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5.0 out of 5 stars The Birth of Modern Art, September 5, 2011
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This review is from: The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Hardcover)
It's simply a fact that English Culture in the 18th century created our modern ideas about Art and Artists. The 18th century is the time in which the idea of "high art" developed, the time when the modern traditions of literature, art and theater were established, and, most importantly, the time in which wide swathes of people in England gained the time and money to indulgence their fondness for "leisure."

Recognizing the 18th century as an important time in the development of modern art is one thing, understanding the role it actually played is quite another. Critical perspectives on the 18th century are often shaped by later developments distorting the vision of the critic- most especially the Romantic inspired cult of Artist as genius, and 19th century Marxism. Brewer's The Pleasures of the Imagination serves as a stern, contemporary refutation of many mushy headed ideas about the development of Art in Modern society.

Brewer's method is to survey 18th century developments in the Arts, in England and tie them to pre-existing and developing institutions in order to demonstrate what came before the explosion in Artistic activity during the 18th century. The main sections of Pleasures deal with the rise of the novel, the development of 18th century painting, and the arts of "public performance": theater, opera and concert music. After his survey of artisitic development in the 18th century, Brewer turns to the relationship between the center and it's periphery (London and the other area of England) in order to show the way in which "city culture" developed outside of the city.

Perhaps the theme from Pleasures that would be most astonishing to readers of this blog (or perhaps not astonishing at all) is the manner in which, in all art forms, the AUDIENCE preceded the ARTIST. Take the novel- a 18th century English invention if ever there was one. Literature existed in 17th century England, but the novel did not. What happened? Well, at the end of the 17th century in London, there were people who made their living printing and selling books- let's call them "booksellers"- there were also people who made their living writing- let's call them "hacks." During the first part of the 18th century, there was explosive growth in the population of London itself, and a corresponding rise in demand for printed matter: sermons, almanacs, information about public affairs, poetry.

The early novel writers were ALREADY involved in the world of literature. For example, Brewers uses Samuel Richardson, who might well, along with Daniel DeFoe might be considered the "inventor" of the novel. Richardson was a succesful printer, who wrote his first novel at the age of 50. The result, Pamela, was a work that Richardson knew there was an audience for- he knew because he made books for them. Likewise, DeFoe was what you would call a "hack" and his early novel's were sensational in the vein of the criminal biographies and adventure narratives that people were already buying.

Thus the novel, at it's very inception, was perceived as something that people should want to buy, and the audience for the novel already existed- they were just buying other forms of literature. Once the value in the novel as a new form of literature was perceived by writers, they wasted no time establishing a secondary body of literature that we call "criticism." Most of this criticism happened among writers themselves, with an uneasy and unclear relationship to the larger, buying, "public." This pattern of development- happening early in the 18th century- was to occur again and again through the 18th, 19th and 20th century.

Certainly, painting offers an even broader, more distinct example of Audience preceding Artist. At the beginning of the 18th century, painting was something that, for Englishmen, happened in Italy, two hundred years ago. Contemporary English painters were of little regard, and they were certainly not the peoe ple who decided what painting was worthwhile. This task- the task of discrimination and of what we call "taste" was the province of the "connessiour" and later, the "collector." Beginning in the 18th century, more and more wealthy English gentleman (and fewer ladies) took the Grand Tour, where they travelled to Italy with the express purpose of cultivating their artistic tastes.

They returned to England, and acting like the powerful players in Society they actually were, went about disseminating their views about Painting in private and in public. This took the form of clubs, journals and partnerships with the government to share their taste with the population. All of this activity only gradually let to domestic painting being recognized as "worthy" on a level with the Renaissance masters, and even by the end of the 18th century, it was a battle that was far from over. 18th century painting is an example of an at times artist-less Audience and it provides a neat counter example to the more common pattern of working artists developing a new artisitc genre for an existing Audience.

Finally, Brewer comes to the "performing" arts- Theater, Opera and Concert Music. Here, the argument of Audience preceding Artist is easy to make, simply based on the manner in which these forms were slaves to Audience opinion (even, when in the case of Opera, the audience was an audience of one: The King of England.) Indeed, the great successes of 18th century theater and concert music were men (Garrick and Handel) who created works of art that had huge secondary associations among the wider population. Garrick was the man who created the "cult" of Shakespeare, Handel the man who created the music for 18th century church going Britons.

In all areas, the idea of the detached Aritst, living apart from society in some sort of self-imposed isolation is showng to be a false ideas propogated by romantic theorists of the 18th and 19th century. False then, false now- without the Audience, Artists don't exist.
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