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Nymphs and Satyr, by William Bouguereau (Detail)
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  • The influence of philosophy on art history

    by Virgil Elliott


    I think it is a mistake to look to philosophy for answers to what happened in the world of art prior to the Twentieth Century. The key figures in the changes that took place were painters and dealers, not philosophers. Early in the Twentieth Century, Picasso followed in the wake of CÚzanne and Matisse in pursuit of the odd, intentionally distancing himself from Bouguereau, et al, to avoid qualitative comparisons in which he would come up on the losing end. The promotion he received from the highly influential wealthy expatriate American heiress and writer, Gertrude Stein, was significant in securing his status as the new genius artist, much as the success of the Impressionists came about in large part as result of astute promotion by their dealer a few decades previous. The French found the idea of rebellion against a strict, government-sanctioned establishment romantically appealing, and embraced the artists billed as the rebels. The promoter/dealer of the Impressionists had read the psychology of the situation correctly, and his painters became the new stars of the art world, of which Paris was the center at that time. As a result of this development, technical perfection in painting was no longer regarded as important. That opened the door for cruder painters, including CÚzanne, and finesse became a thing to deride rather than aspire to. I think these factors had more to do with it than industrialization, Darwin, Einstein, Sigmund Freud, or anything in the field of philosophy. That was brought in later, by critics, not by artists. Most artists are primarily concerned with art, much more so than with philosophies. When artists are presented as philosophers, it's more a matter of packaging for promotional purposes than the sincere result of the artist's ideas, in most cases. I don't buy into this over-intellectualized view of the art world. That sounds too much like what is written in New York art magazines for me to place much credence in it.

    Virgil Elliott