25. Your treatment of David Hume in your book Pointed Observations is considered unusual for an extension in craftsmanship and art of the eighteenth century. What is the reason for this feature?

There are actually two separate chapters on Hume and arts and crafts, though the implicit linkage was indeed intentional. A large number of Georgian era artisans are anonymous, with the exception of a few men like Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779). They supplied the furnishings and decor for more affluent entities like David Hume (1711-1776) and his colleagues. Hume was quite a wealthy man by their standards, although he was not on any par with lords and ladies. So it seemed a fair gesture on my part to investigate artisans.

Even Hume was anonymous in the publication of his first book A Treatise of Human Nature, which was ignored by contemporaries. After his death, he became one of the most influential figures in modern philosophy. His famous portrait by Allan Ramsay reveals him in his senior years as a richly attired Georgian gent. His range of prominent social contacts was impossible for those of lesser station. Even the conventions of portraiture on canvas are thus relevant to Hume. That factor facilitated further remarks of mine in relation to the complex social situation discernible in figures like William Hogarth (d.1764) and Sir Joshua Reynolds (d.1792), two prominent artists of that era (Pointed Observations, 2005, pp. 257ff.).

hume

chippendale

hogarth

l to r: David Hume, Thomas Chippendale, William Hogarth

There are no extant portraits of Thomas Chippendale, a cabinet-maker who moved from Yorkshire to London, where he gained premises in St. Martin’s Lane. He published The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director (1754), which proved an influential work. He gained many wealthy clients, and the “Chippendale style” is evocative of mid-Georgian affluent taste. He directed employee craftsmen. His workshop was continued after his death by his son, who suffered bankruptcy in 1804. The fortunes of craftsmen and interior designers in those days were very subject to fashion and client patronage. See further Christopher Gilbert, The Life and Work of Thomas Chippendale (1978).

The Chippendale family would doubtless have been astonished at a recent price achieved at auction for a “Chinese Chippendale” cabinet-on-stand that sold for £2.4 million in 2008. Attributed to Chippendale, this 1750s whimsy in parcel gilt padouk (and complete with pagoda roofs) represents the highest price yet achieved for British furniture. Yet such a staggering sum is low by comparison with the prices achieved for some oil paintings, including a feted example by Reynolds.

At issue in the history of art and craft is the influence of fashion. Eighteenth century craftsmen worked to a very high technical standard of prowess, though the designs they followed were dictated by the tastes of more wealthy classes. It is possible to assess this situation critically, without in any way detracting from the excellence of the crafts output bequeathed by various generations. Fashions changed from more florid baroque styles to more linear late Georgian models, and then back again to curvature in the Victorian period. The advent of factories and machine carving in the nineteenth century led to a deterioration in many aspects of the output, which became a mass production industry. However, good quality work persisted at the upper end of the manufacturing spectrum during the Victorian era.

Karl Marx (d.1883) and his followers had a penchant for criticising the nineteenth century bourgeoisie for the ostentatious display of arts and crafts in their wealthy homes. This was no doubt relevant enough; wealth is so often a medium for status assets. However, the middle class were also viewed as omnipresent enemies in the class struggle. Marx and Engels were both middle class intellectuals who tended to read the theme of class struggle into everything. To them, history was merely a record of class struggle, though it is possible to find quite a lot of other things as well.

The Marxist theory of art was strangely pervasive, without always being recognised. Very briefly, artefacts associated with the values of conventional society were viewed as an indicator of inferior art. Thus, like religion, conventional art was more or less an opiate factor. However, "progress" could be fraught with unrecognised problems, whether political, social, or aesthetic. In basic terms, "the claim of Marx to a socialist science of history was fraught with setbacks in future historical events of the kind associated with Stalin" (see entry no. 7 above).

