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The Status Hierarchy of Artists in the Making

Artists represent quite a different type of profession compared with the learned, the group discussed in the previous chapter. The roots of the artistic profession are in the craftsman’s trade (Letheve 1972, 13-27). Until the early nineteenth century, the artist’s skills were learned through apprenticeship to a master artist. There was no chance of receiving commissions from royal and noble courts before the successful completion of such an apprenticeship, and therefore no chance of promotion in the hierarchy of artists, for the artist’s status depended on the status of their commissioners. At the same time, this connection also served to bind artists to their commissioners. The most sought-after artists were those whose paintings added to the glory of royals and nobles. Artists, therefore, had little latitude: they were compelled to paint in the royal style.

Paradoxically, however, this lack of artistic freedom in no way detracted from the prestige achieved by these works of art. For example, many of the top ten classical composers listed on Wikipedia (—Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Haydn, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Handel and Tchaikovsky—were commissioned to entertain the rulers © The Author(s) 2017

R. Jallinoja, Families, Status and Dynasties,

DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-58073-3_6

and their courts (Cavaliero 2013, 128-30; Sutter Fichtner 2014, 144; Clark 2007, 185). Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), a member of a musical dynasty, was appointed as court concertmaster to the Duke of Weimar, while his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-88), served Frederick the Great for 27 years before moving to Hamburg and comparative freedom. Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) spent most of his life in the service of two Hungarian princes. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) first worked as concertmaster in the Salzburg Archbishop’s orchestra, but his yearning for freedom eventually took him to Vienna where he wrote music as a free artist. Many writers at the time also made their careers at courts. The German writer Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832), for instance, accepted the invitation by the Duke of Saxe-Weimar to create a literary career at his court, although he was also appointed to a governmental post and eventually rose to the position of minister (Cavaliero 2013, 49-64). He was also ennobled for his literary and governmental deserts.

But of course there were countless other artists across Europe who did not receive such invitations to kingly or princely courts. They lived in and around big cities, in desperate poverty and together with craftsmen, shopkeepers, printers, courtesans, pornographers, tavern-keepers and rakes, as Catrell (2013, 44-5) describes the dwellers of Covent Garden in London Bohemia in the mid-eighteenth century. Similar colonies were also formed in France in the nineteenth century, consisting of 2500 persons professionally engaged in the fine arts in Paris alone (Letheve 1972, 11). These artists pursued success on their own, without the backing of royal or noble commissioners—and hence their lot was to live a life of poverty.

The status hierarchy of the artists discussed here began to take shape in the mid-nineteenth century, when the ideal of the independent artist triumphed over the restrictive academies of art, which were still putting pressure on artists to follow the old royal style. In Paris, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the centre of art at the time, had assumed the authority to define the standards of ‘good art’. This was tested by access to the Salon. Revolt against the Academy’s supremacy culminated in 1863, when rejected artists set up their own Salon des Refuses. Eleven years later, they proceeded to establish their own society, the Societe des Artistes Independants. A similar process unfolded in England where the

New English Art Club was founded in 1886 in opposition to the Royal Academy (Spalding 1998, 84). These events promoted the development of the arts into the form we know today, independent of other social orders and following its own logic, culture and values, to paraphrase the change in Weber’s (1978a) terms (see also Bourdieu 1996b, 48). The group of artists leading the protest against the Academy were Impressionists, who emphasized the supremacy of auteur and the auteur’s right to paint what they wanted and the way they wanted (von Lengerke 2002, 475-82). The only instruments available to artists were their talent and visionary insight into the subjects they were painting, which were soon recognized as the only authority in artistic work. The locus of glory was thus shifting from monarchs and nobles to artists themselves, signifying the glorification of auteur, the individual maker of art.

Artists are often completely ignored in social class research and its class schemata. But there are some studies that include artistic occupations in their classifications. In their British study, Goldthorpe and Hope (1974, 100-20) classify occupations based on their prestige, and rank artists third in a seven-tiered class schema. In Finland, Rauhala (1966, 344-78) reports similar results from a study of social stratification according to esteem. Here, all artists taken together ranked fourth in a nine-stratum schema. In a separate examination of different art genres, novelists emerged as the most highly esteemed; they were the only sub-category of artists ranked in the third stratum. The rest were in the fourth stratum: conductors first, painters next and opera singers last, albeit with only minor differences in value scores.

