The death of Art and the birth of pop

Art's long slide into irrelevance

When Da Vinci unveiled his Mona Lisa the world changed - civilisation took another significant step forward. Now the Mona Lisa is just another image decorating things from T-shirts to chocolate wrappers, and art - art with a capital "A" - has become something of an irrelevance as modern society marches onward. How did this come about?

Art used to be one of the most progressive forces in society. When people think of the Renaissance they are more than likely to think of the great painters of the age (the sixteenth century painters of the High Renaissance: Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Raphael, and the fifteenth century painters that had paved the way for them, such as Masaccio, Fra Angelico and Botticelli). There is a good reason for this association. Those works of art gave the age a new image of nature, of the sensuous world, and of the power of art. Society remained predominantly Catholic, but within Catholicism artists gave a completely new significance to this world - to the here and now.

Medieval art - simple, unambitious, flat and out of proportion - conveyed the essential poverty the sensuous world had for the Catholic. Renaisance art rediscovered perspective and pictorial beauty, and the new realism gave a shockingly positive portrayal of natural forms, giving new meaning to the world of the senses and helping to consolidate a new sense of cultural self-confidence. Society was on the move and art was there at the helm helping to chart the course.

In contrast to this, anyone who tries to put their finger on the essence of the modern world is unlikely to point to art. Of course the modern world has its art, but it no longer plays a leading role in shaping the way we see our world. People are much more likely to characterise the modern world in terms of science and technology. "Nature" for us is first and foremost the world as it is understood by science. There are other ideas and other images of nature but none is so powerful as that of science. Science has been at the helm for a long time now and art has been slipping gradually towards impotence.

Another reason for the diminished status of art was the shift from a fiercely aristocratic society to a more democratic one. Up to the end of the eighteenth century the art that mattered was that commissioned by kings, princes, dukes and lords, and it adorned courts, palaces, mansions and cathedrals. In the nineteenth century, as the industrial revolution gathered pace and greater political power was given to those who were getting rich from the new economic developments, the market for art changed. Artists became more independent, producing works exhibited in galleries and then collected by wealthy individuals who were often attracted by art that seemed fresh and individual and challenging. This is the period that gave rise to Impressionism (with Monet, Renoir and Gaugin as some of its leading lights) - the movement that is still probably the most popular in the history of painting.

At this time, although the old nobility had lost its power, culture remained essentially aristocratic. Those involved in the world of art belonged to an educated minority - and the opinions of the majority were of little significance as long as they turned up for work on time and did what they were told.

When the working classes got the vote and a right to an education, and when cinema and television developed in the twentieth century a new cultural space opened up which completely re-defined what mattered and what didn't. To really have an impact an image had to appear in the mass media. But the mass media is not like the gallery or the exhibition hall of the nineteenth century where a small number of people spent large amounts of money to promote their high ideals. The mass media is big business. Newspapers have to be sold, cinemas have to be filled and TV ratings have to be as high as possible to attract advertising revenue. Any organisation which worried too much about high ideals would soon go out of business.

The fate of art was then sealed. It had two choices. Either it reconciled itself to the culture industry and produced neat, easily digestible works which would be popular and would sell easily. This would mean giving up its hope of having an impact on people's perceptions because nothing within the culture industry could essentially challenge the power of that industry and the prevailing perception that whatever happens now it will be business as usual tomorrow.

The other choice for the artist has been to try to remain true to a tradition of High Art, and to keep a distance from the culture industry by producing works which are too difficult to be neatly packaged and sold to the masses. The price for this is irrelevance and impotence because in today's world something has to reach a mass audience if it is really to change anything.

Art with a capital "A" is on the horns of a dilemma: either it has something significant to say but no one to speak to, or it has an audience but nothing of any significance to say.

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