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The Shadow of Mercury on Saturn

Krista Kodres (3/2018)

Krista Kodres writes about the monetary value of art and the effect of the commission on the creation of art throughout history.


In 2017, the Estonian Society of Art Historians and Curators organised its annual conference on the subject "Commissioned Art". The aim was to look at what is referred to as the percentage law, which had been in force in Estonia since 2011, and to discuss whether state commissions have, considering the public space, created any artworks of value. The question of the monetary value of art and the wider effect of money and public or state commissions on the creation of art hides among much else in the backwaters of the subject.

In connection with this the author is instantly reminded of the article "Merkuuri vari" (The Shadow of Mercury) by Boris Bernstein (1924–2015), which appeared in the almanac Kunst in 1992. In Ancient Greek mythology Mercury was the deity of trade and economic success as well as the conveyer of divine messages ‒ the god of communication. I was the editor of that issue of Kunst, but it is not for that reason that I remember the article so well. Rather, it was the author's strong writing that imposed itself, showing how the presence of Mercury (i.e. the market and money) had overshadowed the actions of Saturn – the creative artistic genius – on the societal stage. Bernstein analysed the reticent and embarrassed attitude characteristic of the art world in relation to the market, money and politics and showed where the historical roots of the stance lie and what has caused its longevity. He reminded readers that since ancient times art in the western cultural sphere has been a product that has been paid for, while the question whether art can be valued at all has also always been discussed. For example, in his masterpiece "Naturalis Historia" (Natural History, 79 AD), Pliny the Elder described the Ancient Greek painter Zeuxis, who started gifting his paintings, saying no payment would be high enough to exchange for the works. However, it is also known that both (political) commissioned art as well as an art market existed in Ancient Greece and, accordingly, art did have its price.

Actually, there has always existed a demand for visual depiction, as far back in history as is known to us, and this stems from the fact that such an activity is deemed to be necessary, valuable. Members of prehistoric societies also "commissioned" art/magical depictions because they considered them vitally important. Therefore, we can say, drawing a wide generalisation across history, that art – or rather, that which we have called art since the Renaissance – has always been commissioned art.

With the following I would like to remind the reader how art has become valuable in western society, and why it has been commissioned. I will at first touch upon the practices of commissioning art in the early, ancient eras and end with customs regarding state commissioned art in contemporary Europe. Naturally, we can only obtain a brief overview of this here. Foremost, I will try to direct our attention with chosen examples to the long and largely ongoing afterlives of commissioning practices and approaches also in the contemporary art world. 


Image/art as value

In the very early history of humanity, the value of visual depictions was tied to the belief that they could fulfil magical functions – provide, ensure and prevent important things and events for its holder. That was also most certainly "commissioned art", behind which was the initiative of a leader at the time or also the whole community. Boris Bernstein shows in the opening chapter, "The Second Commandment", of his book "Визуальный образ и мир искусства" (Visual Image and the Art World, 2006), how there was a desacralisation of magical visual images in Jewish culture and how this opened the potential for the development of the term "art" ‒ the development of a secular art field, where the subject of the pieces and adept execution were considered independent values. This process, in turn, paved the way for the development of the "art market". It is known that an art market existed in the early Mediterranean cultures at least as early as 1500 BC, when sources tell of the sale of Egyptian objects on the island of Crete. Here it is also important to mention that the sacred functions did not disappear, as figures and pictures were still used both for prayer and as talismans in public and private religious rituals. This was the case in the Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman cultures, whereas the Judeo-Christian as well as Islamic faith which emerged in the 7th century, continued to follow the second commandment (Moses II, 20:4–5): "You shall not make for yourself any graven idol, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water below the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God."

In other Mediterranean cultures, as a legacy of the ancient religious function, the idea of a depiction as a representational and as a potent object survived with the appearance of an independent art field. The importance of the representational value was also well attested by the philosophical discussions regarding how truthfully a visual image or "art" can convey the nature of the world; in other words, essentially questions concerning the truth value of depictions. Plato's cave myth is a well-known example, which denies this because depictions are essentially illusions. Aristotle on the other hand, thought that art is one form of knowing, and therefore societally an important phenomenon.

