Changing the History of Art: A Real Allegory

September 22nd, 2005 · 2 Comments · Writing

Gustave Courbet, The Painter’s Studio; A Real Allegory, 1855

The good news is that many people seem ready to do something about this situation, rather than just get through it. Things are simmering. More and more artists, gallerists, and curators, disturbed by the status quo, are taking matters into their own hands. Much more needs to happen. Artists should curate shows, write about them, and make their own publications. The agenda needs to be set by artists, not the market. Supply-and-demand thinking has to shift to production-and-experience thinking. Small communities or cells of artists, curators, and critics should band together, take positions, make cogent arguments, and put those things out there. If these positions are hostile to one another, fine; art isn’t about getting along. Disagreement and criticism are ways of showing art respect.
– Jerry Saltz, excerpted from The Battle for Babylon

\While I couldn’t agree more with Saltz’s call toward a more artist-centered art world, I have to wonder where he’s been. The artists I know have always curated their own shows and made their own publications, although generally under the radar of the commodity-minded art world. There’s a vibrant community out there, where artists are busy living creative lives, filled with work and thought and direction and even activism.

Some artists, discouraged by the corporate nature of the art world, have taken steps to side-step it completely. One example: last July, Alison Owen and Amanda Tan took over a loft and curated their own show. The result was staggering, with a sensitivity to both the space and the work presented in it that is rarely seen in a gallery setting.

overview from Alison Owen/Amanda Tan: New Installation Work

Their approach is by no means unusual. In the past few months, I’ve heard of artists approaching the owners of vacant storefronts for one-night exhibitions, negotiating with commercial businesses to put their work in store windows, putting their work on t-shirts and album covers to benefit causes, projecting video work onto parking garage structures, hosting art parties and open studios and opening their homes to others in creative ways. This world of ours is filled with talented people doing interesting things that do not necessarily get written up in ArtForum or the Village Voice.

Throughout Western art history, there have always been elite insiders making artwork for wealthy patrons, and today is no different. But there is also a history of artists bucking the system to find their own way to stay true to the work that needs to be done. When Gustave Courbet was rejected from showing his too-large and too-controversial painting, The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory, by the jury of exhibitions at the Salon in Paris in 1855, he mounted his own exhibition in a tent outside.

Then, in the 1860s, artists rejected by the Académie des beaux-arts selection committee developed the Salon des Refusés. It was this parallel, alternative exhibition that heralded the beginning of the end of salon-style art and set the stage for the avant garde and the entrance of modernism.

This is a story that all working artists should embrace as a hope and a direction. The art world of today is no stronger than the art world of Paris was in the mid-1800s, and it was those few that dared to think differently who changed the world around them.

When The Salon opened on 1 May, it quickly became evident that the public’s main interest would be centered not on the Salon itself, but on the rejected works. Major artists represented included Cézanne, Camille Pissarro, and Whistler. In spite of some unfavourable reaction to the works shown there, the Salon des Refusés was of great significance in undermining the prestige of the official Salon. It drew huge crowds, who came mainly to ridicule, and Édouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe was subjected to furious abuse.

On August 14, it was decreed that the Salon of rejected works would continue and changes to the composition of the Hanging Committee Jury were announced. Jubilant students went to the Academy and erected a huge black cross with an inscription in white letters:

‘Here lies the Hanging Committee of the Institute!’

After dancing wildly around it, they set off marching through the streets of Paris carrying an effigy of the Academy.

The Salon, at least until the 1880’s, was the field of intense professional rivalry among artists and the battleground of “modern” versus “traditional.”

The Salon des Refusés is regarded as a turning point in the history of art and 1863 is, in the words of Alan Bowness (Modern European Art, 1972),

‘the most convenient date from which to begin any history of modern painting’. [source]

Read the whole story of the Salon des Refusés here. Read about Gustave Courbet here and here. Read the rest of Jerry Saltz’s The Battle for Babylon here.

Category: Writing

2 Comments so far ↓

  • Micah

    Interesting analogy. The thing to notice about the refusées is that they stood the test of time; indeed, before long they pretty much became the mainstream. Given that fact:
    1) Do you think the current DIY-ers have that destiny?
    2) Based on the answer to (1), is the best art continually subversive? And/or, is the essence of art perhaps the tension between the decorative and subversive?

  • David

    I guess one thing that’s changed since Courbet’s time is that marketing has gotten a lot more sophisticated. Anything that tries to go outside the “system”, if it’s at all successful, is quickly imitated en masse and thus just becomes a part of that system. Courbet’s painting-in-a-tent attracted viewers because it was news. I think it’s a lot harder to create a news event today, because there are so many other people trying to do the same thing.

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