It seems that every month or so, some activist decides to vandalize a masterpiece in one of the world’s premier galleries — just the other weekend, climate activists at the National Gallery, London threw tomato soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and glued themselves to the wall, while in August, protesters glued themselves to the Vatican’s Laocoön and His Sons, and in July, much the same happened to Botticelli’s Primavera at the Uffizi.
I understand the rage and frustration felt by these activists. The “art world”, as Arthur Danto once put it, seems dangerously detached from reality. From the eye-watering prices fetched by Old Masters and Impressionists at Sotheby’s and Christie’s (see the 2017 sale of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi to the Saudi royal family for $450 million) to the insane (and insanely priced) antics at Art Basel (see Maurizio Cattelan’s Comedian), art feels like a game played by and for the idle rich. Tainted (especially in the last decade) by associations with parvenu Russian billionaires looking to give themselves the sheen of culture (see Christopher Nolan’s Tenet), opacity and secrecy, money laundering, fraud, and general very bad behavior (for all of the above, read this on the infamous Bouvier Affair — it’s really quite shocking), it seems more and more that art is only for those with nothing better to do than to casually shell out $20 million for a Monet, only to stick it on a seldom-used yacht somewhere off the Côte d’Azur.
In an age of inequality at levels unseen in most Western countries since the Belle Epoque, rising concern over our rapidly warming climate, increasing political dysfunction and polarization, and near-crisis level geopolitical tensions and accompanying economic shocks, art, and especially the type embraced by the “art world”, appears the ultimate symbol of contemporary society’s ills. As one protester at the National Gallery asked, “What is worth more? Art or life? Is it worth more than food, worth more than justice? Are you more concerned with the protection of a painting, or the protection of our planet and people?”
For me, art has always been an object of prestige and wealth, much as its contemporary image would suggest. Though far from rejecting it, I declined to delve into it, believing it far too inaccessible and remote, even for someone like myself, with what can only be described as an excellent education. At the same time, however, I’ve come to understand that art is so much more than what it’s come to symbolize. Toulouse-Lautrec didn’t paint the demimondaines of fin-de-siècle Paris so that their depictions could be sold for many millions at auction, and Leonardo certainly didn’t compose the Salvator Mundi so that he could end up in a cold, climate-controlled vault somewhere in Switzerland, unviewed and therefore unappreciated by its Saudi owner.
My friends know me now as someone who is passionate about art and art history, but in fact, my love for art is actually rather new. It all started this March, when I planned a weeklong visit to Rome during the Easter Vac. Beyond the mandatory, like visiting the Sistine Chapel and the Colosseum, I quickly realized I had planned far too little to do for the time I had there. So, I booked tickets for four art galleries, from the Galleria Borghese to the Doria Pamphilj.
Little did I know that my trip to Rome would change me forever. From the 17th through 20th centuries, in an age before photography and the Internet, the most prestigious artistic award the French government could offer was the Prix de Rome, giving top artists and architects the chance to stay in Rome for three to five years and observe the marvels of the eternal city firsthand, in what was perhaps their only chance to see Rome’s many masterpieces in their lifetimes. The Prix de Rome was an education, and just like those many French artists who made their way to Rome, so too did I return a different person.
From Bernini’s towering, twisting evocation of passion, fear, and transformation in his stellar Apollo and Daphne to Velázquez’s visceral study of a shrewd man of action in his Portrait of Pope Innocent X and Canova’s godlike depiction of ethereal beauty in his much-copied Venus Victrix, draped in what seems like living skin, Rome truly showed me art’s incredible possibilities.
Some of it was the obvious, the stuff that tourists come home from Rome chattering about. Upon entering Michelangelo’s immense cupola at St. Peter’s Basilica, decorated in copious amounts of ultramarine blue and gold leaf, one notices the inscription of Jesus’s unforgettable quote- nay, literal fact- from scripture: “TV ES PETRVS, ET SVPER HANC PETRAM AEDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM, ET TIBI DABO CLAVES REGNI CAELORVM” — “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock (Peter in Latin also means rock — get it?) I will build my church, and I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven’’. Given that Saint Peter’s Basilica, and therefore the Catholic Church, is built atop St. Peter’s tomb on the Vatican Hill, it’s enough to make even an agnostic like myself reflect on the true might and power of the Catholic Church, expressed throughout art and history.
