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The Provenance of Contemporary Art Paintings

“Life without industry is guilt, and industry without art is brutality.”

John Ruskin, ForsClavigera, 1877

contemporary art paintings

John Ruskin (1819–1900) was a noted art critic of late Victorian times in the United Kingdom. With his revolutionary criticism of art prevalent in those times, he tried to extract as much as possible from artists for society. His thought process was eccentric and different from his other art critic contemporary to him. He was very blunt in putting forward his concerns and comments while perusing an artwork. There are many paintings which were being subjected to his verbal lashes like The target of his attack: James McNeill Whistler’s painting, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket.

Ruskin was an ‘extremist’ and a puritan in his own sense and showed his distaste for art without unabashedly. Once, he provoked famous painter Whistler for his work and called him a conman who is just presenting a subterfuge in the name of art. He accused him of defrauding art collectors. Whistler was so disheartened and outraged that he decided to sue the art critic for defamation.

The trial created much hue and cry in 1878 and attracted many spectators who were interested in watching the two eminent figures in the word of art fighting a war with words, both endowed with a witty and unrelenting mind.

Some people were fairly disappointed because, according to the newspaper report, Whistler’s submissions in the court had a pinch of sarcasm and innuendoes. One of the many instances which were quite a famous claim that when Ruskin’s advocate John Holker put a question mark on the success of Whistler’s painting Nocturne in Black and Gold and asked Whistler that if he could make Holker see the beauty in this painting. To this Whistler forwarded a very blatant and harsh reply’ “No … I fear it would be as impossible as for the musician to pour his notes into the ear of a deaf man.”

These type of things were scandalous and piqued the curiosity of each and every British citizen even if he was connected to art somehow or not. But, there were many significant and pressing issues which needed to be addressed rather than these theatrics. In fact, the defendant in the alleges defamation case was not the abovementioned art critic but, the modern art itself which was trying to establish itself.

He propounded a doctrine- “truth to nature” which would develop moral values as well as aesthetic sensitivity. This is the reason why he didn’t like Whistler’s work which was the subject matter of the lawsuit which whistler filed against Ruskin. Ruskin could not find any moral or aesthetic appeal in the painting. It was not even pictorially clear to him. Whistler attempted to create on canvas the dazzling beauty created by fireworks in the night sky over the Thames through his marvelous brushstrokes. It defied the basic rule of the doctrine given by Ruskin which invokes a painter to create marvels of nature with their divinity.

Whistlers had a different perception of contemporary art paintings in his mind. It served a purpose in the society which didn’t conform to the understanding of Ruskin. This basic difference was the true reason behind the clashes which they couldn’t mutually resolve. Whistler, as opposed to Ruskin, adhered to the doctrine of “art for art’s sake”. He believed that art didn’t serve any purpose neither it effected how society worked.

The source of ‘Art for Art’s Sake’

Historically, there are pieces of evidence as to when and where did this phrase came into being. The statement for Art for Art’s sake for the first time is traced back to the preface of a novel by the name of Mademoiselle de Maupin which was published in the year 1835. It was written by Théophile Gautier. Critics and people who think the society work under their diktats found objectionable things in this preface as it promoted hedonism. Hedonism is a philosophy which promotes attainment of pleasure even at the cost of encroaching upon the rights of others. It is common knowledge that art and literature influence the social, moral, and ethical norms of social structure.

The trial to which both Whistler and Ruskin were parties, didn’t just put these two men against each other but also sparked the debate between those for whom art was a means of social change and revolution and those who believed that art transcended social purposes. This debate continued for long after the conclusion of the trial. Many modernist movements and revolutions allied themselves to one or the other side. This was how debates grew around contemporary art paintings.


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