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Art and the Victorian Middle Class: Money and the Making of Cultural Identity.

Art and the Victorian Middle Class: Money and the Making of Cultural Identity. By DIANNE SACHKO MACLEOD. Cambridge U.P. 1996. pp. 530. 65. [pounds sterling]

THE QUESTION of the relation of money to art must always be interesting, because art is so often involved with money, and so often pretends to ignore the connection. Andy Warhol's silk screen, which did nothing but replicate the same dollar bill, made its mark by doing what art does not do--showing money and nothing else. Normally art seems to be, by contrast, an area in which, with coin and currency, one may buy Value-pure value, Beauty, the Profound, the noncommercial. But no value is pure. Art values shade into other values--ethical values, social values--and in recent years especially the question has been asked as to the ways in which one may be buying not only status, but also kinds of cultural power; when one buys great paintings and exhibits one's collection. Commentators like Jean Baudrillard have raised the question-which also animates Dianne Sachko Macleod's inquiry--Has to the ways in which the whole malleable form of a culture, including its hierarchies of prestige and influence, may alter when the masterpieces pass from old hands to new hands. The particular case Dianne Macleod takes, in Art and the Victorian Middle Class, is that of the art-buying Victorian tycoon. She tabulates the different ways fortunes were made, in wine vaults, calico, fustian, bleach; in whale oil, railways, leather gloves, coal. She notes that the self-made philistine millionaire is a figure more of myth than of fact: normally the tycoons came from families already moneyed and rising, and from homes with pictures on their walls. The nouveaux riches had some qualification to take over from the aristocrats the patronage of art. And she notes the different uses they made of the `cultural capital' into which they bought: some hanging masterpieces in the halls where they banquetted; some donating `improving' pictures to the nation; some, as the Aesthetic Movement got under way, constructing hidden nests of Beauty--for which the artists provided decor as well as objects d'art--in which they could re-collect their tone, away :from the rattle of the counting-houses.

Prior to the arrival of the Aesthetes, the pictures the tycoons mainly favoured were moralized genre scenes--a fireman fetching children from a burning house, an inconsolable dog by a poor shepherd's coffin. Such works commended self-sacrifice and duty, and certainly did no hurt to the tycoons' interest. As a result the tycoons were often generous with their real capital, both in making art available to the people and in ferrying in the people to see the art. They propagated their `cultural dominance' in a wholesale and almost carnivalesque way. The period's aesthetic adventure, and misadventure, may be represented by some extraordinary works outings that Dianne Macleod records. When the great Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition opened--in a grand hall hung with solemnly ennobling works--Mr Titus Salt commissioned three trains to bring his two-and-a-half thousand textile workers to see it. In the first train--presumably the carriages were open--the factory's own brass band played. In the third train was the Saltaire drum-and-fife band. Accompanied by the bands, wearing their Sunday best, the textile workers processed to the exhibition, and entered with the bands playing `The Fine Old English Gentleman' (Mr Titus Salt walked with them). The bands played cheerfully while they studied the solemn pictures, and they were all given dinner afterwards in a large refreshment tent. What they made of the pictures is not recorded, but their aesthetic appreciation-and indeed their moral improvement--cannot have been assisted by the fact that the pictures had no titles, labels, or explanations: the organizers of the Exhibition having decided that to provide such clues would hurt the sale of the catalogue.

The whole picture Dianne Macleod paints, of the marriage of money, industry, and art, is laced with ironies, some of which have a poignancy: as with the pig-iron king, Henry Bolckow, whose nearly last words, as he lay dying in the baronial magnificence of his new-built mansion, surrounded by his magnificent collection of contemporary paintings, were `Isn't it a pity to be dying when pig iron is nine pound a ton?' But for all the misapprehensions and cross-purposes, this exact detailed record of the use of art by materialists for unaesthetic purposes--to show off to assert power, to seduce unruly elements-still is the heartening story of the spread of the taste for art from the rich to almost everyone. When the South Kensington galleries were opened, gas lighting was installed so that--at the wish both of the donor and the gentleman-bureaucrats--the galleries could stay open till ten at night for working people. There may seem something quixotic, as well as utilitarian, in their choosing to put their trust, to such an extent, in artworks as `antidotes to brutality and vice'. But the people also thronged to see the pictures, and Dianne Macleod notes cases when the glazing of pictures was introduced to mitigate `saliva damage to the painted surfaces'.

