The Invention of Art: A Cultural History
By Larry Shiner. University of Chicago Press
Book review by Julie Ardery

Art can't deliver the goods of truth and beauty anymore, at least not with the self-confidence and immediacy of old. And for this failure, we can't entirely blame today's atonal composers and postminimalist sculptors. Though contemporary artists do seem to have retreated, their skills and ambitions pitiably diminished since the days of Raphael, in fact they have been desperately hard at work, grappling to survive art's own cumbersome history.

Shiner marks the eighteenth century as art's Great Divide. His book sets out to prove that our present-day concept of art is a relatively new idea, "invented" some 250 years ago.
Most surveys of art history put the turning point much earlier: in the Renaissance, when craft guilds began to lose their monopoly, the earliest art academies opened, and art's first superstars -- Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo -- shot over the horizon.

Shiner concedes that the status of painters and sculptors improved during the Renaissance, but he argues that its artists were a long way from today's bohemian free-birds. He writes that even in the fifteenth century, the "norm was cooperative production from workshops that fulfilled specific contracts"; in other words, even Leonardo was working for hire.
Our notion of art as the self-guided, original expression of an individual genius could only develop later, between 1680 and 1830. During these years, Shiner contends, the combined forces of Enlightenment philosophy, a growing middle class, and new cultural institutions (public libraries, concerts, and museums) transformed the conception of art.

For centuries before, art had been made to order and presented in lively and specific social contexts, as adornments for a church or entertainments at the palace. Only after the political revolutions of the eighteenth century did art develop an autonomous life.
Musical performances moved from the background at chattery parties of aristocrats to the hushed center of bourgeois attention. Madonnas who once sighed behind altars were taken down and strung against the white walls of the Louvre.

Kant, Schiller, and other theorists set down new definitions of "the aesthetic," prescribing not only the right kind of art but the right way to enjoy it: in quiet contemplation.
Archbishops and countesses hadn't fretted much about their taste (their taste was taste), but the middle-class public was intensely uneasy in such matters.
To the rescue, enter a whole new caste of cultural intermediaries: curators, art dealers, and, for that matter, book critics.

(...) We have been blinded, he argues, by a narrow artistic ideal, taking our "art" for the whole of art.
Invented in the 1700s, a "modern system" of beliefs, markets, organizations, and practices has become entrenched and now both emaciates creative effort and warps our understanding of the past.
"So long as we remain in thrall to the assumptions of the modern system of art," he writes, "we will think it a compliment to emphasize Shakespeare's 'unfettered' independence, whereas his actual achievement was to have crafted a series of magnificent dramas within the limits of a particular set of actors and the necessity of pleasing socially complex audiences in a volatile political atmosphere."

Craftsmanship, purpose, pleasure giving -- these are the qualities that Shiner claims were lost as art crystallized into an independent realm.
Most lamentable of all for him has been the split between artist and artisan, how we worship the artist-genius and see the craftsperson as a technician, even a drone.
(...) In Shiner's view, the advance of modernism looks "less like a great liberation than a fracture we have been trying to heal ever since."

Copyright 2002 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Julie Ardery, "What Happened to Art?," The American Prospect vol. 13 no. 5, March 11, 2002. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to