Antiques & Art: Part 1 – Understanding Art

John Williams Waterhouse - The Decameron - Learning about 'Art'

John Williams Waterhouse – The Decameron – Understanding ‘Art’

Generally, what is art, and what is an artist? Certainly today they are both concepts that need constantly redefining as our own age becomes a crucible for change.

Holding the terms ‘antiques and art’ up for re-examination is important, because they are now even further removed from the periods in history that first gave them birth.

Throughout human history the visages of art have been both many and varied. It has been at the source of all knowledge, concerning itself with the natural and supernatural, the real and unreal, the seen and unseen, the past, the present and the future as well as the transient and the eternal.

The Music Party by Louis-Rolland Trinquesse courtesy Alte Pinakothek, Munich

The Music Party by Louis-Rolland Trinquesse courtesy Alte Pinakothek, Munich – ravishing, painting, music,, fashion, interiors, as art!

Art is a language in imagery and sound communicating ideas, expressing conceptions about self, community, our intellectual, spiritual and cultural beliefs, as well as our behaviours and practices.

For me art is far more powerful than its immediate imagery would suggest. Art is without doubt, the visible expression of something both profound and invisible in whatever medium is used, and whatever forms it takes, art is shaped by the culture and age that produced it.

At the essence of great art is its ability to affect not only our perceptions, but also our emotions.

Today, in the main we recognize two areas of art – visual and performance. Whether or not they should be separated is another debate entirely, both are after all considered ‘art’.

And, it is good to note music as an integral aspect of all art, as is architecture including ruins which remain from antiquity or architecture based on classic concepts. Today importantly, we would also be likely to introduce ‘science and technology’ into the arena as well. The term ‘art’ came about because humanity wanted to wrap things into neat parcels, which in reality is not what life is about.

Art is also at the basis of the new term coming to favour; Creative! Being ‘creative’ or a creator highlights and acknowledges the fact it is our ‘perceptions’ and how they are engaged by our emotions that are defining aspects of art. This includes our mortality and intellectual virtue.

Sydney Carton, it is "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known."

Sydney Carton, it is “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.” – literature as art!

To aid your introduction to understanding ‘art’ over this series of discussions we will reveal that there are many considerations you may wish to take into account when looking at both antiques and art, especially if you are wishing to start a collection of works of your own.

Art influences, and some would say, manipulates the perceptions of others. In a wider or broader context it has a powerful bearing on the world at large, which is a direct result of its evolution and growth; its attitudes and philosophies, its fashions and passions.

So, what is it we look for in art?

How should we feel about it or respond to it? And, just what is it that signifies great art?

In the west we are inheritors of a legacy from Ancient Greece and Rome that despite the passing of over 2500 years is still potent.

Through their ideas the desire to capture the essence of fine living was born.

No other ancient people were so dynamic and creative as the Ancient Greeks. Their citizens enjoyed architecture, paintings, sculptures, metalwork and pottery of unparalleled brilliance and sophistication in what was one of the most important periods in human history.

Fashion as art - Charles James Ball Gowns, 1948 Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, Beaton / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive. Copyright © Condé Nast

Fashion as art – Charles James Ball Gowns, 1948 Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, Beaton / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive. Copyright © Condé Nast

Ancient Greek Philosopher Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) expressed compelling ideas about dignity, humor, society, youth and misfortune.

Aristotle’s logic and reasoning guided our society for more than two thousand years, which in our age is changing with the rise of propositional logic. This is when we also consider the connectivity between truth-values as well as ‘additional things such as their necessity, possibility or relatedness to one another’.

Aristotle was the first to classify areas of human knowledge into compartmental form. He did this to better understand himself and convey his understanding to others as part of his role as a teacher.

This included his most famous pupil Alexander the Great (356-323) for whom he placed an emphasis on commonsense reasoning, which he saw as the first principle of knowledge.

In regard to humanity and its value system Aristotle observed that…’those who educate children well are more to be honored than parents, for these only gave life, those the art of living well’. In his famous treatise on Ethics Aristotle described magnificence as a virtue observing that it was a form of moderation, lying somewhere between extravagance and shabbiness.

Four centuries before the birth of the extraordinary man Jesus Aristotle, who was also the teacher of history’s giant, Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), observed ‘the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance’.


