The Uses of Art in Roman Britain
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The Uses of Art in Roman Britain book
Nowadays the practice of art is often regarded as a precious activity, largely divorced from daily life. An artist is defined as someone who works on expensive commissions for members of an educated and wealthy élite, or at least that is the impression given by the expensive, glossy art journals, bulging with sale-room advertising. The daily visual experience of the majority of people is limited to prints and photographs and to low-quality ornaments in the home, all of them mass-produced. Public art today consists on the one hand of ‘commercial art’ and on the other of the occasional self-conscious statue set up by an industrialist outside a factory or by a benefactor, or even a municipality, in an open space within a town. The current split between ‘high art’ and popular experience owes much to the results of the Industrial Revolution. The creation of new towns broke up traditional societies with their folk crafts. In place of the latter came cheap, mass-produced substitutes. This appalled sensitive artists and critics, first and foremost in nineteenth-century England, the pre-Raphaelites and John Ruskin. However, the very nature of nineteenthcentury life meant, ironically, that it was the educated élite and not the masses who responded to their call. High art could not be other than Salon art, offering an
escape into fantasy for those who could afford to ignore the appalling results of capitalism. What was lost in the Victorian Age was not artistic commissions, but the continuity of more humble crafts, for example the traditions of the woodcarver and the blacksmith, the skills of the village stone mason carving tombstones and those of the vernacular builder and decorator. It was now much cheaper to buy in quantity from a factory, but a glance at Victorian and post-Victorian mass-produced ornament at once reveals how much was lost.