Much European art, particularly from earlier centuries, has been created at the behest of the rich and powerful often as propaganda. This raises the question, are we complicit in their manipulations when we admire and glorify these works of art?
Louis fourteenth built his superb palace at Versailles, with the great Hall of Mirrors, the Grand Canal, and the Neptune Statue. He built Triannon for he and his mistress to live in. Marie Antoinette built petit Triannon to was escape the pressures of officialdom, and the hamlet of Austrian style homes, so her children could experience “normal” life, and to assuage her homesickness. These whims were created while the people were starving. Yet we admire the extraordinarily beautiful architecture and the art within without a thought for the historical context, at least not in terms of the ordinary people.
Was it wrong to build these extravagances while the people starved? Would the world be poorer now if we didn’t have the palace of Versailles?
Catherine de Medici had a retrospective of her life created by the great Dutch artist, Rubens. It consists of twenty four huge paintings. It is possibly Ruben’s finest work. Yet Catherine de Medici was guilty of many crimes while she was regent of France. Does this is any way nullify our enjoyment of Ruben’s work? For me it doesn’t. In a perverse way it heightens my appreciation of the allegorical works, and adds another dimension to it. Does that mean I condone her actions?
Florence is a beautiful city, mostly because of the palaces and the buildings. Much of this building took place at the end of the fifteenth century. The government encouraged building by giving tax exemptions for forty years. So who paid the taxes? Probably the poor, who could not afford to build. So the rich were standing on the shoulders of the poor, who were staggering under the weight of their greed. Do we ever stop to think how this great architecture was paid for? How Michaelangelo’s genius work was paid for?
Venice was an egalitarian state at that time. Egalitarian for the rich and noble. The few thousand rich men met to make decisions in the Palace of the Doge. The Doge did not rule, he was a figurehead for these decision makers. But there was no equality for the workers. Who paid for the magnificent palace with it’s superb artwork by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronaze?
The superb art in the churches in both Florence and Venice usually includes figures of the patrons amongst the saints, usually showing the saints’ approval of them. Are we bothered by this propaganda, aimed at the workers?
There is certainly an amorality that can be disturbing. I don’t believe that great art should be nurtured and admired at any cost. But I do believe that knowing the historical context of this great work adds a dimension that increases my appreciation of it. I admire those geniuses.
But let’s not forget the little people.