John skillen

This essay by the director of the Studio for Art, Faith & History sets the context for much of the work of the Studio, which is to encourage faith-based communities and associations to put art back to work in the places where they gather to do their work. Happily, some of my comments about the autonomy of the artist that begin the essay are gradually becoming out-of-date as new currents in socially-engaged art, community art, collaborative art, and commissioned art are recovering the legitimacy they once had.

If and when we think about who makes the artwork, a lot of us, I suspect, will still call to mind an independent artist working alone in his or her studio on a painting or sculpture dreamed up ex nihilo, the result of purely private choices, made with no knowledge of where the artwork might end up, who will see it, whether it might make its way to a gallery, who might buy it and for what reasons, and with no input from anyone considered to have expertise in the subject matter (when one can speak of subject matter). The conditions of art-making in our time serve to maximize the artist’s freedom and room for individual expression. Artists are answerable to no one but themselves—at least that is the supposition.

Still operative is the lingo of the last century that considers artists as “counter-cultural” figures whose “creativity” is defined as “originality” and whose works represent the “shock of the new.” From my file of quotations that evoke this ethos, I pick out a comment by Chuck Close, one of a number of high-value contemporary artists interviewed a few years ago by the Financial Times of London (November 2013):

But it was the perfect time [the 1970’s] to be an artist because there were plenty of chances for people to do totally different things. That unfocused nature left the door open for a lot of people to strike out and find their own little part of that world. But when you do that, you either are doomed to follower status or you try and make something personal and idiosyncratic and not like anyone else’s. If you manage to do that, and if enough people think that that thing you did was significant, you can actually deflect or bend the course of history.

When and why the autonomy of the artist became the paramount value in the production of art is debated. From a narrowly art-historical viewpoint, Giorgio Vasari deserves credit as the first to give prominence to the personalities of the artistic geniuses of the Italian Renaissance in his Lives of the Artists, written in the sixteenth century. Certainly the Romanticism of the nineteenth century privileged the Artist as Genius (with large Ego allowed) who created as he lived, without regard for the conventions of bourgeois society and morality. Philosophical currents focused on the power of art to transport us to the sublime when freed from any utilitarian purpose of representing or inculcating the beliefs of a community. Art for art’s sake.

Only after the artist makes the artwork does another set of figures kick into play. Gallery owners and auction houses and art fair organizers play the role of middlemen through whom collectors buy works of art. Art critics and the intelligentsia of cultural theorists and historians play their role in determining the value of an artist’s work. Museum directors and exhibition curators give wider access to audiences interested in seeing art and artifacts of past or unfamiliar cultures—or of their own culture. Curators of non-commercial exhibition spaces (university galleries, for example) play their role in educating a public about contemporary art. And finally Collectors—the serious buyers—put the art somewhere for longer-term viewing by friends and associates (except for the billions of dollars’ worth of art now locked in climate-controlled warehouses as elements of investment portfolios). But all these people do their work after the Artists have done theirs.

Yet, for all the cultural status that the “creatives” (in today’s parlance) theoretically enjoy, it’s strange that artists have so little been incorporated into the social fabric, into a reliable income system; strange that so little of something spoken of as being so important actually finds a place in the physical fabric of public space. And since another common assumption is that art ought to crack its viewers out of habits or complacencies, the artist and the audience are often, if implicitly, set up as antagonists rather than as parties who recognize their value to one another.

I’m exaggerating a bit for effect. My generalizations can be countered with reference to the increasing number of civic initiatives that involve the arts at the ground level of urban renewal projects; of the increasing number of cities that require some percentage of the costs of a new building to be allocated for art in its interior design. Happily, a widening swathe of churches and parachurch organizations and missional non-profits are recognizing the importance of the arts in enriching devotional life and the meditative reading of scripture, worship and liturgy, even theology, or in giving visual form to their works of service. More and more graduate-level programs address these issues. Exhibitions of artwork somewhere in the church building are less and less unusual. Many churches openly encourage the artists of the community.

Although the grip of the modernist paradigm is weakening, it is not easy to imagine alternatives. A glance at the past can kick-start some creative brainstorming.

During several centuries in Italy from roughly 1250-1550—the period of the Italian Renaissance that serves as an important reference point for the Studio for Art, Faith & History, given its location—the conditions of the production and use of art included reliable relationships among four parties or constituencies.

