Lecture # 6 – The Changing Role of the Artist in Society

The Classical Artist –

In examining the role of the artist in the Ancient World we have to understand the influence of slavery because:

1. It provided a more or less permanent supply of low cost labor, and it tended to discourage technological innovation – hence changes in the arts and crafts occurred very slowly.

2. Slavery allowed small classes of free citizens to enjoy leisure time, social pleasure, the delights of contemplation and political debate – anything but manual labor.

3. The association of slaves or ex slaves with manual labor becomes a permanent feature of aristocratic culture. Artists are laborers.

· We have to use the term ‘artisan’ to designate painters, sculptors and craftsman in the ancient world because our concept of the artist did not exist. They are skilled laborers

· Before the concept of the Artist could emerge – or the notion of ‘genius’ as applied to certain artists of the Renaissance – it was necessary to regard the artisan as a person whose work develops from inner ideas and self-directed effort.

· Trades were hereditary.

· Formal schooling for the artisan did not exist.

· Artisan training and manufacture emphasized technical excellence.

· Little or no attention was paid to artistic expression. No one, including the artist thought the artisan’s personal feelings were of particular interest.

The Medieval Artist –

· In the Middle Ages we see the Professionalization of the Artist make its greatest strides – under the organized master craftsmen of the Medieval Guilds.

· Largely anonymous.

· We would not hesitate to call them artists, but they were stilled considered craftsmen – and therefore socially removed from gentlemen.

· Excellent though they are as weavers, sculptors, carpenters, masons, glassworkers etc… these craftsmen affected Medieval life mainly in their collective capacity – through their ability to manufacture and distribute their essential goods.

· Formal apprenticeship system with exacting standards of quality.

· The master craftsman in Medieval Europe was regarded as a decent, honorable, responsible member of society – much like a banker in the early American Midwest.

· But, as with ancient/classical art, the stamp of the individual artist was seen to be lesser or unimportant. The stamp of the Guild was all – it testified to the training of the person who made it.

· Standards of quality. - i.e. amount of gold leaf in a work.

The Master Craftsman is a freeman, no longer associated with the slave class. They may not be considered gentlemen, but some of them are making enough money to associate with the upper classes, and this will open doors not only for them - but for the Renaissance artist to come in many ways – patrons, education and social status.

The Renaissance Artist –

· Ask most people to name an artist, and they will give you a name from the Renaissance. They may even know a few of their masterpieces.

· Medieval artists are largely anonymous, but there is another reason why we don’t know them. They lived in a time that saw them as craftsmen. Not so those of the Renaissance. Why?

· One reason is due to a Florentine named Giorgio Vasari. In 1546 he wrote a book called The Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Mostly about his fellow Florentines.

· The book discusses their careers and personalities in a manner that leaves no doubt about the importance of a crucially new idea:

· A great artist is also, and necessarily, a great person.

15th century art is intimately related to wealth.

A merchant had to demonstrate that he had the power (and the judgment) to command the finest talents, afford the most costly materials, and have the highest reaches of the imagination to carry out projects to amaze the multitude.  THAT MEANT ART.

Rise of the artist depended on a number of non-aesthetic factors.

  1. Patrons of the Renaissance were more than people of power – they were also learned and cultivated.
  2. Households were hospitable to all kinds of learned individuals: poets, philosophers, mathematicians and scholars. 
  3. Into this world the most privileged artists were admitted.

The rise of the Critic

So, we witness the beginning of a modern dilemma: as artists gain status in the eyes of the social elite, a special class of scholars – historians and critics – is needed to explain the meaning of their work.


Wanted to live up to the expectations of the Humanists who saw significance in the idea behind a work of art.  Art is a product of independent thought and inquiry.  Is this the same as individual expression?


The Court Artist –

·        Characteristics of Baroque art include: exquisite skill and the illusion of light, space and motion that characterized the style.

The Society Artist –

Closely associated with the Courtly Artist.

The Revolutionary Artist –

Art could be a critical as well as a descriptive representation of life.


3 Types of Revolutionary Artists

  1.       Tries to make fundamental changes through direct attack of the persons, legal situation and social institutions that support the status quo.

Sometimes called Propagandists, because the literally illustrate revolutionary dogma. (Kathe Kollwitz and the Mexican Muralist Diego Rivera fit this category).

2.    Indirectly revolutionary.

·        Do not offer a scheme for political or social change.

·        But, their representation of social conditions is so outraged, and so scathing that it makes viewers feel that they cannot support the existing social order.  (Goya, Daumier and Munch).

3.            Revolutionary purely for artistic reasons.

·        Essentially internal developments within the history of art.

·        Introduce/originate radical changes in visual form, but it has little or nothing to say about society or politics.

·        Marxist would say this is innovative but not revolutionary.

·        Art critics argue that fundamental changes in visual representation have deeply unsettling, and therefore revolutionary effects on society.

·        It can also be argued that if form and content are inseparable, then changes in artistic form signal underlying changes in society as a whole.  (Cezanne, Matisse, Manet, Picasso).

The Bohemian Artist –

The person who can identify the Italian Masters also knows about Bohemianism.

It means:

Many of the major personalities of Modern Art were devotees of the Bohemian spirit – at least, they started out as bohemians.


The connection between Bohemianism and Romanticism

Bohemians try to exploit the main discoveries of the Romanticists:

These are serious principles around which the bohemian artist tries to build a personal and artistic existence. 

Dedication to art as substitute for religion


Rules to prevent the loss to prevent the loss of what is most precious to the Romantic Artist:

Revolutionary artists are fundamentally Political Radicals.

Bohemian artists are Social Radicals.

The Modern Artist –

Can be any or all of these types we have discussed.

Also: Illustrator, Graphic Designer, Industrial Designer, Hyphenated Artist or Gallery Idol.

Illustration = art intended to accompany something else.


Graphic Design = Visual communication in printed or electronically printed form.

Industrial Design - the marriage of art and engineering