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

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2.3 From patronage to the public sphere

Among the various approaches that have been applied to the study of art produced between c.1600 and c.1850, the dominant one in recent decades has been a concern to locate art in its historical context. Art historians who employ this kind of approach take account both of the institutional and commercial conditions in which works of art were produced and consumed and of the broader cultural, social, economic and political conditions of the period. Such an approach (known as the social history of art) represents a reaction against an older model of art history, which relied ultimately on a vague notion of the zeitgeist (or ‘spirit of the age’) as a means of explaining artistic developments. This model of art history was closely associated with a focus on style, each style being assumed to reflect the spirit of a different age (Wölfflin, 1950, pp. 9–11, 233–4). Even a pioneer of the social history of art, Arnold Hauser, who pointed out that the notion of a zeitstil (‘style of the time’) did not square with the co-existence of contrasting Baroque and classical tendencies in the seventeenth century, retained style as the organising principle for his work, arguing that each style expresses a distinct ‘world-view’ (see Hauser, 1962 [1951], vol. 2, pp. 158–68; vol. 3, pp. 153–72). It is now recognised that artistic practice within a period is invariably more diverse and complex than a style-based art history admits. Furthermore, rather than simply ‘reflecting’ or ‘expressing’ wider social forces, works of art are primarily shaped by the structures and values of the art world, but also connected to society at large in myriad subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways (Clark, 1982, pp. 9–20).