Reception Then and Now
The view of the society existing at the time a painting was produced is an important consideration when making judgements. Over time views and attitudes change. What was regarded as cutting edge and the height of fashion in one decade, can seem dated and old fashioned in another. Yet some art seems to transcend time and fashion and seems as relevant today as it did when it was produced. Edvard Munch’s Scream, Picasso’s Guernica, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa are timeless images. Probably because they represent universal values which we as human beings can appreciate, no matter which era we happen to have been born in.
In contrast, paintings produced in Nazi Germany reflect not only the cultural values but also the propaganda of an age most of us would like to forget. Today, these paintings have little relevance to our views and society. They no longer ‘speak’ to us they way they presumably did to certain sections of German society in the 1930’s and 1940’s. They are an important record of the time in which they were produced. But also a record of how art can be diluted when it is state controlled, rather than individually inspired.
Attitudes and values change over time and this can have a profound effect on how we value the work of individual artists. Rembrandt’s work wasn’t fashionable in the 18th century, yet today Rembrandt is regarded as one of the world’s greatest artists. We now judge his art for what it is and place less emphasis on the whims of fashion.
Changes of attitude has had a profound effect on the work of the British Pop artist, Allen Jones. His simple figurative imagery which often includes highly erotic symbolism such as fetishism, women in extremely high heels and body-clinging garments was popular in the ‘swinging sixties’, but has constantly been attacked by feminist groups ever since. Whether attitudes to his work will change again in the distant future, who knows.
On another level, we must not allow the lens of our own experience, attitudes and prejudices colour our judgement. We have to try to be open minded when looking at ar. Compare the work of John Constable and Damien Hirst. It is crucial to understand the context in which the two artists were working, as it was radically different. Constable was immersed in rural life, painting images that evoke landscape in such a way we can almost feel it. Hirst, on the other hand, is trying to shock us out of what he sees as our complacency. His imagery is intended to make us reconsider our attitudes to smoking or our treatment of animals. If we can turn a cow into beef burgers what is the problem with turning it into an art work? Today we regard Constable as a great landscape painter. But, in the 19th century he struggled to get recognition, partly because of the hierarchy of genres. He was a mere Landscape painter, not nearly as important as a History painter. Damien Hirst is the enfant terrible of British art; he is very successful and commands high fees for his work. It will be interesting to see what the vagaries of time has on his reputation.