I believe there has always been a hierarchy within the vast art world. Therefore over the years with the development of society in a multitude of countries the class struggle could not be more relevant to the interpretation of art. With the emergence of Marxism it became apparent that a huge chunk of art had been misplaced. Due to the industrialisation the working class dominated ninety five percent of the population and art made by this vast percentile was not collected, not studied, not recorded and not appreciated. Part of art history was to write out the working class however I believe to understand history we need to write the working class back into it. Marxism became a mechanism for looking at minority groups in society and strived to express that the working class should be allowed to create art and write literature.
Naturally the discussion of whether you need an education to appreciate, study or create works of art arises. Art has codes and languages and the study of iconography takes time and money. Meyer Schapiro (1904-96) states that 'to the historian of art, style is an essential object of investigation' but what if you have never studied style, iconology or iconography, does this mean you cannot interpret art? Marxism states that art analysis should be about past creativity of people who were written out of history and that it is no longer about beauty. One can naturally appreciate and understand beauty through travel and exposure and it was this notion that sparked an interest with the Lever brothers. The Lever factory 'was one of several British companies that took an interest in the welfare of its employees' and in the 1880's they created the ideal factory. They stated that workers can also appreciate great art and that it was patronising to say they cannot. So they built a town for their workers to live in with a green and in the middle they constructed an art gallery. Port Sunlight was a sign that anyone could respond to art and they should have the chance to whether or not they dress un-smartly or if they have dirty finger nails. T.J Clark also supported this notion by saying you cannot deny the art of the elite and that we should find a way of talking about greatness too.
I shall direct my discussion towards the hierarchies and rules of Paris. Between 1830 and 1926 'France gained an empire in Africa and the Far East and was transformed from an agricultural country to a primarily industrial one'. During the nineteenth century the notion of 'Academic Art' of, at the time, the art capital of the world became revolutionised. The Academy of the Fine Arts in Paris was an official organisation that set standards for art in terms of composition, drawing and use of colour. The subject matter was strict consisting of History paintings, official portraits and paintings set in the times of antiquity. Artwork was meticulous, polished and smooth due to skills the artist learnt at fiercely prestigious art schools. Money powered everything. One paid for an expensive education learning classical mythology and the laws of Plato enabling them to sit back and admire a Botticelli or a Raphael with ease. However where does the working class fit in to this? Art was being created for the upper class and interpreted by the upper class. The opinions and talent of the lower class was ignored; people believed they could not appreciate beauty.
The class struggle in my opinion is seminal to the interpretation of art for it was them that revolutionised the art world. Slowly the concept of the ideal of beauty started to change however it was not without its struggles and difficulties. Artists, in particular the working class, began to feel empowered and paint what they wanted. In 1848, France was shaken by another revolution and the Realists (c.1840-1870's) were much affected by these events. They grew interested in the social condition of workers and peasants whilst becoming ardent republicans. Painters felt a new involvement with contemporary life and rejected biblical and classical themes in favour of subjects drawn from the world around them. Realism was a handmaiden for the social political activities of the time attempting to shake up the bourgeoisie in order to spearhead social changes leading to an idealistic golden age of humanity. This art movement marked the first significant revolt on the part of the painters against the conservative, academic, classical and Venus-painting art establishments. It was due to the passion of these artists that we got a first hand insight into the lives and works of the working class as never seen before. Their everyday scenes of poverty and labour broadened the subject matter significantly and challenged the ideals of the Academies and public opinion.
Gustave Courbet, 1819-1877, was a significant and convention breaking artist. Despite being born into a wealthy bourgeoisie world he abandoned his wealth to live and work as a bohemian in great poverty. One of his groundbreaking works 'The Stonebreakers', 1849, highlights a seminal issue of Marxism. It depicts the role of the worker as fundamental and shows their labour as dignified. He painted them without any apparent sentiment; instead, he let the image of the two men, one too young for hard labour and the other too old, express the feelings of hardship and exhaustion that he was trying to portray. The writer, Proudhon, interpreted The Stonebreakers as an 'irony directed against our industrialised civilisation...which is incapable of freeing man from the heaviest, most difficult, most unpleasant tasks, the eternal lot of the poor'. To achieve an honest and straightforward depiction of rural life, Courbet eschewed the idealised academic technique and employed a deliberately simple style. What I find interesting here is the complete role reversal. Previously it had all been about the upper class with their paintings of mythology with fine brushstrokes that was so unlike anything the working class had come across before. Now with the Realists it was all about their art of new techniques and subject matter never seen before or understood by the upper class. The blatant portrayal of the class struggle was revolutionising the interpretation of art for good. Also interestingly as times and opinions changed the main type of patronage the artists received was from the bourgeoisie. By collecting paintings they were providing themselves with a visual symbol of their enhanced social standing.
Unlike Courbet, Jean-Franois Millet, 1814-1875, was born into a farming family and ventured to Paris to train with an academic painter. He was sensitive to the changes brought about by the increasing urbanisation and industrialisation of France, and he was particularly inspired by the social issues raised by the revolution of 1848. A striking feature of Millet's work was that he executed scenes of rural life that monumentalised peasants at work by endowing them with heroic form adapted from the art of the past. In 'The Gleaners', 1857, Millet portrays the gravity, hardship and dignity of common agricultural labourers and remains today as a powerful and timeless statement about the working class. Three peasant women are at work in the fields and Millet makes it clear to us that it is back breaking work. The women's faces are not only darkened by the sun but seen as almost brutish with thick heavy features. Picking up what was left of the harvest was regarded as one of the lowest jobs in society however Millet heroically depicted the women in a way where they take up the focus of the picture.
With the expanse of industrialisation came a vastly improved transport system. Between 1850 and 1900 the railways in France expanded from approximately 1850 miles of track to 8000km. Artists now had the ability to travel and expand their knowledge, talents and techniques. 'The Third Class Carriage', c.1863, by Honor Daumier, 1808-1879, shows a group of people on a train journey tightly packed with an anonymous crowd of working-class men and women. Here he highlights socioeconomic distinctions in the newly modernised urban environment. Art was become so much deeper and complex than anything that had gone before it. The working class where looking at their own class struggle and were creating visual propaganda that was so much more powerful than the classical reclining Venuses and required a total new form of interpretation. In 'The Third Class Carriage', Daumier isolates three generations of an apparently fatherless family, conveying the hardship of their daily existence through the weary poses of the young mother and sleeping boy. Though clearly of humble means, their postures, clothes and facial features are rendered in as much detail as those of the first-class travellers. These are not portraits of particular people but of mankind emphasised with great sympathy, simplicity and honesty of the nobility of the lower class as compared to the nobility of the nobility. This masterpiece makes a subtly social statement heavy on the family warmth juxtaposed against the cold, glaring, starring, unpleasantness of those from the "right" side of the train tracks.
The art world is continually developing and that is predominantly due to the sheer force of artists that strive to produce work for the eyes of the world and as times change so does politics and opinions. History is progress and that is why the class struggle has seminal relevance to the interpretation of art. As Baudelaire wrote 'the word 'modern' refers to manner and not to date'.
- 'Impressionism' by Belinda Thomson, Thames & Hudson 2000
- 'Impressionism' by James H Rubin, Phaidon, 1999
- 'Style', Meyer Schapiro, 1953
- 'Style', 1953, Meyer Schapiro
- 'Impressionism' by James H Rubin, Phaidon, 1999