This Art Book Is About You!

Much has been said about the lives, work, and motivations of artists, curators, and art historians. Much less attention has been devoted to the art public, which Oskar Bätschmann defines in The Art Public. A Short History (2023) as those who spend “a defined amount of time with art objects” or show “an interest in art by reading, studying, writing, listening or acting.” Using a rich array of examples, the book ambitiously hones in on these spectators, importantly expanding the scope of art historical analysis. 

In around 1610, Frans Francken the Younger depicted the Greek story of “Apelles and the Shoemaker,” in which that shoemaker advised the famous painter that his representation of the boot was incorrect — a dialogue between audience and artist made manifest on the canvas. A century later, the German artist Johann Heinrich Tischbein wrote about the highly controversial public response to Jacques-Louis David’s “Oath of the Horatii” (1784) when it was first shown in Rome. 

Any documentation, whether via text or pictorial depiction, of the relation between fine art and the public — the majority of those who have encountered such work — however, remained the minority of the art historical archive before the 19th century. Later, Bätschmann demonstrates, the documentation is fuller. Thomas Rowlandson depicts spectators looking at Napoleon’s carriage in an etching made in 1816. Honoré Daumier represents visitors to the Salon of 1857. And Benjamin Vautier’s “Peasants at the Museum” (1867) depicts rural visitors admiring the paintings. 

Around this time, sociological accounts of the art public begin to become more commonplace. In 1871, Gustav Fechner compared the reception of two versions of Hans Holbein the Younger’s “Meyer Madonna” from a museum in Darmstadt (1526) and the later copy on display in a museum in Dresden (1528–30). In this rivalry, which was much discussed in its time, the people from Dresden favored the version from their museum. Unfortunately, however, less than 1% of the visitors recorded their response, rendering it impossible to fully reconstruct this reasoning of the public. 

This problem persists into the present — and leeches even into Bätschmann’s contemporary accounting of the art public. He mentions the public reception to Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” (c. 1500) shattering auction records in 2017, Ron Howard’s film The Da Vinci Code (2006), and Banksy’s graffitied murals. But what general lessons his presentation of these very diverse examples reveals about the art public is never really explained. 

At the Paris Salon of 1824, Stendhal noticed which works were most popular, but wrote about the art he most admired on the basis of “his own personal feelings.” That’s how most writers respond: they make critical arguments based on their own perspectives. In order to understand the judgments of the art public, it seems, one needs to overhear them — or all we can do is speculate. 

The Art Public: A Short History (2023), written by Oskar Bätschmann, translated by Nick Somer, and published by Reaktion Books, is available for purchase online and in bookshops.

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