The concept of mirroring the existing world – the concept of mimesis – created an artistic canon, which valued figures and pictures that truthfully and in a generalised manner reflected the face of this world. The ability to depict the world was connected in ancient culture to a continued belief in the effectiveness of the figurative object: Athens commissioned a statue of Athena for the Parthenon temple because she was the protectress of the city and the temple was her residence; therefore, the idea of the temple was made visible, while also expecting the goddess to protect the city. Secondly, the aspect of memoria, or memorial function of figures and pictures was important, be it on a political, religious, family or personal level. The societal space was filled with statues of gods or public figures, but a citizen of the polis also needed sculptures and stories of their ancestors and the family's protective deity painted on the walls. We also know that later there was a great market for Ancient Greek art in Ancient Rome, art was also sold in both cultural spheres in specialist shops. The ancient world also had the first recorded instances of art forgery and art auctions. In any case, all this proves that the artwork became a valued object in ancient Greece and Rome, which was important to all levels of society.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the depiction of god and people in the Christian cultural sphere was legitimised as a result of the process of centuries of theological arguments and the – picture destroying – acts of the iconoclasts (decided by the Council of Nicaea in 787). Among others, this meant that art – now through a new interpretation – acquired a theological and liturgical value and for a long time, churches became the most important commissioners of pictures. Quite a lot is known nowadays about the commissioning of altar paintings and holy sculptures, therein the methods of their creation and their prices have been researched (in Estonia Anu Mänd has studied this side of church finances). The commissions were agreed upon directly in the workshop with the master, but there were also pedlars, travelling salesmen, who sold small pictures for private use. In addition to the church commissions, secular commissions were on the rise – city magistrates also valued the representational capacity of sculptures and pictures, through which they could communicate their own aims to the public: foremost to be a just judicative authority and govern the city considering the common interests (this picture programme is even clearly visible in an example at Tallinn Town Hall – although painted in the 17th century).



Jean-Antoine Watteau
L'Enseigne de Gersaint (The Shop Sign of Gersaint)
Oil, canvas, 163 x 308 cm
Charlottenburg Palace



Theory (the new "consecration" of the work and the activity) and practice

Humanism was born in the universities established in the large cities of Europe in the late middle-ages, and this "fed" on ideas from ancient culture. During this process, the construction of a new meaning for pictorial representations started. Figurative art was theorised and between the 14th and 16th centuries promoted from the status of craft (techne) to fine art – artes liberales. According to the theory of fine art, work was not produced for payment, but was instead spiritual work, which results from a virtue which was called talent (ingenium). This talent is practiced (invention) and it has its own goal and reason (iudicium). Creation takes place according to rules, which makes art a science (scientia), which is a gift from God (donum Dei). The work (opus) is invented in the mind. It can be realised by someone else and it can be paid for, even though a talent based on fantasy and the process of creation doesn't have a price. Therefore, artistic creation was ascribed meaning by theorists in the Renaissance, which tied the activity to intellectual as well as the innately elusive and secretive inspiration and fantasy, which does not have a price. Incidentally, this is when the construction and depiction of the artist persona as a genius started (e.g. Albrecht Dürer's famous "Melencolia I", 1514). As late as in the 17th century the French Royal Academy of Painting forbade its members from selling their own work, considering it shameful.

Regardless the "genius" did in fact accept money. Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) regularly sold his prints in markets through his agents, and was often also himself dealer and mediator for other artists. Lucas Cranach the Elder (c 1472–1553) or, from a later period, Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) also kept very large workshops and sales agencies to meet commissions. The geography of the centres of the European art market changed over time, from the late middle-ages onward we can mention Brussels, Antwerp and Lübeck next to the Italian cities; in the 16th century Amsterdam, Antwerp and Rotterdam were the most important centres next to Florence and Venice, and later, of course, also Paris and London.

