I distinctly remember a lesson in my art history class during university; it was a lightbulb moment. We were discussing the future of art history. We were talking about what would be in the textbooks about the 2010s in 50 years’ time.
There are so many phenomenal fine artists right now. With 7 billion people on the planet, you can find art in any medium or style that your heart desires, but art history deals with what pieces of art are critical to history. It deals with what art changed the course of history, or somehow captured the zeitgeist (the general intellectual, moral, and cultural flavour) of an era.
Often if you’re in Art History 101 at university, you start with the Medici family during the Italian Renaissance. They were the first family that was influential because of the amount of money they had (they were bankers), rather than holding an aristocratic title. They paid for amazing works to be done including Donatello’s David and the Duomo in Florence.
After the Renaissance, Italy and Europe entered the Baroque period (this is where the “a-ha” moment happens), where most of the art was commissioned by the Catholic church. The art, of course, depicted Christian scenes and morality.
The Medici and the Catholic church were patrons of the arts because it was advertising for them before advertising was a thing that people did. The Medici wanted to show off how much wealth they had and they wanted to establish themselves as powerful, especially as a family without any titles. It worked! It resulted in Medici family members being elected to the papacy. The church (or more likely the cardinals who vote) realized the kind of power and influence the Medici family held and wanted them to be on their side.
The Catholic church wanted more members and people to spend money on absolution, whether through fear or through genuine devoutness, so depicting scenes of martyrs, moral lessons from the Bible, and scenes from the Passion are all important reminders for people to come to church and be on their best behaviour, and to will your life’s possessions to the church upon your death.
Henri Toulouse Lautrec (an artist from mid-1800s France) is best known for his posters advertising the Moulin Rouge in Paris! This is an artist who produced thousands of pieces of artwork and arguably, his most famous piece is of a can-can dancer.
Historical paintings were created for a purpose through funding from patrons. Like anything that is funded, there is a goal or an agenda that the client wants to achieve. It will be these transactional pieces of art that make the art history books in years to come.
Back to the lesson, we decided that one of the advertisements that would make the pages of future textbooks would be the iPod ad from the mid-2000s — the colourful one with the dancing silhouettes. This was an outstanding piece of advertising that skyrocketed the Apple brand into the mainstream.
Art history, design history and the history of advertising are inseparable. The historic movers and shakers in art are today’s marketers, advertising executives and graphic designers. Who is writing our history and how are they writing it? What do you think will be in the art history books of the future?