Great library collections – Old Bodleian Great Gate, Oxford, England

He noted that temples, sculpture, and paintings reflected the individual tastes of their creators and patrons, an idea that opened the way for their being considered ‘works of art’ at all, rather than just religious ritual or political images.

Interestingly, against his own logic Aristotle argued for an idealized universal form famously rejecting his own teacher Plato’s theory of forms, which stated ‘that properties such as beauty are abstract universal entities that exist independent of the objects themselves’.

To understand why we use the term Fine Arts we need to go back to the rediscovery of famous texts such as those written by Aristotle found in European monastery libraries.

This took place more dramatically during the 15th and 16th centuries, although searches and discoveries had been building momentum slowly since near the end of what we know as the medieval period in Europe. This is is different in time frame to the evolution taking place in The Americas, Southeast Asia, China, Central Asia and Africa.

For our purposes though we are focusing on Europe. Out of that region emerged western culture’s perceptions and interest in ‘antiques’ ‘art’ and ‘antiquity’, including a huge cross over in both cultural influences and traditions between countries that had taken place across the millennia. Perhaps even far more than first thought.

During the period we now know as the Renaissance in Europe (c 1300 – 1600) people’s perceptions began to change. It happened at a time when a group of accomplished architects and artisans in Italy in particular, were collectively ushering in a whole new era in art, design, music and style.

This rebirth of the individual awakened a desire for beauty as well as a renewal of the pagan pursuit of happiness. The strong social contact people had with one another helped the transmission of these all-new ‘humanist ideas’.

Massacio & Lippi

Brancacci Chapel Fresco, Filippino Lippi, Saint Peter Raising the Son of Theophilus 1481-1482, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence

It created a dawning of consciousness and an exploration of the relationship of their own relationship as an individual to the natural world.

Central to that development was the emergence of the artisan as a ‘creator’ – an artist, an individual sought after, recogniszed, supported and respected for his erudition and imagination.

Benvenuto Cellini's bronze sculpture "Perseus", Florence

Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze sculpture “Perseus”, Florence

Paramount to these new ideas was that of an artisan being allowed to add his own signature; meaning his own work was recognised as made by one individual ‘artist’, not as he had previously had worked, a member of a guild of artists whose wages were controlled.

This meant he would be able to gain patronage from important people and also begin to receive payment individually for his work, not just a wage or his board and keep.

The Medici family at Florence in Tuscany in Italy’s north had a great deal to do with fostering early forms of patronage, based on ancient Roman models they were busy researching and discovering in ancient texts.

If a man could become recognised for his own individual and brilliant creative abilities then he could feasibly charge more money for his work…it’s one of the main concepts our whole system of western democracy is founded upon and so you can see, most important.

Human creativity was at the heart of this movement. It is only now in the 21st century we are starting to finally not only recognise but also acknowledge that there are many different forms of creativity.

Undoubtedly creativity is the glue that not only makes our society and culture in the world so innovative and forward thinking, but also successful in re-inventing our world for the modern age.

Paying someone a salary commiserate with their worth to the organisation they work for is a pivotal point in shaping democracy and freedoms.

Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72), the epitome of a 'Renaissance man' - Detail of statue of Leon Battista Alberti , 16th century, on the facade of the Uffizi Gallery at Florence

Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72), the epitome of a ‘Renaissance or Universal man’ – marble statue , 16th century, mounted on the facade of the Uffizi Gallery at Florence

Modern companies use this notion to set really big wages for executives who come up with the ideas that drive success for workers all the way down the hierarchy

During the Renaissance as an artist became more celebrated the more money he could expect to make, especially if he had great supporters and noble patronage. Those that didn’t languished outside the new system and suffered personally because of it, although their art works may have been discovered after they were gone and admired by us all for both their beauty and form.

The visual art works patrons admired and supported for centuries, which are now considered created primarily for aesthetic purposes and judged for their beauty and meaningfulness, include painting, sculpture, drawing, watercolor, graphics, and architecture in particular. Architecture had been since antiquity, the linchpin on which so many nation’s traditions in art and society were built upon, and around.

For artists becoming individual created difficult times for many, for without the support of the medieval guild system they had known for so long and without individual patronage they often faltered, failed and fell by the wayside. It was often a hard life then, and still is today.

The new system didn’t mean that always the best was recognised. It all depended on whether or not the artist was admired or liked for other qualities that he may possess that would also prove more useful to the patron who was prepared to ‘back’ his endeavours with cash and so believed he deserved payback, extracting his ‘pound of flesh’.