The spread of the consolidation of art as something valuable for society was aided considerably by the "communication revolution" brought on by the invention of printing, which made it possible for the newly created knowledge to reach every corner of Europe. For example, Baldassare Castiglione's "Il Cortegiano" (The Book of the Courtier), published in 1528, was important with multiple translations and repeat editions. It argued that to know painting is an obligation of standing for every proper nobleman. Many European rulers had already regarded art highly enough to reward titles to the creators; for example, Simone Martini (c 1284–1344), Andrea Mantegna (c 1431–1506), Giulio Romano (c 1499–1546), Titian (c 1488/1490–1576), Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), Lucas Cranach the Elder (c 1472–1553) and others. Among artists connected to Estonia, Carl Timoleon von Neff (1804–1877) received a noble title in the 19th century.

In conclusion we can say that the European elite in the early modern era valued art as an important representational medium and employed it as a symbol of personal, political and national capital – thereby acknowledging its real capacity. The lower levels of society started quite quickly to copy the princely activities and art became an important part of their habitus or life-style as well as their social-symbolic capital. This means that they too started to commission and buy art (some of the homes of Tallinn merchants in the 17th and 18th centuries also had more than a few dozen pictures). Naturally, the Christian church remained a commissioner of art for a long time and the reformations – the Lutheran as well as the Catholic – in the 16th century continued to acknowledge art as an important ecclesiastic representational medium.

In addition, in the Netherlands the rate of commissioning art increased greatly because the Calvinist confessional culture deplored the use of pictures and sculptures in church and the need for pictures had to "move" into the private sphere. I will mention here some figures that describe the passion for pictures among the inhabitants of Holland and the art market that developed in this fervour, since these are incredible. I rely on Ad van der Woude's research "The Volume and Value of Paintings at the Time of the Dutch Republic", which he published in the collection "Art in History, History in Art" in 1991.

In the period 1580–1800 there were a total of about 2 million households in the province of Holland. Based on data from records of property, van der Woude claims the average number of pictures per household was 53 for wealthy families and 7 for the poorest. The author further derived, comparing different sources, that 8–10 million paintings would have had to be painted in Holland during this period, where two thirds of them were from the period 1580–1700. He also speculated that many of the pictures perished over time because the climate was very humid, the houses were damp and the quality of the pictures was not always the best. This means in turn that new pictures were needed (which continuously provided the artists with more work). The largest and most expensive pictures were allegorical-mythological and large format paintings (c 175x175 cm) with storylines from the New Testament, next came the Old Testament and portraits and finally small format landscapes, still-lifes, animals and genre paintings. The last of which were produced specifically for the mass market.


The Enlightenment and national mission of the arts

The art market became broader across Europe in the 19th century, and the powerful elite as well as the growing middle class still wanted to buy pictures and sculptures. The theorists of the Enlightenment saw art foremost in the role of a didactic medium improving society, and in the 19th century, philosophy raised Art and the Artist to almost religious heights (it has been said, that art became the new religion ‒ Kunstreligion), causing the freedom and morality of a person as well as of humanity to rely on it. The artist was a romantic knight, whose mission this became.

On the other hand, political power supported art as an important component of the public sphere: the European monarchies, living through their final bloom, gave figurative art the task of forming a national identity. Indeed, it formed a double role ‒ the existing buildings and art were interpreted as a legacy to activate the national memory, every last self-respecting country established an art museum, societies financed academic art history which created the suitable national art historical narratives, countless monuments turning characters from history into heroes were unveiled to drum rolls ‒ among them, for example, the memorial to Peter I in Tallinn in 1911. Furthermore, with support from architecture and art a new visually designated identity was produced: thousands of new public buildings with an abundance of pictorial interior design and suitable iconography were erected in the 19th century "for the good and pride of the people". For the plans for these, by the way, competitions were organised, which were, by and large, avidly discussed in public.


It is therefore clear that the formation of the state institutional art field, including state-supported academic work in art history, amplified as well as directed the values and meaning in art that had developed over centuries. They, in turn, further improved the art market and art commissioning. Although this did not happen in synchronicity across the western cultural sphere – in the 19th century in Western Europe, mainly in the 20th century in Central and the new nation states in Eastern Europe – the patterns of development are nevertheless obviously similar. In any case, the artwork became more clearly a "commodity" through these processes, as well as becoming a viable investment. The first art auction houses – Sotheby's and Christie's – were established in London in 1744 and 1766 respectively.

