Editorial – September 2017

Art And The Public – A Short History

In the beginning the powerful provided the unlettered with uplifting Biblical pictures in churches. We were impressed ­even though some scenes threatened us with eternal agony if we broke their rules. The scarcity of pictures outside of church meant we were naturally curious about anything drawn or coloured. Wandering pedlars would show up to impress us with secular material, crude woodcuts, illuminated song sheets, lampoons and the like. And, of course, when they needed us to fight, pictures of kings and generals were carted about the land – they looked well fed and warm.

In bigger towns there soon opened shops with pictures in the windows done by local painters and engravers who sold work to landowners and, later, to tradesmen and factory owners. The gentry had their portraits painted mainly so they could admire themselves. We could see pictures through the windows of their houses. Some had mountains and blue skies, dead animals and naked bodies. Pictures in civic buildings told stories we could recognise. There were even public shows of famous pictures society folk queued to see. Small prints of these grandstand works were for sale in shop windows.

Eventually, after we had migrated to work in dirty towns, there were opened imposing stone buildings, like temples, full of paintings and statues which working people could see for nothing. They said these rooms were for us, but they weren’t really. Some of our kinder employers even paid for us to travel on chartered trains to look at famous works of link art in glass palaces. They said they were ‘improving’ us in the appreciation of higher things. And they were very impressive, but had nothing to do with working lives like ours. About this time photographers opened shops and in their windows showed portrait displays of everyone famous. We learned from these public galleries that looks had nothing to do with position. Princes were just as likely to be bald, squinting, inelegant and bandy-legged as we were. Some photographs were so cheap that for the first time we could have pictures taken of ourselves. Then newspapers and weeklies started using drawings and, later, reproduced photos. Suddenly pictures were everywhere, and clever coloured posters appeared in the streets trying to sell us stuff we didn’t need.

Art never registered for us. Moving pictures were more to our taste, especially when they talked and were in colour and told stories about people like ourselves. We couldn’t get enough of those, still can’t, and we were even prepared to pay for them, sometimes more than once a week.

Without warning paintings began to look less realistic than they had before. Many mocked this new ‘modern’ approach, and the point of it certainly escaped us. Then came a war followed

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