These two studies provide a useful preliminary overview of the status of artists, but I would like to go one step further and treat artists separately, even within sub-categories, rather than as a single group. The simple reason for this is that in reality artists are internally a hierarchically ordered group. Rauhala has shown that the prestige of farmers directly correlates with the size of their holdings. Farmers with the largest holdings (200-500 hectares or around 500-1250 acres) are the most highly esteemed, ranking third in the stratum classification, whereas farmers with holdings of just 2-7 hectares (5-17 acres) rank seventh. This clearly attests to the existence of a status hierarchy and suggests that in the case of artists, too, we should apply a similar evaluation—even though the measurement of status in their case is not as easy as in that of farmers or entrepreneurs, whose prestige is largely dependent on the size of their business. Artists also lack a formal hierarchy based on a clearly defined structure of offices or positions that is typical of the civil service and the clergy. In the arts, hierarchies are created individually through different kinds of status performances. We must therefore turn to these status performances next.

Let us do a case study on painters and use the art history book entitled Masterpieces of Western Art (Walther 2002) to explore how status hierarchies are created in the domain of the arts. We limit this examination to just two schools of art—Impressionists and Classical Modernists— because of their pivotal role in the renewal of art and in advancing the role of artists as independent creators of art in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. Being included in an international art history book is itself a mark of excellence: in this particular case it sets apart 55 Impressionists and 66 Modernists from thousands of fellow artists who are not included. We are naturally inclined to think that those who are included are the most outstanding artists and that for this very reason they deserve to be introduced in art history books. Another performance of status is the number of paintings listed for each Impressionist and Modernist in the book. In the case of Impressionists, this number ranges from one to five—the same scale that is used in the star system to rate hotels. Naturally, ‘five-star’ artists are thought to be better artists than those with fewer ‘stars’. These five-star artists in the book are Manet, Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, de Toulouse-Lautrec and van Gogh, all world-famous painters. An additional performance of status is receiving mention in the book’s introduction to Impressionism. Apart from the five-star artists just mentioned, the introduction makes reference to Degas and Gauguin, whose paintings are not as widely exhibited in the book. Masterpieces of Western Art is more cautious in awarding ‘stars’ to Modernists. The only artist boasting five paintings in the book is Matisse, followed by Picasso and Kandinsky with four. In addition, the following Modernists are mentioned in the introduction of Modernism: Braque, Jawlensky, Chagall, Malevich, Mondrian, Hopper, Miro, Tanguy and Dali, most of whom are widely known artists.

As always, the new blended with the old. On the one hand, the profession of artist was one of the first to become accessible to women and therefore aroused high expectations among women. On the other hand, women’s achievements in this profession remained modest if measured by the usual standard of status performances in the art domain. Women are conspicuous by their virtual absence in Masterpieces of Western Art. Berthe Morisot (1841-95) and May Cassatt (1845-1926) are the only female Impressionists mentioned in the book, and there is not a single woman in the select list of Modernists. Until quite recently, the canonized art history has not been able to imagine women’s elevation to prominence (Konttinen 2010a). Until the mid-twentieth century, the lot of female artists was to remain ‘minor characters’, as Joyce Johnson, Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend, calls those who were not acknowledged for their artistic endeavours (Wilson 2003, 83-115). True, women were welcome in artist communities, but they were mainly expected to support male artists as muses, models, cafe and salon hostesses—and as their artist husbands’ housekeepers. Falling in love with an artist or a would-be artist allowed women to maintain an extended presence in artist communities. This assured women a natural-like place in Bohemia, and some of them even a central position. They were the Queens of Bohemia. For many other women, however, love affairs with artists only provided short-term access to the magical world of artists, which held great appeal for many women who longed for personal freedom and the glory of creativity.

But what about the rest of artists, those whose names are found in neither international nor national art history books? In the end, only a minority achieved fame of any sort. Most had to content themselves with casual work, in the best case work that in some way was related to art (Rigney and Smith 1961; Ransome 1984; Wilson 2003). By promoting the works of other artists and by running institutions important in the public dissemination of art, many would-be artists contributed significantly to the creation of the art field (Wilson 2003, 73; Ransome 1984, 180-2). At the same time, it is noteworthy that an unconventional lifestyle had an appeal all its own, and those who came from educated family backgrounds to proclaim and glorify the excellence of liberties in private lives played a significant role in this respect. These individuals also mixed with lower-ranking people, willingly and demonstratively, to show that they had abandoned the hierarchies of society.

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