The importance of the visual arts to the western cultural project and thus to the liberal arts curriculum seems obvious. What is not so obvious is exactly how they are important. In other words, it is not clear how they participate in responding to the enduring questions and ideas that constitute what is often called the “Great Conversation.” This is not a new problem, a consequence (intended or otherwise) of the Reformation, modernism, post-modernism, or whatever cultural bogeyman that happens to threaten “traditional western values and virtues.” It is a problem that is at the heart of the tradition of the visual arts, especially painting, since the Italian Renaissance.
Let’s face it, loading a brush with smelly pigments and scraping it across a piece of canvas, strip of wood, or a plaster wall, hardly impresses us as a relevant activity—epistemologically or socially. It doesn’t seem to answer the fundamental philosophical questions or lead to discoveries in science or feed the hungry or clothe the poor. If anything, it is the playground of the leisure classes, a means of conspicuous consumption and decorative expression of wealth, power, luxury, and leisure. That painting is simultaneously an absurdly irrelevant cultural practice and owes its existence to the wealthy and the powerful, is a tension that must be maintained in order to fully understand the history of painting. (For those of you who doubt my description of painting as an absurd, irrelevant, or silly cultural practice, just evaluate your own feelings if someone you cared about, like your son or daughter, niece or nephew, informed you that there were planning to major in painting in college.)
From the very beginning of cultural history, this absurd cultural practice has been associated with the history of the dukes, princes, kings, emperors, and popes who commissioned them for their palaces and for self-glorification and other forms of social, cultural, political, and indeed, even theological propaganda.
And yet those who have devoted their lives to painting, whether in Florence in the fifteenth century, Paris in eighteenth century, or New York in the twentieth century, have believed that there might be something of deeper meaning and significance that happens in and through this vulnerable and misunderstood cultural practice, that it might have the potential to contribute to the growth of knowledge and self-understanding.
The tension and disparity between what patrons (and the general public) presume painting to be and do and what the artists and their advocates believe it can do is an important but overlooked part of the history of art.
This was driven home to me in a powerful way when I taught a course with a political science professor in Florence this summer called Machiavelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Birth of the Modern. The course and its implications will be the topic of my next post.
Daniel A. Siedell is Presidential Scholar & Art Historian in Residence at The King’s College in New York City. He was previously Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art History at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and served as Chief Curator of the Sheldon Museum of Art from 1996-2007, where he organized over one hundred exhibitions of modern and contemporary American art. His work has been published in such journals as Art Criticism, The Journal of Aesthetic Education, and The Journal of Modern Literature. And his book projects include Weldon Kees and the Arts at Midcentury (University of Nebraska Press, 2003); Martínez Celaya: Early Work (Whale & Star, 2005); God in the Gallery (Baker Academic, 2008); Who’s Afraid of Modern Art? (Cascade, 2015); and Martínez Celaya: Work and Documents 1990-2015 (Santa Fe: Radius Books, 2016). He has M.A. in art history, criticism, & theory from SUNY-Stony Brook (1991) and a Ph.D. in the history of modern art and art criticism from The University of Iowa (1995). He is currently teaching an online course, History of Contemporary Art, for Concordia University Irvine and will be in residence October 3-7. He and Kerri, his wife of 25 years, have three children and are members of Shepherd of the Coast Church and School (LCMS) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.