is best demonstrated by the case of easel painting, which had become the dominant pictorial form by 1600. Unlike an altarpiece or a fresco, this kind of picture has no fixed place; instead, its frame serves to separate it from its surroundings, allowing it to be hung in almost any setting. Its value lies not in any use as such, but in the ease with which it can be bought and sold (or what Marxists call its ‘exchange value’). In taking the form of a commodity, easel painting accords with the commercial priorities of bourgeois society, even though what appears within the frame may be far removed from these priorities (an open landscape, for example: see Figure 12). Art’s previous functions did not simply vanish, however, not least because the nobility and its values retained considerable power and prestige. In the household depicted in Hogarth’s The Tête à Tête (Figure 11), for example, paintings serve in typically courtly fashion for purposes of ostentation and decoration; one is set within a carved overmantel, while those on the walls are mostly large and ornately framed. Being far more expensive, sculpture especially functioned as a kind of luxury commodity; royal and aristocratic art collectors showed off their ‘taste’ by displaying statues by the most famous sculptors in their residences.

Figure 12 Caspar David Friedrich, The Solitary Tree, 1822, oil on canvas, 55 × 71 cm. Nationalgalerie, Berlin, inv. NG 77. Photographed by Jörg P. Anders. Photo: © 2011, Scala, Florence/BPK, Bildagentur für Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte, Berlin.

Ultimately more important than such residual courtly functions, however, is the distinctly paradoxical way that art in bourgeois society at once preserves and transforms art’s sacral functions. Autonomous art does not promote Christian beliefs and practices, as religious art traditionally did, but rather is treated by art lovers as itself the source of a special kind of experience, a rarefied or even spiritual pleasure. This type of pleasure is now called ‘aesthetic’, a word that was coined in 1735, by Alexander Baumgarten, though it was only towards the end of the eighteenth century that writers began to talk about their experience of art in such high-flown quasi-religious terms (for examples, see Shiner, 2001, pp. 135–6). What this boils down to is that art increasingly functioned during this period as a cult in its own right, one in which the artist of genius replaces God the creator as the source of meaning and value. This exalted conception of art consolidated the separation between the artist and the craftsman, which had motivated the foundation of the Florentine Academy some two centuries earlier. Nevertheless, throughout the period from 1600 to 1850, artists, and of course architects, continued to carry out a wide range of social functions. They might design a trade card to advertise a shop (Figure 13), for example, or a tomb to commemorate the dead. A crucial means by which art remained integrated into society was through the practice of drawing, on which the very definition of the arts of design depended (disegno means ‘drawing’ as well as ‘design’ in Italian). On the one hand, it was an amateur pastime pursued by both men and women (Figure 14). On the other hand, professional draughtsmen produced visual records for commercial, military and scientific purposes (Bermingham, 2000). Both functions would eventually be taken over by photography.

Figure 13 Comte de Caylus after François Boucher, trade card for Edme Gersaint: A la Pagode, 1740, etching and engraving, image size 36 × 21 cm. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris. Photo: BnF, Paris.
Figure 14 Paul Sandby, A Lady Copying at a Drawing Table, c.1760–70, graphite, red and black chalk and stump on paper, 18 × 15 cm. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. Photo: © Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection/The Bridgeman Art Library.