Another parable of academic publishing: the fall of 19th century academic art

I was impressed by Mike Taylor’s  parable of the farmers and the Teleporting Duplicator.    I sketched my own one in Boring mathematics, artistes pompiers and impressionists. Motivated by Mike Taylor’s post, I try here to gather evidence for the fact that the actual development of academic practices parallel the old ones of the 19th century’s   Académie des beaux-arts .

Everybody knows who won that battle.

Further are excerpts from various wiki pages on the subject. They serve as evidence for  parallels between academies, between the practice of journal publishing and classifications versus exhibiting in the Paris Salon,   between arxiv and the Salon d’Automne.

By reading these excerpts, all of this becomes obvious.

Accademia di San Luca later served as the model for the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture founded in France in 1648, and which later became the Académie des beaux-arts. The Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture was founded in an effort to distinguish artists “who were gentlemen practicing a liberal art” from craftsmen, who were engaged in manual labor. This emphasis on the intellectual component of artmaking had a considerable impact on the subjects and styles of academic art.

Towards the end of the 19th century, academic art had saturated European society. Exhibitions were held often, and the most popular exhibition was the Paris Salon and beginning in 1903, the Salon d’Automne. These salons were sensational events that attracted crowds of visitors, both native and foreign. As much a social affair as an artistic one, 50,000 people might visit on a single Sunday, and as many as 500,000 could see the exhibition during its two-month run. Thousands of pictures were displayed, hung from just below eye level all the way up to the ceiling in a manner now known as “Salon style.”

A successful showing at the salon was a seal of approval for an artist, making his work saleable to the growing ranks of private collectors. Bouguereau, Alexandre Cabanel and Jean-Léon Gérôme were leading figures of this art world.

As noted, a successful showing at the Salon was a seal of approval for an artist. The ultimate achievement for the professional artist was election to membership in the Académie française and the right to be known as an academician. Artists petitioned the hanging committee for optimal placement “on the line,” or at eye level. After the exhibition opened, artists complained if their works were “skyed,” or hung too high.

Young artists spent four years in rigorous training. In France, only students who passed an exam and carried a letter of reference from a noted professor of art were accepted at the academy’s school, the École des Beaux-Arts. Drawings and paintings of the nude, called “académies”, were the basic building blocks of academic art and the procedure for learning to make them was clearly defined. First, students copied prints after classical sculptures, becoming familiar with the principles of contour, light, and shade. The copy was believed crucial to the academic education; from copying works of past artists one would assimilate their methods of art making. To advance to the next step, and every successive one, students presented drawings for evaluation.

The most famous art competition for students was the Prix de Rome. The winner of the Prix de Rome was awarded a fellowship to study at the Académie française’s school at the Villa Medici in Rome for up to five years. To compete, an artist had to be of French nationality, male, under 30 years of age, and single. He had to have met the entrance requirements of the École and have the support of a well-known art teacher. The competition was grueling, involving several stages before the final one, in which 10 competitors were sequestered in studios for 72 days to paint their final history paintings. The winner was essentially assured a successful professional career. [source]

What happened eventually?

As modern art and its avant-garde gained more power, academic art was further denigrated, and seen as sentimental, clichéd, conservative, non-innovative, bourgeois, and “styleless”. The French referred derisively to the style of academic art as L’art Pompier (pompier means “fireman”) alluding to the paintings of Jacques-Louis David (who was held in esteem by the academy) which often depicted soldiers wearing fireman-like helmets. The paintings were called “grandes machines” which were said to have manufactured false emotion through contrivances and tricks.

This denigration of academic art reached its peak through the writings of art critic Clement Greenberg who stated that all academic art is “kitsch“. References to academic art were gradually removed from histories of art and textbooks by modernists […]  For most of the 20th century, academic art was completely obscured, only brought up rarely, and when brought up, done so for the purpose of ridiculing it and the bourgeois society which supported it, laying a groundwork for the importance of modernism. [source]

What was the initial course of action?

In 1725, the Salon was held in the Palace of the Louvre, when it became known as Salon or Salon de Paris. In 1737, the exhibitions became public and were held, at first, annually, and then biannually in odd number years. They would start on the feast day of St. Louis (25 August) and run for some weeks. Once made regular and public, the Salon’s status was “never seriously in doubt” (Crow, 1987). In 1748 a jury of awarded artists was introduced. From this time forward, the influence of the Salon was undisputed.

In the 19th century the idea of a public Salon extended to an annual government-sponsored juried exhibition of new painting and sculpture, held in large commercial halls, to which the ticket-bearing public was invited. The vernissage (varnishing) of opening night was a grand social occasion, and a crush that gave subject matter to newspaper caricaturists like Honoré Daumier. Charles Baudelaire, Denis Diderot and others wrote reviews of the Salons.

