Anne Moorehouse discusses the shifting purposes of the visual art world and the potential ramifications of these alterations
The historic relationship between art and money seems powerfully alike to the blossoming affair between the current vast majority of St Andrews students and Pret: mutually reliant and nearing inseparable. For numerous reasons, which I will go on to elucidate, the commercialisation and commodification of artworks, largely fuelled by the nineteenth-century Art Nouveau movement, continues to infiltrate many aspects of our daily lives. Not even the humble three streets of St Andrews can escape its talons…
On nearing completion in perusing the fine wares of Waterstones bookshop, I arrived at the gift section – the favourite part for all unenthused seven-year-olds looking for something other than the usual subjection to the KS2 Maths textbook. Unusually, the beloved stationery missed my doting attention this time – to my dismay, the Van Gogh Starry Night 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle, ‘Hokusai Wave Travel Cup’, and Edward Lear face mask blinded me to all other pleasures. There is something painful in the thought of someone’s recently infused egg and cress sandwich breath smothering a face mask adorned with the image of Lear’s artwork. I struggle to imagine Raphael’s delight at seeing one of his putti from The Sistine Madonna grace the kneecaps of Amazon’s finest leggings.
Such designs, purely for monetary and commercial purposes, cannot be said to retain the original work’s meaning. Yet, how far should such criticism be taken? Are such products disrespectful to the artist? Do we even possess the right to dissect their art and create a whole host of arguably trivial merchandise from them? Does the circulation of such produce foster a complete misunderstanding of the respective artwork? Do we face the risk of some audiences knowing the artworks primarily through consumer items and not in virtue of the original itself? In order to confront such challenges, perhaps we should travel back to one of the core veins in the creation of such a culture.
Popularised in France, Art Nouveau was the international artistic movement of the late nineteenth to early twentieth-century; heavily influenced by the ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement, pioneered by William Morris in Britain, the period was characterised by a desire to dissolve the boundary between fine and applied art. Placing a new emphasis on interior and graphic design, textiles and jewellery, amongst several other consumer goods, there was an inevitability for art to be commodified. Challenging the historicism and eclecticism of prior and contemporary academic art, the new hybridity of styles imbued art with a purpose of utility in the domestic and public realm and became characterised by its decorative and practical appeal. Many of you will be familiar with the name Toulouse Lautrec, possibly knowing of him as one of the great post-Impressionist artists. However, Lautrec was one of the first whose work challenges the boundary between an art form and a commercial good. Indeed, Lautrec established his reputation from creating advertising posters for Parisian nightclubs and dance halls. Lautrec’s name became known almost overnight with the dissemination of 3,000 copies of his 1891 Moulin Rouge – La Goulue. Pasted on lampposts and even donkey-carted sandwich boards, such posters were not as we perceive them today, revered in museums and fought over in auction houses for thousands. Essentially catalysing the birth of graphic design, many have debated whether these advertisements can be viewed as art. Don’t fret, the ‘what is art?’ conundrum will not be indulged in today…that’s for you to go away and ponder.
The Czech-born artist Alphonse Mucha was also working in Paris during this time and was offered a job in a French print shop to design posters advertising Sarah Bernhardt’s performance in the play Gismonda. As with Lautrec, the work propelled both Mucha and the actress to the forefront of their respective creative fields, resulting in a long-term partnership. The integration of text and image alongside the stained glass, geometric design, perhaps deliberately reminiscent of Paris’ famous Metro, is quintessential of Mucha’s new style, but, again, raised certain ambiguity towards its status as ‘art’. Mucha went on to produce book illustrations, wallpaper, and carpet designs, securing his position as a designer for the interior of Georges Fouquet’s jewellery shop. As with several other contemporary artists, such a multi-faceted role redefined the reputation of artist; they were no longer simply experts of a certain style or art form but became prolific craftsmen across a wide spectrum of media. However, unlike Lautrec, Mucha soon came into “conflict with the crass commercialisation of the style he had helped to initiate” (Michael Salcman, 2015). In contrast to his earlier works, Mucha felt his commercial work to be departing from the true purpose of art and his own artistic philosophy. For this artist, the line between art form and commercial product had blurred beyond the point of clarity.
For others, the new graphic pictorial language and synthesis of styles were crucial steps towards elevating applied art and design to the pedestal of high art. This process became known in the German counterpart movement, ‘Jugendstil’, as ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’. As with several other European artistic cultures, the Vienna Secessionists perceived Japanese art as the embodiment of such Gesamtkunstwerk ideals. Indeed, Arthur Liberty’s founding of The Liberty Shop in London in 1874 acquired a reputation for its importing of Japanese objects and textiles. Intertwined with the post-Impressionists’ fascination with colour theory, Japanese woodblock prints, in particular, captured the attention of a wide audience and several European artistic circles. For Gustav Klimt, Japanese artistic methodology provided the critical and long-sought-after opportunity to weld the bridge between high and applied arts. As a devoted collector of Japanese-ware, the linearity, block colours, flat surfaces, and bold outlines of Japanese art wholly permeated Klimt’s artistic perspective. His employment of gold leaf and style in creating objet d’art were strongly informed by Japan’s art. Not only did such works breach the threshold towards commercial art at the time, but Mucha’s highly popular paintings continue to be commodified – it will take you approximately 15 seconds to find the entire array of attire, ridden with cropped and collaged forms of his works.
In assessing the reasons for why artworks are translated into consumer goods, perhaps we can form a clearer idea of the possible benefits of the practice. While mugs, keyrings, tops, and so on, based on certain artworks, are by no means, and never will be, the same as the original, they can be viewed as an important means of promoting the artwork and increasing its popularity. Through the creation of such a market, images of the works are far more accessible to a wider audience and can encourage people to view the work itself. For works that might otherwise fall under the radar of current interest, the appreciation of such art can be retained through a continual production of such items. Indeed, the consuming of merchandise undoubtedly reflects the buyer’s appreciation for the work. All art is in some form related to contemporary culture; perhaps the commercialisation of it is simply a different and evolving strand of that relation. The commodification of art, whilst not always a wholly beneficial process for our understanding of the original as art, does reflect a celebration of it at least.