george stubbs tears: putting a good face upon trade

The jockey with his invincibly English face is from a canvas by George Stubbs ( 1724-1806 ) who is so well known for his portraits of horses as to obscure the fact that he painted their owners and handlers with equal directness, honesty, and lack of sentimentality. He was, in fact, one of the best English painters of his time; and as such he was inevitably drawn into the orbit of the Royal Academy of Arts, albeit more as a satellite than as one of its great, whelling planets like Reynolds, Gainsborough, or Lawrence.

Image: More:’s legal entanglements do not end with the Landmark Hotel project. He is also suing international auction house Christie’s for fraud and breach of contract. That lawsuit alleges that Christie’s failed to return artwork to him in a timely manner, harming his ability to sell the pieces worth an estimated $25 million. For their part, Christie’s sued Minor on Feb. 2 for allegedly failing to pay for three paintings of horses — “A Rearing Stallion” by Anthony van Dyck, “Antinous” by George Stubbs, and “Flying Childers Held by a Groom” by Thomas Stringer — that cost than $7 million.

aAt one time, the Royal Academy was a brilliant, full-blooded force. J.M.W. Turner was the last great artist to have been nurtured in any real sense by the Academy, and he died in 1851. It shared in the worldwide decline of all “official” institutions that have to do with the arts. The existence of immutable laws of art, and any institution that set itself up as defender of such faith , was bound to become a thing of the past, a tyranny overthrown by a new cabal of dealers and critics, individual collectors and patrons.

Read More: ---Another delicious piece of dirt is to be seen in Thomas Rowlandson's The Exhibition Stare-Case, Somerset House, 1800. The elegant ladies climbing the steep staircase to the exhibition have tumbled down and themselves become the exhibition, and their fair, bare posteriors match those of a statue of Venus in a niche. Venus turns to see what is happening. Elderly debauchees and roués look on in delight from the side, staring at the case in question. Stare-case… geddit? One of them leans forward and holds his lorgnettes close to his eyes to make sure he isn't missing anything.---

Joshua Reynolds was the first president and gave the institution its tone, a coloring that was not to everyone’s taste. It was William Blake who put the extreme anti-Reynold’s case forward. As a student of the R.A. schools in 1778 he had not been happy, and throughout his life he felt that, as he wrote in the margins of Reynold’s “Works” , “this man was hired to depress art.” What was important in England, he wrote, ” is not whether a man has talent or genius, but whetehr he is passive and polite and a virtuous ass and obedient to noblemen’s opinions in art and science. If he is, he is a good man: if not he must be starved.

In his defense, Reynolds believed that the artist was not a gypsy or an itinerant comedian, to come begging at the back door for a chance to show his skill, but a professional gentleman who should be able to treat with the great figures of this world as prince with prince. For this he needed security and an imposing establishment, but he also needed the kind of personal distinction which not many artists of that day could claim.

Read More: William Powell Frith. Private View of the Royal Academy. 1881. Frith said his intention was to satirize "aesthetic" fashions in dress and to comment on "the folly of listening to self-elected critics in matters of taste." By now the satire has evaporated and what is left is not only an illustration of the Victorian taste for densley populated canvases, but a useful social document. Frith includes the portraits of Anthony Trollope and Oscar Wilde and others.

None of the members attracted as much public attention as Sir Anthony Carlisle, the Academy’s professor of anatomy from 1808-1824. A police guard was called out to restrain the crowds whenever Sir Anthony lectured; but what stirred the mob was not so much the academic content of the lectures as the auxiliary matter with which he diversified them. Often, for instance, he would have human remains handed round on dinner plates, to better make his point; and for a time he illustrated the operation of the muscular system with the help of eight private soldiers of the Foot Guards who exercised stark naked on the lecture platform. Eventually, the social prestige for which Reynolds maneuvered so adroitly became regarded as both fatuous and abhorrent.

Image: Read More: Gainsborough. Mr. and Mrs. Robert Andrews. Hazlitt:It is, I understand and believe, pretty much the same in more modern institutions for the encouragement of the Fine Arts. The end is lost in the means: rules take place of nature and genius; cabal and bustle, and struggles for rank and precedence, supersede the study and the love of art. A Royal Academy is a kind of hospital and infirmary for the obliquities of taste and ingenuity--a receptacle where enthusiasm and originality stop and stagnate, and spread their influence no farther, instead of being a school founded for genius, or a temple built to fame. The generality of those who wriggle, or fawn, or beg their way to a seat there, live on their certificate of merit to a good old age, and are seldom heard of afterwards. If a man of sterling capacity gets among them, and minds his own business, he is nobody; he makes no figure in council, in voting, in resolutions or speeches

Not surprisingly, the real power of the Academy in its early days was not intellectual or social; it related to the machinery of distribution and sale. The ability to show new pictures in grand surroundings and under Royal patronage. The R.A. had a monopoly on large-scale display. It was the artists natural showroom, and it retained this cartel-like advantage for more than a century, until 1875, when the modern art world in London began with the opening of the Grosvenor gallery.

