Oil Painting and Art as Commodity

Art Collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, Teniers, 1651

A long, forgive me, but interesting quote from John Berger‘s Ways of Seeing, which I just read for the first time.

Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It turned everything into an object. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity. The soul, thanks to the Cartesian system, was saved in a category apart. A painting could speak to the soul –by way of what it referred to, but never by the way it envisaged. Oil painting conveyed a vision of total exteriority. 

Pictures immediately spring to mind to contradict this assertion. Works by Rembrandt, El Greco, Giorgione, Vermeer, Turner, etc. Yet if one studies these works in relation to the tradition as a whole, one discovers that they were exceptions of a very special kind. The tradition consisted of many hundreds of thousands of canvases and easel pictures distributed throughout Europe. A great number have not survived. Of those which have survived only a small fraction are seriously as works of fine art, and of this fraction another small fraction comprises the actual pictures repeatedly reproduced and presented as the works of ‘the masters’. 

Visitors to art museums are often overwhelmed by the number of works on display, and by what they take to be their own culpable inability to concentrate on more than a few of these works. In fact such a reaction is altogether reasonable. Art history has totally failed to come to terms with the problem of the relationship between the outstanding work and the average work of the European tradition. The notion of Genius is not in itself an adequate answer. Consequently the confusion remains on the wall of the galleries. Third-rate works surround an outstanding work without recognition –let alone explanation– of what fundamentally differentiates them. 

The art of any culture will show a wide differential of talent. But in no other culture is the difference between ‘masterpiece’ and average work so large as in the tradition of the oil painting. In this tradition the difference is not just a question of skill or imagination, but also of morale. The average work –an increasingly after the seventeenth century– was a work produced more or less cynically: that is to say the values it was nominally expressing were less meaningful to the painter than the finishing of the commission or the selling of his product. Hack work is not the result of either clumsiness or provincialism; it is the result of the market making more insistent demands than the art. The period of the oil painting corresponds with the rise of the open art market. And it is in this contradiction between art and market that the explanations must be sought for what amounts to the contrast, the antagonism existing between the exceptional work and the average.

– John Berger, Ways of Seeing, pp.87-88. 

Think of all those still lifes. The value of the object being protrayed helped determine the value of the painting itself. It was an argument for the patron’s wealth or beauty or other impressive quality. Today, with an open art market in full swing, such forms of representation  are just  as present, albeit in a questioning manner. The photographic “portraits” of Cindy Sherman and certainly the oil paintings of Julie Heffernan come to mind.

3 thoughts on “Oil Painting and Art as Commodity

  1. Great article. John Berger and I have a love-hate relationship, but I did find his meanderings about the cultural and economic significance of subject-matter in oil paintings to be interesting. Keep up the great blogs!!!!

  2. Provincial art museums like the City Museum and Art Gallery here in Bristol have permanent displays of European oil paintings, not many of which fit into the masterpiece category. Why do we revere them? The brilliance of Berger’s book (which is still selling like hotcakes forty years after publication) is that it makes us question received ideas about the canon of European painting. Why for instance are women so often naked and men clothed? This was the status quo post-war and Berger was one of the first to question it.

    Thanks for the reminder!

  3. Thanks, Michelle. I really enjoyed the set up of the books–with the image essays amid such lucid prose. I haven’t seen the tv programs though.

    Hi James, yes–aside from learning about genre and lifestyle, many oils can be academically interesting without necessarily deserving the wall space they are accorded.

    And don’t even get me started on the representation of women in art. Although I thin this fake Avenger’s poster makes its point: http://www.dollymix.tv/assets_c/2012/05/the-avengers-female-poses-thumb-495×386-157264.png 😉

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