The 1848 revolution liberalized the Salon. The amount of refused works was greatly reduced. In 1849 medals were introduced.

The increasingly conservative and academic juries were not receptive to the Impressionist painters, whose works were usually rejected, or poorly placed if accepted. The Salon opposed the shift away from traditional painting styles espoused by the Impressionists. In 1863 the Salon jury turned away an unusually high number of the submitted paintings. An uproar resulted, particularly from regular exhibitors who had been rejected. In order to prove that the Salons were democratic, Napoleon III instituted the Salon des Refusés, containing a selection of the works that the Salon had rejected that year. It opened on 17 May 1863, marking the birth of the avant-garde. The Impressionists held their own independent exhibitions in 1874, 1876, 1877, 1879, 1880, 1881, 1882 and 1886.

In December 1890, the leader of the Société des Artistes Français, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, propagated the idea that Salon should be an exhibition of young, yet not awarded, artists.

In 1903, in response to what many artists at the time felt was a bureaucratic and conservative organization, a group of painters and sculptors led by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Auguste Rodin organized the Salon d’Automne.

The tipping point:

In 1903, the first Salon d’Automne (Autumn Salon) was organized by Georges Rouault, André Derain, Henri Matisse and Albert Marquet as a reaction to the conservative policies of the official Paris Salon. This massive exhibition almost immediately became the showpiece of developments and innovations in 20th-century painting and sculpture. Jacques Villon was one of the artists who helped organize the drawing section of the first salon. Villon later would help the Puteaux Group gain recognition with showings at the Salon des Indépendants. During the Salon’s early years, established artists such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir threw their support behind the new exhibition and even Auguste Rodin displayed several drawings. Since its inception, artists such as Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin, Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes and Marcel Duchamp have been shown here. In addition to the 1903 inaugural exhibition, three other important dates remain historically significant for the Salon d’Automne: 1905, bore witness to the birth of Fauvism; 1910 witnessed the launch Cubism; and 1912 resulted in a xenophobe and anti-modernist quarrel in the National Assembly (France).

The rest is history. There are many lessons to be learned from this, by the new “impressionists”, as well as by the “pompiers”, what do you think?

15 thoughts on “Another parable of academic publishing: the fall of 19th century academic art”

  1. By all appearances, this is a usual paradigm shift business. New things emerge and old ones die off. In other words, there’s no single stream that gets mutated by that which is new; instead new streams appear. That’s it.

  2. It seems to me the “classification” versus “hard to classify” question has quite a wide purchase. For example I don’t consider “economist” a real job, however people believe it is a concept with meaning and is an acceptable thing to give as one’s description of daily activities.

    1. Probably. I am far from the economists world, but I suppose that any creative person has problems with a rigid pyramidal organization. Because pyramidal organizations are best for making a large number of identical products. The existence of a root imposes a kind of synchronicity of the leaves, which is a good idea for the industrial revolution age. As a mathematician, I can’t forget though that my distant ancestors were members of Pythagora’s sect of learners, the mathimaticoi. Or now, almost every mathematician and scientist works to produce standardized units of publishing stuff, for the sake of an industry.

      1. What’s standardised can be assessed. Assessment is important but also the standardisation can be constricting.

        Maybe an easier to understand example is Doug Hofstadter. They made another name for a field after G.E.B. Imagine him trying to explain what the book is about to a publisher. On the other hand, “cognitive science” is sometimes accused of, well, not really being a field. Ditto for complexity studies. These are “horizontal” relative to “vertical” usual study areas.

        Back to the economists, someone with econometric (statistical) training and more knowledge of history is better than someone who doesn’t go in this “horizontal” direction. But then on the other hand, systems theory / cognitive sience / complextiy / Santa Fe / nonlinear / …. maybe lacks the depth (2nd meaning to horizontal/vertical analogy–if it’s true that breadth has this cost) and is really just a lot of sound signifying nothing.

      2. There is no perfect solution. But a fact is that the publishing systems as it is, is not needed anymore. Another sad (for some) fact is that universities will have a rough time to adapt to the actual world, where is easy to show evidence, hence authority is not what it was before. A key idea which I would like to see discussed by real economists, is if this situation may be explained by a negative Coase (organisation) cost. Does it even make sense? I mean, if organising something involves no longer a cost, but a gain (I don’t know the right word), would this explain something reasonable about the world we live in? In particular, would this help somehow artists, researchers, creators in all fields?

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