Dianne Macleod's book is original and illuminating, both important and a pleasure to read. It could perhaps have gained by returning at its end, more decisively than it does, to those large questions on the transmission of `cultural capital' which it opened, in its early pages, with its citations of Bourdieu and Baudrillard. In its style it is not always happy: `Redolent with the guileless bonds that characterize the deepest relationships, this raw emotional message overcame class boundaries ...' (p. 60). But do bonds have odours? And what might be a `guileful bond'?--it is like a speaking of a clever and crafty rope.

Her reference to the actual paintings can be both unsearching and rather casual in detecting `significance'. Thus she finds social purpose in William Frith's The Railway Station when he shows, near the right-hand edge of the canvas, a recognizable thief of the time being arrested by two well-known detectives, a detail she takes to show `the dark side of urban development'. To reinforce this interpretation, she presently multiplies the criminal to `criminals', and describes the two policemen as London's `oppressive aspect'. Such a reading surely overstates the sunny vignette in Frith (though it could well be elicited from the genuinely menacing, cloaked policemen who infiltrate Gustave Dore's London).

It would be interesting also to be told more analytically what the artistic taste of the magnates was for. There is, for instance, the question of sunsets. When the dealer William Agnew commissioned a painting from John Linnell, he left the subject entirely to the artist, `only observing that I always like "loads" of distance... and that a sunset is to me an impressive charm and solemn teaching'. And when Thomas Plint, the Leeds stockbroker, expressed his pleasure in Dante Rossetti's Annunciation, he still asked the painter (to his horror and astonishment) `Couldn't you put a sunset floosh over the whole thing?'. These remarks suggest something more oblique than a taste for the most obviously improving narratives. And perhaps one. or both men were showing, in their love of sunsets, a taste for kitsch. But perhaps they were showing a taste for Turner.

The other side of this question would concern the way in which art itself changed, as some artists, even the best, moved to comply with the taste of business patrons they genuinely respected. Dianne Macleod notes the dominance of the work ethic in the first half of the century, as the patrons sought masterpieces which not only depicted humble, dutiful people, but which also represented, in their deep-focused detail, arduous labour with the finest brush--and thus, unambiguously, value for money. She notes the philistinism in this demand, which was shared even by the art critics of the day (it was behind Ruskin's fury at Whistler's Nocturne); and she notes the relief of artists, when the success of the Aesthetic Movement allowed Beauty some freedom from the pedantry of the work ethic. But there were also cases when the work ethic, in all its rigorous insistence, actually was transmuted into artistic `genius'. The masterpiece of that curious, so nineteenth-century phase of history must be Ford Madox Brown's great painting `Work', a depiction of navvies laying sewage pipes in Heath Street, Hampstead, which not only dignifies the workmen with a convincingness that might shame later `socialist' art, but does so with a beauty of sharp-coloured, crystal-clear summer light that was achieved with a myriad meticulous tiny strokes--the painting took Brown seven years to complete, and shows, as very few pictures do, how painting could at once be truly Work and truly Beauty. And at the same time even this great painting, whose composition was modified--and in the process improved--in compliance with the wishes of his patron (again, Thomas Mint). has a strangeness in its details which opens quite other questions than any that either Brown or Plint ever put into words. The potboy near the centre, with the newspaper under his arm, has a distorted, sloped-back head, of a kind Brown liked to paint, and with the dark circles round his nearly closed eyes has something at once animal and demonic in his face which would not be out of place in a Richard Dadd fantasy. And the ragged wildflower seller on the lefty whose eyes look out at us furtively from two holes in his hat brim, looks not so much like a Mayhew street trader as like Mad Tom from King Lear's blasted heath. Reminders anyway of the shadow side of art, and the shadow side of human life, with which a fuller history of `cultural capital' would also need to communicate.
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Author:Harvey, John
Publication:The British Journal of Aesthetics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1998
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