Art and Utility
When we think about the changing role of the artist, it’s worthwhile being reminded that even recently [relatively speaking] it was very different. Here’s an example.
One of the most popular English artists of the mid-19th century was the painter John Martin (1789-1854). He’s notable for a number of reasons, but he’s best remembered now as the creator of vast canvases that depicted grand scenes from the Old Testament as well as apocalyptic images of the end of the world. A trio of Martin’s paintings was toured as a large-scale theatrical presentation, an event that attracted more than 4 million people around the world, including in Australia.
Martin was so popular, and commercially successful, that he bought a country house, cultivated connections with patrons, English and European royalty, and paid for the legal defence of his brother Jonathan, who had attempted to burn down a church.
Meanwhile, Martin’s print works were being copied and sold without his permission, a tricky situation given the lack of copyright law in the 19th century, which he fought unsuccessfully to be stopped, although he did manage to put an unauthorised diorama version of one his paintings out of business.
Despite some setbacks, including a bout of depression and deaths in the family, Martin was able to indulge his other creative aspirations such as designing an efficient and modern sewage system for the English capital, and later, an interconnecting circular railway line that anticipated the eventual London underground system. Neither of his designs were actually used, but Martin had time on his hands, and his ultimate ambition was not to be an artist, but to be remembered as someone useful: an engineer.
The interesting part of this story is that Martin wasn’t born into wealth. His family lived in a one room house and it was only after an indentured apprenticeship as a coach painter fell through that young Martin ended up being apprenticed to an Italian-born artist in Northern England. From there, Martin’s aspiration was upwardly mobile, via one of the few paths available to young white men in the age, and that was as an artist.
Historically, artists were usually viewed as craftspeople. In the Middle Ages artists belonged to the same guild as builders and cooks. Art was therefore almost entirely a product of the patronage of the Church. It was only in the Renaissance period that artists and their work were elevated out of the working class into what would now be the equivalent of the middle class. The rich wanted art to adorn their walls and halls, and artist were paid handsomely to create it for them. This was also the period that established professional royally sponsored academies and their attached or associated art schools across Europe.
The role of the artist was thus established as someone who worked on creating art that featured morally educative subjects, illustrating notable historical events, Bible stories, and portraits of the noble and the good. This was the way people liked it, and most artists were happy.
The latter half of the 19th century was the era when the contemporary notion of the suffering artist really took root. With few and rare exceptions, artists of the late Romantic era tended to be the shiftless sons – and some daughters – of the middle class, or even wealthy aristocrats, slumming it as artists until they were either successful, died, or returned to the family business.
The attraction of the bohemian ideal is itself an historical aberration. One can reasonably argue that the period from the end of the 19th century until now has seen a shift away from the Van Gogh model of the saintly artist figure back towards something akin to the era of Martin. Which artist wouldn’t want to be successful, own a country estate and be served by apprentices and assistants while being patronised by the wealthy?
Actually, there is another role for the artist and that, interestingly, connects to Martin’s ambition to leave art behind for socially helpful work. There are of course artists who don’t want to make art that gets sold in galleries, but instead create relationships between people with creative thinking, and produce outcomes that have social applicability – be it improved, environmentally conscious farming techniques, ecologically sustainable cooking, or green design for cheap housing.
Is that art? Who cares? Martin would approve.