While at the same time, the age-old counter-argument was growing – the same idea that protected art as a spiritual, and therefore, invaluable creation. This understanding saw the shadow of money, the shadow of Mercury, as a tragic accompaniment to art and its creator, which devalues the standing of both. In the 19th and 20th centuries, art experienced political manipulation and exploitation. All this caused a feeling of mistrust, a faint remnant of which probably appears nowadays in many an Estonian artist's sceptical approach to the "percentage art" policy, for example. However, it is apparent that social pragmatism and post-modern consciousness is changing the understanding, which has developed and become ingrained through history in Western culture; the relationship between art, commissions and money is seen more as something normal and/or inevitable. That said, as history has shown, the debate over the invaluable nature of art and the problems of market prices is important and necessary because it recreates cultural traditions, from which society and perhaps art itself, of course under the critical eye of the viewer, has, after all, more to win than lose.


Krista Kodres is an art historian, professor at the Institute of Art History and Visual Culture at the Estonian Academy of Arts and head of its doctoral programme. She is also editor-in-charge of the 6-volume "Eesti kunsti ajalugu" (Estonian Art History) and has published the books "Ilus maja, kaunis ruum" (Handsome House, Beautiful Room, 2001) and "Esitledes iseend. Tallinlane ja tema elamu varauusajal" (Presenting Yourself. The Tallinn Citizen and Their Dwelling during Early Modern Period, 2014).



Quote corner:

"An illusion has persisted until now, as if the nature of the plastic arts always remained the same and as if they were meant to fulfil a fixed function in culture. It isn't so. A painting or a statue can be the continuation of the existence of psychic powers, souls, dead ancestors in a sensual form, a mediator between people and god, between human life and non-existence; eventually they can also be mediators between people, become the high-flying filler of leisure time and the specific object of artistic pleasure. Just as they lose their sacred function, the sacralisation of the artwork itself and the mythologising of the artist begins.

Such an opportunity was first gleamed in the ancient era. The humanists and artists of the Renaissance were remembering old ideas and developing them. They put an end to the artist's status as a craftsman, moving the artist out from under the sign of Mercury, the protector of merchants and masters, and into the favour of Saturn, Saturn is reputedly the star of melancholies, the insane and geniuses. From the midpoint of the 18th century, genius becomes a mainstay of philosophical thought. [---]

The new social and cultural standing of the artist was consolidated as a result of transcending the guild system. The guild masters, themselves, "children of Mercury" brokered the agreement with the commissioner, the deal. It occurred that painters from the Netherlands in the 15th–16th centuries, even in the 17th century, peddled their painting across the land with wagons and sold them by distributing. An adequate, or at least that's how it seems, institutional structure in the form of academies emerged for the new type of artists, "born under the sign of Saturn". The most exemplary of these, the French Academy, created in the struggle against the guilds forbids its members to deal with selling their work. Whatever the real genesis of dealing in art is, here and now, an institutional niche is reserved specifically for it. To prevent the creator, who resides in higher spheres, from mixing somewhere with the craftsmen and merchants, the "low" sales function becomes independent and develops into the area of the specific class of agents. [---]

Regardless of [---] the signs of a crisis, I dare to claim that in its essence, the ideal concept of art and the artist bequeathed to us by the 18th and 19th centuries is not only alive, but remains the guiding nerve centre in today’s art world. All attempts to dispute it are ultimately of its own devising and may be the negative confirmation of its power. There is no need to specially mention the various forms of protests directed against the commercialisation of the art world, starting from the creation of work unsuitable for sale and finishing with a lament of the dominion of the market or toxic analyses of its functioning. They all rely on the fact that they acknowledge the traditional model as the axiom, which has an unconditional normative effect. [---]

The Manichean splitting of the art world is expressed both in the oppositional competition between two opposing origins as well as in their inseparableness. The once banished Mercury has returned and become Saturn's shadow. But a very active shadow at that, just as is suitable for Mercury. It is often joked that a shadow may lose its master – swallowing him. By the way, that would mean a total replacement of the art paradigm, which would be so radical that it is even hard for one to imagine it."


Boris Bernstein, The Shadow of Mercury (Merkuuri vari). – Kunst 1992, No 2, pp 17–21.

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