Artists socially perhaps considered not as acceptable; outspoken, loud, uncouth, unwashed or generally not nice, were often left outside the system. This happened whether or not they were creative…so in many ways it was a system that was inequitable, and perhaps remains that way for some today.

19th + 20th c European art houses part of the holding of British Victorian painting and sculpture, many collected from the earliest days of the foundation of the Gallery courtesy Art Gallery of NSW

19th + 20th c European art houses part of the holding of British Victorian painting and sculpture, many collected from the earliest days of the foundation of the Gallery, courtesy Art Gallery of NSW

The old adage of ‘its not what you know but who’ often did and still does made a difference. You needed to be the right person in the right place at the right time otherwise success, if we measure it particularly in ‘economic’ terms, can remain elusive.

I have always believed that one element you need besides enormous talent is ‘luck’. And how do we define luck?

There are people out there who have the gift of sight and I don’t mean just looking at something, I mean ‘seeing’ it for what it potentially may become, or otherwise mean for our society.

Society of Diletannti, a drinking club for men who had completed their Grand Tour

Society of Dilettanti, a drinking club for English gentleman who had completed their Grand Tour of the continent during the eighteenth century

Recognizing the best ‘voice’ the best ‘dancer’ the best deal, the best piece of real estate that may be a bargain or the best art work that will be worth a lot of money in years to come…?

This insight, abilty or long term vision, call it what you will, is quite another creative ability altogether.

So once individuals who created works of ‘art’ had broken free they became ‘artists’ and discussing what an artist is could take all day. And why is some art labelled fine?

Well this goes back to the emergence in the eighteenth century that works collected by dilettanti’, a society of English nobleman and scholars who had studied ancient Greek and Roman art, was elevated to being much more worthy than that hanging on other people’s walls, in particular the burgeoning bourgeoisie.

Those at the top wanted what they collected to be recognized as being ‘above’ others, because by then the idea had become an integral aspect of a considered ‘class structure’ in western society which had its heydey during the nineteenth century.

This idea thankfully began to break down in the trenches of World War 1 and II as the ideas surrounding declarations of independence and the democratic freedoms fought and died for really meant.

facade of neo classical museumIt is not in many institutions best interests these days to use the words ‘fine art’ at all.

We use other terms like ‘old masters’ and ‘modern masters’ to express the idea that certain individual works are better than others in terms of their initial conception, actual form and in some cases beauty – they have reached for and have attained a high standard of excellence.

It is an aspect of the premise on which awards are judged and given, although that would not be considered always infallible either. Other political and philosophical ideas always have an impact.

To then define and distinguish those we need to get into the nitty gritty of an explanation too about what is beauty and form, which is beyond the realms of this dissertation

Today so many other elements of ‘luck’ and business acumen also come out to play in terms of elevating an artist and their work; marketing, promotion and advertising are all very important ‘creative’ elements in driving commercial and individual success in our ever growing ‘bigger’ global society.

There is one person though that we can all thank for changing our perceptions about contemporary art, the very successful American Pop Artist Andy Warhol (1928-1987).

Warhol was a leading figure in the twentieth century visual art movement that we call ‘Pop Art’.

Andy Warhol with Belgian Artist Hergé Georges Remi (1907–1983) the creator of Tin Tin

Andy Warhol with Belgian Artist Hergé Georges Remi (1907–1983) the creator of Tin Tin

During his age Andy Warhol single-handed turned all people’s expectations upside down. He presented commonplace objects, or repeated graphic images as works of “fine art” simply by presenting them in a way that no one had ever thought of before.

It induced an epiphany of “what art is”, or is not

Cambridge dictionary gives us a variety of answers to consider about what constitutes art

• the making of objects, images, music, etc. that are beautiful or that express feelings
• the activity of painting, drawing and making sculpture
• an activity through which people express particular ideas
• a skill or special ability

Wonderful Warhol, contemporary comments

Andy Warhol, contemporary comments…

This definition could also apply to ‘antiques’ and so you can instantly see the lines between antiques and art could seem blurred.

It also means we would consider that just about anything that reflects the attitudes and philosophies, fashions and passions of society at any period in its evolution can, and should be considered worthy of our notice.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014

….to be continued – Antiques & Art: Part 2 – Understanding Antiques

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