The dismissive view of traditional craft resurfaced in a variant during the late 1960s and 1970s, when “Victorian clutter” was denounced by the younger generation in Britain who had arrived at true progressive values. Or was this a dictatorship of opinion? In the realm of canvas art, nothing prior to the Impressionists was of any real significance. Pablo Picasso (d.1973) was a rising star, and he was strongly associated with a Marxist view of art (he joined the French Communist party in 1944). The anarchistic mood fitted perfectly into the consumer disposition for minimalist trends in which vast quantities of junk furniture were produced by very calculating manufacturers. The progressives preferred that commercial excuse to anything antique. The wonders of MFI often fell to bits when moved. Ikea became all the rage, as did designer labels in tubular steel and related vogues. Designer labels can be very expensive, but the craftsmanship can be hard to find. Social criticism in relation to art has never been more relevant than in the contemporary environment.

Whatever the defects of the Victorian bourgeoisie, they did actually have quality arts and crafts in their homes, and not something more questionable. They also had an educational standard that is fast vanishing today. And as for morality, that has since become taboo in too many sectors.

My chapter on arts and crafts ended with a brief critical reflection on contemporary art, a subject which has provided fuel for strong arguments, enthusiasms, and denials. I am unable to write as an enthusiast in that direction. Yet even some enthusiasts have queried the astounding prices recently paid in leading auction rooms for works of contemporary art. Those dizzy prices have been paid by multi-millionaires and billionaires. The total amount of capital expended in this manner during the past few years could easily have comprised a massive boost to major charities. The dollar demand for Andy Warhol and other trendy artists has aroused accusations that the global super-rich who invest in this sector of art have lost all due perspective.

Contemporary paintings often sell at auction for between ten and thirty million dollars, and even more. In the case of fashionable names like Andy Warhol (d. 1987), it is not always paintings but screenprints that are the subject of heavy expenditure. In 2007 the Warhol silkscreen Elvis 2 Times sold in New York for 14 million dollars (7 million pounds sterling). This object comprised a duplicated image of Elvis Presley reproduced from a Western movie. Presley was here holding a cowboy six-gun drawn from the holster. So that means seven million dollars for each image, and no painting.

Some auctions of contemporary art in New York have achieved a total of over 300 million dollars. Yet art market bubbles are notorious, and some critics fastened upon the failure of a Van Gogh landscape to sell in New York. The date was November 2007. Vincent Van Gogh (d.1890) represents the phase of Impressionist art, and is probably the most celebrated name in this field. At Sotheby’s, the Van Gogh landscape “failed to attract a single bid from the now silent, stony-faced audience, and the Van Gogh was left unsold at $25m. ‘There were gasps, then a deathly pallor descended upon everyone.’” (Antiques Trade Gazette, Issue 1816, 24th Nov. 2007, p. 43 column 3). The problem here was that the Dow Jones industrial index had just slumped by a noticeable 360 points, a drama said to have been triggered by growing concerns about the exposure to bad debt of the global banking industry. Art consumerism is known to be influenced by the stock market.

Two works by Picasso have each sold at auction for over eighty million dollars. Critics reason that such events are a phenomenon of surplus funds, and are not in fact a guide to artistic quality or any viable values. While some argue that taste in art is entirely subjective, others say that some basic guidelines can be formulated. One of the relevant questions that can here be posed is: Do the super-rich know what to do with their money?

The answer can easily be supplied in the negative. That is also possible to do in respect of the lower ranks of consumer who are subject to the persuasion of contemporary art clichés. A recent innovation has been the exhibition price charge of £1850 for a photographic image of the Sex Pistols rock group from the late 1970s punk era. Occurring at a provincial town in Britain, the sale of monochrome punk images has been attended by the glamorising statement that: “Punk was the last truly countercultural movement and, 30 years on, its impact on popular culture is finally being recognised in its full perspective” (Antiques Trade Gazette, Issue 1837, 26th April 2008, p. 26 cols 1 and 2).

Such sentiments discount the real significance of the commercial hype involved in the Sex Pistols, one of whose iconic members was a violent chainchipper and headbasher who died young from a heroin overdose. See 5.4 above. There were many urban sufferers from punkism, and the legacy of countercultural defiance is very evident today. For less than £200 debt to a cannabis pusher, for instance, victims can get (literally) stabbed to death in the neck (see entry no. 11 above). In the struggle against bureaucratic inertia and commercial hype, do not forget a basic safety clause left out of the price tags:

The due cultivation of your intellect could be your salvation.

Copyright © August 2008 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.