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Context and the half-life of romanticism

Author(s): Adams, Steven

Journal: Working papers in Art & Design
ISSN 1466-4917

Volume: 4;
Date: 2006;
Original page

Art critics in early nineteenth century France were much exercised by context. The author of a guide for art lovers, the Guides des amateurs of 1817, offered detailed guidance through a ‘maze’ of new terminology applied to works of art and to such dubious practices as the application of the ‘learned mists of time’ - a thick coat of tinted varnish - to a new print to make it look like an old master. Others critics worried about romanticism and explained the movement’s founding premise - the assertion that intellectual rumination destroys the creative urge - as a market ploy to justify the production of quickly executed gestural pictures. Popular drama of the period commonly called on the image of the drunken Bohemian knocking out pictures for silver-tongued art dealers who were quick to provide a daub with a context. Similarly, when painters took trouble to make pictures with a high level of finish, they were often compared to ‘bank notes’ because their facture - unlike romantic art - offered evidence of craft, manual labour and financial security. Central to such anxieties about the true location of art’s value was a realisation on the part of early nineteenth century middle-class consumers that context rather than the original work was pivotal to its meaning. In this paper, I want to explore some of the ways in which the material fabric of works of art frequently took on a marginal role when compared to the contexts in which they were valorised, written about and shown, and to look at those contexts against the backdrop of changing patterns in the distribution of wealth brought about by the French Revolution. Central to my enquiry are the strategies used by art dealers, the avertissements used to promote works of art with little or no recognised provenence, and the spectacular displays of works of art in the shopping centres of the second arrondissement, the special sites discussed by Walter Benjamin in the Passagenwerk, reserved for the consumption of art and other luxury commodities. The conditions of production and consumption in early nineteenth century France are, I suggest, relevant to the conditions of production and consumption in our own period. The early nineteenth century saw the construction of a romantic aesthetic that asserted the importance of creative spirit as the locus of art’s value, a spirit that - somewhat contradictorily - was primarily codified and mediated through art criticism. The cultural half life of that spirit was evident throughout the twentieth century (witness the massive volume of writing on art’s fundamental ineffability by the likes of Clement Greenberg, Meyer Schapiro and Alfred Barr) and still continues to exert a power over contemporary debates about the authenticity of the object and anxieties about the need for exegesis. An interrogation of the contexts of romanticism in its early phases casts, I suggest, a valuable critical light on the contexts of latter day art practice.

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