So, the reality of the great days of the Royal Academy owed much of its character to that great English trait, the wish to put a good face upon trade. There was much in Hazlitt’s assertion that “the R.A. is a

antile body, consisting chiefly of manufacture of portraits…who with the jealousy natural to such bodies, supported by authority without, and by cabal within, think themselves bound to crush all generous views and liberal principles of art, lest they should interfere with their monopoly and their privilege to be thought artists and men of genius.”

Read More: George Stubbs. Hambletonian. 1804. Donald Kuspit:However understood, firsthand esthetic experience is precluded by the secondhand experience of art in reproduction, whether electronically advanced or old-fashioned mechanical reproduction. If the art work is the privileged site of esthetic experience, or at least its repository and trace -- the social amber in which it is preserved, the expressive space that contains it -- as the quoted thinkers suggest, then its reproduction de-privileges esthetic experience along with it. Reproduction challenges and mocks the skill that went into its making -- especially if it was made by hand and eye and not simply dependent on its concept and ideology for credibility -- by implying that its own technology is superior to the techniques that inform the work’s artistry. Reproduction trumps art by appropriating it wholesale -- digesting it until it is a shadow of itself. Even in digital art the technology seems to usurp the place of the art. Reproduction levels its sensuality and weakens its emotional effect, subverting its vitalizing evocative power, and making it seem less intelligent than it is, and with that de-estheticizes it, that is, renders it useless as a means to the end of esthetic experience. Paradoxical as it may seem, reproduction, which claims to serve memory, leads us to forget what is most memorable -- experientially real -- about the art by reducing it to an appearance. The real work is superseded by its cannibalization in reproduction.


Following from William Hazlitt’s criticism regarding the Royal Academy’s transformation of art into a commercial trade, Bermingham notes that both the Academy’s exhibitions at Somerset House and the Repository functioned as “‘shops’ in the business of selling art in the form of a fashionable commodity to a public consumed by personal vanity and ignorance” (167). Like the spectacle of the dandy, the public space of these galleries was a sign of “aristocracy without its obligations,” simultaneously representing “London’s aesthetic awakening” and a conservative, “nostalgic reverence for traditional signs and class privilege” (Bermingham 157). …

…Thus, while Blake, like Ackermann, has faith in the “consolidation of the social domain through the…collective…consumption of the spectacle of art,” he also anticipates Hazlitt’s critical stance against the superficiality of artistic products manufactured by commercially-minded institutions (Bermingham 171). While seductively adopting the hyperbolic language of commercial advertising, Blake persists in his reluctance to simply give in to the shallowness of spectacle and commercial production, implying that such practices contribute to political and national weakness. This is still a familiar perception in our own time—the idea that technological spectacle (cinema, television, video games) discourages individual engagement with and awareness of nationalist or ideological motivations by encouraging passive receptivity, empty experience and shallow extremities of sensationalism. Blake’s unpublished notebook poem, “Now Art has lost its mental charms” illustrates the extent of his concern and offers a crucial link between his individual artistic practice and larger political concerns:

‘Now Art has lost its mental charms
France shall subdue the world in arms.’
So spoke an Angel at my birth;
Then said ‘Descend thou upon earth,
Renew the Arts on Britain’s shore,
And France shall fall down and adore.
With works of art their armies meet
And War shall sink beneath thy feet.
But if thy nation Arts refuse,
And if they scorn the immortal Muse,
France shall the arts of peace restore
And save thee from the ungrateful shore.’
Spirit who lov’st Britannia’s Isle
Round which the fiends of commerce smile – Read More:
Donald Kuspit:It certainly no longer affords what the philosopher John Dewey called “an” experience that has transformative effect, but simply another experience one can casually take or leave. It no longer enlightens us about emotions and sensations; reproduction re-embeds them in the world of action, neglecting and even trivializing them. Reduced to accessories of action — a sort of ornamental background music to action, adding a bit of excitement to it if sometimes distracting us from it — they lose value and meaning in themselves: the value and meaning art struggles to make us conscious of, and that art itself loses by being subsumed into the world of action as a decorative backdrop for more important concerns than it. As the history of social action shows, art gains credibility, and with that respect, to the extent it serves the commercial, political, and religious powers that be. There are always connoisseurs capable of experiencing it esthetically, but they are a minority, even if they belong to the commercial, political, or religious elite that uses art to reinforce and glorify its power and further its interests.

Digital reproduction undoubtedly makes for a more refined reproduction than mechanical reproduction, which seems crude in comparison. Digital reproduction is so sophisticated that it seems adequate to the art it reproduces, even as convincingly “artistic.” Indeed, so convincing that it may lead one to believe that it is as good as and even better than the art it reproduces or copies — so “adequate” that one doesn’t have to bother to look at let alone experience the actual art. The reproduction becomes adequate for the purposes of scholarly analysis, and comes to replace the original it copies, to the extent that it begins to seem original in its own right. It seems to have an esthetic of its own, and as such capable of effecting the same revolutionary transformation of consciousness as the original work. Mechanical reproduction makes no pretense of being adequate to the art it socially mediates, and no pretense of being as esthetically satisfying — have as much experiential potential — as the art it reifies, for all reproduction is reification, but my point is that both modes of reproduction sell art short as an experientially unique creative product — a product not like any technologically produced everyday product, however much art may incorporate elements of the technological society in itself. Read More:

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