However, it was also the quieter, subtler moments that gave me pause. On the way from the Piazza Navona to the Trevi Fountain, I chanced upon three tourists entering a random building. Out of sheer curiosity, I followed them into the nearly-deserted church. Little did I know that this was in fact San Luigi dei Francesi, home to Caravaggio’s incredible Calling of St. Matthew. There, in the Contarelli Chapel to the left of the altar, is the tax collector Matthew, illuminated by a single shaft of God’s light, pointing to himself, as if to ask “Me?”, in response to Christ’s outstretched finger. In the tenebristic darkness of the customs house, in the raw drama of the moment, we understand immediately that Matthew has been called to a mission he cannot but join, that we are witnessing the very instant on which his destiny turns, the very moment that the divine reveals itself to a mere mortal, the sort of moment that people spend their entire lives chasing, and precious few experience.
Returning from Rome with a bag full of art prints and postcards, I realized then that I needed to get an education into art — to properly understand the glories on offer at the world’s art galleries. For although I enjoyed Rome very much, I was still a complete novice at art, reliant on eavesdropping on tour guides and picking out what Italian I understood out of museum labels in order to get a deeper meaning and understanding of the masterpieces I had seen. My chance to self-educate came soon enough, when I moved to London this summer to undertake an internship. Visiting ten art galleries in ten weeks, I delved headfirst into art, from seeing the incredible beauty and harmony of Raphael’s oeuvre in his absolutely sublime National Gallery exhibition (Vasari was so very right to crown him the ‘Prince of Painters’!) to appreciating the verdant luxury and playful splendor of Fragonard’s The Swing at the Wallace Collection and Nancy Spero’s enigmatic, horrifying iconography at the Tate Modern, embracing everything I could within the limited time I had in London.
In the nineteen or so galleries I’ve visited since March, I’ve had a chance to reflect on what art can truly be. A friend of mine once said that we all need a little luxury in our lives, a tiny bit of perfection, in order to lift our eyes heavenwards, to see life for what it truly could be, instead of what it may be now — and I think the same thing applies to art. Immanuel Kant once wrote that the purpose of art is to pierce reality and expose the sublime, to touch something profound beyond the experience of our everyday. Great art, whether religious or not, has this potential — while individual taste will differ, when we gaze into a work like Rembrandt’s haunting yet tender Titus, the Artist’s Son, or Monet’s wind-swept, sun-baked Antibes coastline, we grasp, if only for a moment, the sublime, the perfect. In doing so, for some, it may reawaken their religious faith and reorient them in their daily lives towards the divine. For others, it may provide a moment’s release from the bitterness of the nine-to-five. And for still more, it may be a chance to experience emotion and engagement in a life devoid of anything they could count as real. The possibilities in art are endless.
Art, therefore, is not our enemy, a symbol of all of contemporary society’s ills. In answering that protester’s question, it’s not a question of whether art or life is worth more. Properly understood, art is an integral part of life- and we must protect it just as much as we must protect our climate, future, and lives.
