In his classic Vision and Design Roger Fry argues there is no necessary connection between art and its historical period; and the idea ‘of art as crystallised history’, a kind of documentary record, is a mistaken one, which belongs only to those without aesthetic feeling. Of course there are occasions when art can be in tune with its time; but art cannot be reduced to a historical symbol; for this is to ignore its very nature, its power and wealth.
This view is part of his wider attempt to separate art from life; to see art as an autonomous realm, with its own rules and motivations, its own existence; and not as a mere imitation, of nature and of the human world.
To prove his point he gives a number of examples that, because they are weak, are hard to accept as evidence:
The next great turning-point in history is that which marks the triumph of the forces of reaction towards the close of the twelfth century… Here undoubtedly the change in life corresponds very closely with a great change in art – the change from the Romanesque to the Gothic, and at fist sight we might suppose a causal connection between the two. But… whereas in the life of the Middle Ages the change was one of reaction… the change in art is merely the efflorescence of certain long prepared and anticipated effects…the answer to certain engineering problems… a new self-confidence in the rendering of the human figure; a newly developed mastery in the handling of the material. In short, the change in art was in the opposite direction to that in life.
This paragraph is full of strange things. The most obvious is that it reduces history to two abstract concepts – progressive and reactionary. And it is these ideas that determine if an art movement works for or against the culture. It reduces art and history to a kind of politics… The rise of modern art mirrored in some ways the rise of the great working class parties; both saw the world in a two-dimensional way: insiders and outsiders, the insiders with all the power. Both were highly political – sustenance and fame depended upon victory – and both created strong ideologies; which, it seems, were all pervasive. How else explain Fry, who otherwise seems an apolitical aesthete?
The second oddity is the view that art can be determined by these abstractions. Yet what art or intellectual theory was ever created by Reaction or Progress? These broad political views will influence the mindset, the artistic models, even the material, but will they, on their own, create the artwork? Isn’t it more likely that these abstract ideas arise from out of the medley of a lived life; and it is this life, the daily bustle mixed in with the fashionable ideas of the time, that will determine the direction of art and thought in any given period?
The third oddity is the absoluteness of the judgement: 'In short, the change in art was in the opposite direction to that in life'. Can we be so certain? At all times artists will be working out of a tradition, and living in the world. Their art, if they are good, will be open to both these influences. Easy to say, of course; but how difficult to separate! It may be possible to do so, to weigh the various influences, and conclude when and where the art was influenced by the life; to work out the causal connection between an historical event (the birth of Saint Francis, who Fry sees as a major influence in the renaissance of the arts) and the creation of a new art form. To achieve this much more sophisticated tools than these are needed. Reaction? What exactly does this mean? The 19th century was often a time of political reaction on the continent, think of the period following the 1848 revolutions, but this period saw economic and artistic development of a then unprecedented extent. On its own, without reference to any concrete fact or argument, this idea doesn’t explain a single thing.
These terms are too broad and abstract to serve as an explanation. But the paragraph offers clues to how other aspects of life may have influenced the art – improvements in engineering, an expanding skilled work force, of economic advance… Do these work in isolation too? It seems unlikely.
The interleaving of art and life is thus complex and ambiguous. But an investigate of this phenomena is not really Fry’s point – he wants to show how art can live by itself, like a hermit in his cave.
That is, there are two arguments; one about the link between art and life; and one about art itself. We don’t need to prove the first argument, there is no necessary causal link between art and life, to accept the latter – that art can exist as an independent entity. Art feeds off life, all the time – it has to, because it lives off our perceptual world. That world is created both through nature and through man’s activities; which includes intellectual work. Thus in the twelfth century an artist’s vision was impossible without Christianity, while his technique would have been influenced by the sophistication of the economy.
The big concepts, the large historical events, are not important, and would usually have little effect on the creation of the work – for the artist they would be ideas only, rather than strongly felt perceptions, his feelings and emotions, which are the true source of his talent (Fry’s own description of the artistic temperament – where emotions and a feeling for form are more important than ideas, and subject matter). Thus to quote these portentous historical events is to miss the point entirely. No, we have to investigate is the artist’s daily life, his material world; and the image world into which he is soaked.
So the individual’s own world feeds his art. But its his talent that creates it, and here it will be influenced overwhelmingly by tradition, and the current artistic milieu. These will set the agenda, out of which his talent will grow. And it is the mechanics and politics of this little world, these monasteries of art, that will determine its artefacts; the outside world peeping in through the window bars.
Of course, I speak of the great artists; the weaker ones will, to a much greater extent, be influenced, if not completely dominated, either by tradition or the current fashionable dogmas (think of all those schematic tractors in Socialist Realism).
Once this is understood, it becomes clear that while influenced by life the actual products of art, or of the aesthetic experience, will exist separately from it. It will have its own rules of composition, its own standards of judgement. That said, like any craft or trade, it will be compromised by the local environment; by the provincial burghers and the holders of the purse strings. Nevertheless, it can still maintain its own independence, our museums are the best witnesses, although it must continually negotiate with its opponents (and worshippers?), for its existence and its respect.
Art and life are like two states that trade and war, and occasionally overrun each other, but, at the conclusion of peace, maintain their own languages, and state capitals.
The question is why such an obvious point, that three hundred years previously would have been accepted uncritically, had become difficult, when the book was written. For Fry is arguing against what he regards as the common assumptions of the period; of the ordinary person’s view about art. Something happened in the 19th century, if not before, that changed things….
This is an enormous question, but must be linked to the shift in values associated with the modern age, and the increasing tendency to view all aspects of human life as situated in its material surroundings; determined by the environment (this was the heyday of Social Darwinianism). This undermined the idea of a separate spiritual realm, while amongst the general population secularism was growing (for a nuanced interpretation of this trend see Chadwick). It would not be surprising if art, often connected with religion in the past, suffered a similar attack; viewed more as epiphenomena, than something in its own right. At the same time we see the growth of democracy, and the mass parties; and the slow decline of aristocracy; the former patrons of the arts. The bulwarks of the old order are decaying, and values of utility and a mechanical science come to dominate. Artists are either part of the academy, or outside it; though it is the former that will dominate the public consciousness; and it is their work, often large scale historical or mythological scenes, that are seen as real art. These will form the cultural attitudes, of the newspapers, the popular intellectuals, and the middle classes (Fry describes an actual person: ‘an old gentleman... a fussy, feeble little being, who had cut no great figure in life.’)
At the same time, but underground, there was a major revolution in the making – on all fronts: scientific, political, and artistic – but at the time Fry was writing this had yet to explode the public view.
The public view! This is what is new. In the 16th century who would have cared what the common people felt. That they lacked aesthetic feeling was irrelevant – only the views of the patron and connoisseur counted. And their views would have been cultivated over generations (Fry contrasts the educated taste of the aristocrat to the philistinism of the new plutocrats). But now, when art is dependent on the market place? It is these people on which an artist’s livelihood depends (although this will change shortly – think of Matisse and his Russian collectors). Fry, caught up in the 19th century, those early years of industrial vagabondage, cannot free himself entirely from its influence. He wants to escape; and Vision and Design is his rope over the prison wall.