First were the communities who valued the work of art in giving shape and purpose to the activities that marked their identity. Patrons were involved in commissioning and funding the project. Scholarly advisors were called in to counsel the artist on the themes and concepts for which the artist could give sophisticated visual form. In one sense, the artists came along at the end of the process; they were not the autonomous initiators. Although the lines of communication between these four parties were seldom conflict-free, nor without self-serving motivations, these conditions ensured the social relevance of the artwork and the answerability of artists to their publics. Artists were respected as those with the skill to give tangible visible form—a “local habitation and a name,” in Shakespeare’s phrase—to the guiding values and beliefs of the sponsoring community.

Let’s take a brief look at each of these four parties.

The Community for whom the artwork was made

That art was valued across a broad cross-section of society in this pre-modern period of history is evidenced most obviously in the rich art-scape of sophisticated decoration that marked the public and private places in which every sort of community association gathered to do its work.

The members of monastic communities ate their suppers in front of Christ’s Last Supper with his disciples, frescoed on the end-wall of the refectory by artists who could merge actual with fictive space by the techniques of perspective. In town halls, councils debated and decided policy surrounded by decoration that reminded them of their responsibility for the common weal. People received the Eucharist before altarpieces that clarified precise aspects of the Real Presence of Christ to be embodied in the lives of the faithful as in His mother and in the saints of the past. Hospitals, orphanages, the palazzi of the wealthy, confraternity clubhouses, baptisteries and bell towers, even the sacristies where the clergy vested for the Mass: no zone of civic and religious life was alien from the desire to decorate with imagery able to instruct, remind, and inspire those who gathered there. I cite the three terms repeated in defenses of visual art for almost a millennium, beginning with Pope Gregory in 600 A.D. Thomas Aquinas gave an authoritative description in the thirteenth century. A Dominican theologian in the late fifteenth century still cites Pope Gregory in explaining that painted images were introduced into the life of the church “for three reasons”:

First, on account of the ignorance of simple people, so that those who are not able to read the scriptures can yet learn by seeing the sacraments of our salvation and faith in pictures. Second, images were introduced on account of our emotional sluggishness; so that men who are not aroused to devotion when they see them, as if actually present, in pictures. For our feelings are aroused by things seen more than by things heard. Third, they were introduced on account of our unreliable memories … because many people cannot retain in their memories what they hear, but they do remember if they see images. [Sources are provided in the discussion in my book Putting Art (back) in its Place (pp. 10-11).]

A large proportion of the places that artists were hired to decorate housed the activities not of private individuals but of groups with collective purpose, even if such groups were small. (We make our reservations weeks in advance to see Leonardo’s Last Supper, little aware that Last Suppers were made for the dining halls used only by the communities of religious in monasteries. The so-called Allegory of Good and Bad Government in the town hall in Siena, painted in the 1330’s by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, had the explicit purpose of inspiring and exhorting the very limited viewership of the nine councilmen elected to draft legislation recommended by the council of 300 citizens meeting in the adjacent hall.)

What happened to the role of communities as the initiators of putting artwork to work?

They (or we) have been habituated to seeing ourselves as those who look at art in settings carefully controlled by others. Our comportment is mainly passive, standing quietly in galleries and museums, gazing at artworks with hands behind back, fearful of getting so close to the work of art as to set off the alarm. The very vocabulary of “use”—of speaking of art as having a useful purpose in the lives of those who engage with it—continues to be suspect even now at the tail end of a period that has emphasized the value of art in itself, without instrumental value. Generally speaking, the audience comes along afterwards, responding to an artwork with whose making the viewer was distinctly uninvolved.

So habituated are we to the museum and gallery-based conventions of experiencing art that we are little conscious of how these environments are designed to inhibit any reaction other than the purely aesthetic. When the museum-goer enters a room full of altarpieces, for example, she is expected to repress any urge she might have (if she is a person of Christian faith) to pray or to meditate on the scene depicted. In a recent essay, Pelagia Horgan cites the reaction of art critic Hilton Kramer during his visit to the show of works by Fra Angelico in New York in 2005: “Kramer described the utter strangeness of seeing a woman ‘demonstrably offering her prayers to a painting of the Holy Virgin’ in the middle of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. ‘There was no mistaking the piety and ardour that this woman brought to her act of worship; she was clearly oblivious to the group of onlookers that had silently gathered to witness her prayers,’ he wrote in the New York Observer.” To engage in corporate liturgical action with a group of church friends before a sacred painting in the museum is as prohibited as chattering on the cellphone. Whispered conversation is more likely to be about how the artist has dealt with the folds in Mary’s drapery, or about the patterns of brushstrokes. We are expected to leave our beliefs at the coat-check along with the backpack.