At the same time, however, this does not lessen the deplorable state of the “art world”. An accompaniment to and a contributor to the rise of global inequality, the “art world” has truly become the playground of the wealthy, perhaps even more so than it was in the ages of popes and emperors. After all, the monarchs of old were the first to open up their collections to create what we would now call an art gallery — the Vatican Museums were founded by Pope Julius II to exhibit the very Laocoön recently vandalized by protesters, put on public display exactly one month after its discovery and authentication by Michelangelo in 1506. The market for Old Masters and Impressionists is now so incredibly competitive that even first-rate institutions backed by some of the world’s richest and most powerful governments have trouble competing with billionaire buyers looking for home décor. For example, when the National Gallery had the opportunity to acquire Titian’s Diana and Actaeon in 2008, it took more than a year of painful negotiations between the various government trusts, the National Galleries of Scotland, the Scottish government, and the National Gallery, with a further £1 million from public appeal, to meet the (specially discounted for the government) purchase price of £50 million. A more equitable tax system would not only reduce the amount of disposable income available to purchase works at auction, but they would also force wealthy families to sell off their art assets or gift them to national collections in lieu of tax, both of which would lower art prices and allow national governments to afford them at auction or otherwise add them to their collections without breaking their budgets open.
But the problems inherent in the “art world” run deeper than that. In the entire Baroque room at the National Gallery (Room 32 — I highly recommend a visit!) there is but one work by a female artist — Artemisia Gentileschi — noteworthy enough that the accompanying label specifically mentions that this was a rarity in the male-dominated world of the time. Although we cannot change the historical reality that the “art world” has not been a particularly friendly place to women and minorities, these historically marginalized groups have as much to gain from art appreciation and creation as any white male. Furthermore, the wholesale looting of art from conquered territories, whether European or non-European, has always been problematic. As someone of Chinese descent who has spent the better part of his life in the West, I’m fully aware of the complex issues that surround items like the Benin Bronzes (looted by the British Army in 1897) or Picasso’s The Actor (sold under Nazi duress in 1938). I have no easy answers for these problems, and I doubt anyone does, but the work definitely remains to welcome more people into the world of art, and to acknowledge and restore historical injustices where they have been committed.
However, even if art were more welcoming of minorities, just in restitution, and more publicly displayed, there remains the problem of aura and mystique. As someone who once thought art inaccessible and too far “out there”, I understand full well how intimidating art can really be. However, I’ve come a long way in eight short months — from art museums as “time filler” to full-out art lover. Granted, a significant part of that has been my trips to Rome and Nice, giving me an opportunity to seek masterpieces in their home setting, and especially those, like the Sistine Chapel and the Raphael Rooms, that can never be moved. Yet, much of my art education has been the will to seek out art and find out about its wonders — it’s a journey I’m still only just embarking on. You have to believe that art is something that you can access and educate yourself on, if you want to ever understand great art.
Online, there are so many resources that someone interested in art can use. There are free courses run by the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (check them out here), and a plethora of YouTube channels that deal in art history (my personal favorite is Several Circles- they’re very cool!), and even TikTok channels for this stuff (the National Gallery has one)! And offline, for something more formal, try eBay and AbeBooks for used art history books; new, an art history survey will set you back £100 — I got mine for £12 used.
But nothing compares to seeing the works for yourself. For all the hype around Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, including from Francis Bacon himself, I didn’t believe that this portrait could be a contender for the greatest portrait of all time — until I saw it for myself. If you’re an art lover in the UK, a trip to London is all it takes to start educating yourself — go on a day trip and take advantage of your student status, which gives you free entry to basically every museum in town. (Pay a visit to the Courtauld Gallery — its collection is amazing, especially its Impressionists, and free for students!) And if you don’t fancy or don’t have the means to go down to London, here in Oxford, we have a very very good (and very very free!) museum in the Ashmolean. After returning from my summer in London armed with art knowledge, I was absolutely blown away by our collection here — did you know we have works by Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, Titian, Veronese, Bronzino, Tintoretto, Preti, Rubens, Van Dyck, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Claude, Turner, Rossetti, Pissarro, Manet, Degas, Van Gogh, Rodin, Picasso, and Kandinsky? Go check it out! (I think a visit to the Ashmolean after a nice Sunday brunch is just about the greatest privilege of being here at Oxford!)
And one final word — many people say that art is just about the most pretentious thing that one can get involved in. But I say it’s not a pretence if you actually put in the effort — never be afraid to do what you love! The only one who’ll lose out by shying away is you!