No escape?

Oh, so Giotto too...  It was with some disappointment that I read about Giotto’s “extensive business activities”. (1)
I have of course always been aware of the artist as an entrepreneurial workshop-owner,  or as a business man  competing for commissions   but somehow pre-renaissance art  had retained for me a blissful aura of purity and transcendence. (2)

The role of the wealthy establishment as patrons of art has never much annoyed me – the idea of the very rich redeeming their money-making by investing in art may even have enhanced, for an innocent mind such as mine, the status of art as ‘something better’ (3) (4) .
But ah, how to reconcile the artist-as-a-shrewd-businessman (5) with  the need for art as an escape from utilitarianism?   The Kantian disinterestedness of art,  you know, the “free play of understanding and imagination”. 

Not to speak of the humble art lover’s need for at least some sort of poetic justice:  let the self-interested philistines and parvenus have their worldly success,  “we” (6) at least have taste, meaning &  beauty on our side.   And then, being confronted with evidence that  the go-getters and the commercially gifted of this world are capable too of producing great art? Please allow us a soupcon of regret. 
But not all is lost, since, unlike the other worldly spoils of society,  art at least is not reserved  for the wealthy & well-connected of this world.  So art has been able to retain some of its status as a refuge, where taste, insight, intrinsic worth and study  count  more than social standing.  Therefore, also those who ( for either social or political or even psychological reasons) do not feel at home in society, can and will confidently roam about in the realm of high art.   This may be an essentially  19thC-early 20th C humanist myth – untrue perhaps, as  all myths go, but founded nonetheless in genuine longings.

the pariah of the nineteenth century had found escape [...][in] an overwhelming preoccupation with the world of beauty, [...] the realm of art where everyone was welcome who could appreciate eternal genius. [...] a department of life which was proof against social [...] assault; and the pariah therefore retreated to them as to a world  where he might dwell unmolested. 
Old cities, reared in beauty and hallowed by tradition, began to attract him with their imposing buildings and spacious plazas. 

Projected, as it were, from the past into the present, aloof from contemporary rages and passions, they seemed in their timelessness to extend a universal welcome. The gates of the old palaces, built by kings for their own courts, seemed now to be flung open to all, and even unbelievers might pace the great cathedrals of Christ. In such a setting the despised pariah Jew, dismissed by contemporary society as a nobody, could at least share in the glories of the past, for which he often showed a more appreciative eye than the esteemed  and full-fledged members of society”.    (7)         


  1. John White;  "Art and Architecture in Italy 1250-1400" :  “In 1314 six notaries were pursuing  debtors in the courts on his [Giotto's]  behalf. Various dealings in land are recorded of him, and he also hired out looms. The latter was a standard way of putting money to work without infringing the ecclesiastical prohibition of usury, and work it certainly did, at a rate of about 120 per cent a year!”
  2. This perception is apparently not just unworldly wishful thinking of mine - few pre-renaissance artists seem to be have left records as business men  :  Giotto is one of the earliest artists to have left his documentary mark, not as a craftsman, but as a man of affairs manipulating capital in the then nascent world of industry and commerce. " 
  3. Fittingly enough [Giotto’s] his major surviving commission came from Enrico Scrovegni, heir to the greatest fortune in Padua, and the Arena chapel may well have been built to atone for the usury , still officially condemned yet unofficially condoned , by which Scrovegni’s father made his money.” 
  4. or the status of art as the ultimate way to subvert the power and value of money – think of the unreality of the millions of Euros/Dollars which Sheikha’s or Russian tycoons or other super rich splash out at art auctions ...     
  5. or “artist-as-a-shrewd-businesswoman”, of course --- one can only speculate how many (male or female) artists never “made” it, not for lack of artistic talent, but for lack of business and marketing acumen ...   
  6. “we” =  well, um:  the contemplative?  the sensitive? the highly-strung?    
  7. Hannah Arendt, "The Jew as pariah: A Hidden Tradition".   Nobody has written with such poignancy about the status of the society-less Jew as either parvenu or pariah. Nobody has written so insightful  about the” hidden pariah tradition” of Heine, Rahel Varnhagen , Kafka .  Nobody has written so beautifully about the pariah qualities of “humanity, humor, disinterested intelligence” or  about the “life of the mind”. And yet nobody has been so acutely aware also of the (political) dangers of total worldlessness, about how  lacking a realistic political understanding of the world” can bring on catastrophe. Arendt’s ‘Amor Mundi’  sprung from 20th C political necessity? 


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