The Patron

People and communities across the social spectrum wanted art and knew why they wanted it and where they would place it, so they hired highly skilled artisans to make it. Essentially all art was commissioned. In every case, someone was engaged in drawing up the contract, organizing the financing and the payment schedule, and in making sure that the artist provided the contracted level of quality. Commissioning entities were various. They could be a town council, a guild or confraternity responsible for the decoration of a public building as well as of their own headquarters, the prestigious committee charged with maintaining and decorating the cathedral, the abbot of a monastic community, a family decorating a side chapel in a church (often having put clauses in their wills to fund the project).

Certainly the wealthy were expected to be patrons of the arts. To be sure, the great patrons of the Renaissance were hardly immune to using art to promote their own interests, showing off social and economic status, gaining political clout through beautification of the city’s architectural and visual fabric. But they opened their pocketbooks to fund projects for the common good.

In every case, some such entity contracted to pay an artist not to make whatever he felt like, but to make a particular object for a particular location, of a particular size, with highly specified subject matter and materials, to be used to assist a particular action, to be completed by a particular date (or be penalized), for an agreed-upon price.

All this may strike modern ears as a limiting, even demeaning, constriction of the artist’s proper independence. But the sheer quantity of high-level art produced during this period by artists who complained often enough about late payments but not that their creative freedom had been inhibited, suggests that patronage no more limits creative excellence than modern artistic license can be shown to increase it.

If we think of patronage loosely as the means by which money finally gets to the pockets of the artists, then it exists, and in a wider variety of forms. When artists do get paid, it’s mainly through a system of commercial galleries that take on the artist for a one-time show or for a long-term relationship whereby the gallery creates a distinct niche for the artist. But galleries exist to make money, not to give it away. Various endowed or publicly-funded agencies provide grants or fellowships to artists, usually selected through a competitive process. The person who buys a work of art is a sort of patron. Some regularly collect a particular artist’s work, sometimes developing a personal relationship.

In these modern modes of patronage, the norm is for the patron not to play an active role in deciding what the artist makes and how and why and for where she makes it. The artist is protected from the patron’s intrusion.

A positive sign is an increase in commissioned artwork, and of artists willing to accept commissioned work. Site-specific commissions can be very high-profile, such as Anish Kapoor’s sculpture for the 2012 London Olympics (funded by the ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steel producer) and one of the few works of art made for public use: “See all of London from the UK’s tallest sculpture,” says the website; “Experience the world's tallest and longest tunnel slide - London's newest, most exciting attraction!”

Yet these forms of patronage touch the lives of very few professional artists who are trying to make careers out of their sense of vocation.

The Advisor

The scholarly community—those with expertise in the subject matter—did their work before and during the production of the artwork, not after it was made. Appointed by the commissioners, their job was to make sure that the artist understood and gave adequate visual form to the underlying framework of ideas, or to the actions that the artwork was created to serve.

Such advisors to the artist are not often named in contracts, but their involvement is verifiable. Luca Signorelli’s contract to fresco the right transept of the Orvieto Duomo (the so-called Chapel of San Brizio) with scenes of the End Times and the Last Judgment obliges him to consult with the “masters of the sacred page,” likely referring to the Dominican theologians at the monastery in town (where Thomas Aquinas had occupied his chair two centuries before). Such collaboration is the only way to account for how someone like Raphael, decently educated but certainly not fluent in the philosophical writings referenced in the so-called “School of Athens” frescoed on one wall of Pope Julius II’s library, could nevertheless design murals that explored the concepts and personages of the history of philosophy and theology, of literature and jurisprudence, with the highest imaginable sophistication. The likeliest candidate for this advisory role is Pope Julius’s own erudite librarian, Tommaso Inghirami.

Nowadays, the intelligentsia comes along as critics, reviewers, historians, and biographers—those who explain and contextualize and evaluate artists and artworks—only after the artist has made the thing. Their judgments mediate the perceptions through which audiences respond to the artwork, and influence the collectors and gallerists and curators on whom artists depend for their economic survivability.

The Artist

Artists did not first make objects and then place them in the showroom for sale as finished products purchased by customers. Artists were hired to create specified objects for particular settings. Contracts commonly indicated the exact figures to be included in a painting, their size and proportion to one another, sized to fit the frame for a carefully measured space, the materials to be used by quality and cost, and so forth.

Such conditions of art-making in medieval-Renaissance Italy may seem distastefully restricting and controlling to a modern sensibility. But the skilled artisans trained and hired to create all this bespoke decoration were respected and valued as members of an entirely necessary profession. They are included in the set of honorable trades and professions depicted in the series of medallions that decorate the famous bell tower next to the Duomo in Florence. They were integrated into the social, economic, and religious systems through which a town’s life was organized and managed. Artists in medieval and Renaissance Italy did not operate as lone rangers.

Artists had to be capable businessmen (if they were to succeed). Most had incomes and lived lives that our own society would consider middle class. They had what we call a fairly broad-based clientele: monastic communities, churches, public government, wealthy families, trade guilds and the confraternities with their works of piety and social service.

The modern line drawn between craft art and Fine art (between artisan and “artist”) was simply not operative in the Renaissance; nor was the distinction between an object for use and an object with no utilitarian purpose. Artists were artisans, and art was understood as useful. We can forget that panels on baptismal fonts or doors that we admire as artistic masterworks of bronze-casting were parts of functioning baptismal fonts and doors that opened and closed, touched by thousands of people. In fact, artists’ workshops were the go-to places for ordering custom-made banners for processions, dowry chests for brides, painted and gilded birth trays to celebrate a newborn in a well-to-do family; the sort of work that we do not expect a self-respecting contemporary Artist to condescend to do. (Famous examples counter my generalization, such as the Dominican chapel near Nice on the Riviera where Henri Matisse not only painted the murals but designed the furnishings, the stained-glass windows, the vestments.)

In our time, the stone cutter prepares gravestones, the factory worker uses machinery to cut marble counter tops, and the artist-sculptor creates objects for display in a gallery—but these skilled carvers of stone simply do not rub shoulders, seldom occupy the same place. It is difficult for us to imagine the felt interdependence once in place among artisans whose varying work was part of a unified fabric of construction and decoration. The sculptor carving the narrative bas-relief panels featured on the cathedral façade or the statues filling the niches knows the importance of the work of the masons who build the walls of the building, of the stone-carvers able not only to carve perfectly round columns but in spiral patterns, the artisans who make the capitals and the finely-finished pilasters that eventually serve to frame the decoration in relief. All these artisans were typically members of the same stone carvers guild. In fact, I have just alluded to the sequence of scenes carved in relief on the predella of the niche of the stone carvers’ guild along the outside wall of Orsanmichele—the old market building in Florence transformed into the chapel for use by the guilds for their religious ceremonies.

The education of the artist occurred not in schools as we know them but on the job as apprentices, not doing homework assignments for a class but assisting on real-life commissioned objects under a master of an established bottega, or commercial art workshop. This education was not so narrow as we might imagine. The artist learned not only the geometry used in designing wall-paintings and canvases, but the business arithmetic and algebra (to a level beyond that of many of today’s college graduates) used in running a business, determining amounts needed for the time and size of the project, proportions of recipes, calculating monetary exchanges across a wide variety of currencies.

Artists did their work not only for mainly public settings but mainly in largely non-private conditions. The artist’s bottega was no private studio but a place where a mix of business and schooling took place, training apprentices, assigning duties to assistants, meeting with the advisory committee assigned to the project by the commissioner, fussing over the patron’s satisfaction. Much art, such as those acres of frescoes that constitute the dominant art form of the period, could only be created in situ, painted not so much on the wall but into the wall. Artists (as we might say) had no time for navel-gazing, for waiting for inspiration, or for choosing their own hours. When the temperature and humidity was right, the crew had to trowel up just the right amount of plaster for the day’s frescoing.

In sum, all four of these parties had roles in making the artwork and in making the art work. And all had vested interests in the particular place where the artwork had its role to play.

It is the wager of this essay (and the hunch of the Studio for Art, Faith & History) that bringing together the community, the artist, the patron, and the advisor at the least provides an alternative model, one that puts art and artists back into the life of the community.

After all, can we really say that the modern model has well served the church? Its focus on the creative autonomy of the artist seems ill-suited to the fundamental character of the church as a body of mutually dependent members. The modernist model limits the ways in which the church community can support its artists: offering affirmation and emotional support, inviting them to work with the junior high kids to paint a mural in the Sunday School room, giving space in the church building for exhibitions, turning the church into a gallery. The irony has been noted: museums have become places for religious experience in a post-Christian age, while the church doubles as an exhibition space.

Can we appreciate the work of art as enriching and informing the works of the people—our liturgies—whether receiving together the body of Christ, teaching our children, learning and meditating on the Scriptures, serving those in need, welcoming the stranger?


Photo courtesy of Amy Hughes. Banner photo and thumbnail image on main page courtesy of Joy Rodowicz.

Photo courtesy of Amy Hughes. Banner photo and thumbnail image on main page courtesy of Joy Rodowicz.