The shift from sacred to courtly and finally to bourgeois Art is a shift from a collective to a private experience 59. With the the rise of capitalism the traditional social relations of feudalism became irrelevant to the bourgeoisie, the anonymity of the market and the development of waged labour no longer required the cohesive social function of the arts, the bourgeoisie no longer required or desired social contact with the lower classes. For the late 19th century bourgeoisie the working class districts of London were as alien as Conrad's 'Heart Of Darkness'.
The bourgeois revolutions culminated in an Art of individualism and privacy.
The move to individualism took place in both the production and reception of the work of art . In production this shift begins during the Renaissance with the decline of the mediaeval craft guilds and the collective workshop, and the origin of the concept of the 'genius' . In reception this process can be discerned in the rise of Art forms which isolated the audience as individuals (the novel, the darkened theatre auditorium) , and also in the commodification of the aura.
Before the development of the aura of Art, the Sacred and Courtly artwork had a prestige generated by it's social function; the sacred word, the image of God, the King's estate, the music for the pageant, the chapel of the Lord, the palace....etc.
To borrow Wollen's semiotic model, prestige emanates from the referent, prestige lies not in the artwork itself nor in the maker, prestige is derived from the feudal hierarchy of God and Monarch. The prestige of a painting of Christ emanates from the son of God not from the painting or the artist.
As Victor Burgin notes:
' In the Middle Ages, to speak of the 'creativity' of the artist would have been to risk burning as a heretic-there was only one Creator.' 60
It is only with the advent of Renaissance humanism that the work of art begins to become the work of an individual mortal 61, before the Renaissance art was the work of God and the artist was simply a medium for God's divine creation. After the Renaissance the artist began to develop as an individual with a personal expression and style.
The function of Courtly art was to represent the glory of the monarch, the nobility and the reign of the court. The prestige of Courtly art emanates from the monarchy and the nobility who also legitimise their authority in the name of God. And so in both Sacred and Courtly art prestige is a function of the artwork in that it is the distance of the viewer from sacred and noble authority, it locates the viewer in the great cosmic feudal hierarchy which begins at it's highest with God and then descends by degree through every angel , every human, from King to serf, every beast and finally to the basest elements of existence.
With the development of bourgeois autonomous Art, the prestige of Sacred and Courtly art becomes autonomous, it becomes aura ; prestige without 'function'.
In the presence of the great Art work the modern bourgeoisie are alone, they experience the aura as a fascinating nostalgia, an ineffable exaltation and regret: exaltation that they are at last in the presence of noble and sacred tradition, and the regret that they have commodified and so rendered the tradition superfluous. For this reason the Art gallery has become both the church and palace of the aura and for this reason Art eventually divested itself of even the function of representation, as Burger notes:
'The solitary absorption in the work is the adequate mode of appropriation of creations removed from the life praxis of the bourgeois, even though they still claim to interpret that praxis. In Aestheticism, finally, where bourgeois art reaches the stage of self -reflection, this claim is no longer made. Apartness from the praxis of life, which had always been the condition that characterised the way art functioned in bourgeois society, now becomes its content." 62
Here Burger's insight is telling but his formulation needs revision, since as I think you now realise, bourgeois Art is in no way 'removed from the life praxis of the bourgeois'. As I observed earlier Wollen, Poggioli and Burger all more or less share a conception of non-representational Art as the defining development of the Avant-Garde and it is also implicit in all three texts that the Avant-Garde is the defining tendency of modern Art. This observation opens once more a confusion between Modernism and the Avant-Garde. Let us then agree with Wollen's 'Two Avant-Gardes' and also with the re-definition of that article by Willeman 63 , that Modernism is the movement in Art that pursues the rift opened up between signifier and signified. However, let us abandon the breakthroughs and coupures . The process of separation between the signifier and the signified, which inevitably leads to the suppression of the signified, to an Art of pure signifiers 64 , is the autonomisation of the content of Art. If the Avant-Garde is the vanguard of autonomous bourgeois Art, so Modernism is it's realisation as content. This gradual process can be traced through the rise of bourgeois Art to it's first articulation in the Art for Art Sake movement, a semiotic denial of the referent which permits the rift between signifier and signified in Cubism. Modernism then is the Art of the Abstract, the Non-Objective, the Non-Representational and the Non-Narrative. The Modernist Artist eliminates content and decoration 65 , and seeks purity of form and material. This compulsion is driven by the fetish of the aura, for as mechanical reproduction becomes ever more mimetically efficient, so aura as a commodity becomes ever more specialised as that which cannot be mechanically reproduced; throughout the 19th century new industrial techniques of fabrication undermine Art's function as the producer of beautiful objects whilst photography erodes Art as the representation of the real. Inevitably the only thing that cannot be mechanically reproduced is aura itself, abstract and superfluous.
This elimination of representation is a 'breakthrough' in the development of the aesthetic of bourgeois Art, it is pure aura, the fetish of Sacred and Courtly authority in its ideal state, form without 'content', beauty without purpose. And this is it's purpose, for this pure Art can only be appreciated by the the social elite, as Bourdieu notes in Distinction , A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979):
'....Never perhaps has more been asked of the spectator, who is now required to 're- produce' the primary operation whereby the artist (with the complexity of his whole intellectual field ) produced this new fetish. But never perhaps has he been given so much in return. The naive exhibitionism of 'conspicuous consumption', which seeks distinction in the crude display of ill-mastered luxury, is nothing compared to the unique capacity of the pure gaze, a quasi-creative power which sets the aesthete apart from the common herd by a radical difference which seems to be inscribed in 'persons'. 66
If the function of sacred and courtly art is to articulate the social hierarchy of feudalism , then the 'function' of the superfluousness of autonomous bourgeois Art is to articulate the social hierarchy of bourgeois capitalism. This is the irrational and complex autonomy of bourgeois Art. Art demonstrates to society that the bourgeoisie now has sacred and noble authority, but to gain this authority the bourgeoisie hasabstracted it from its tradition, it's function, they have commodified the aura and they have developed a realm of beauty free from necessity, and this freedom from human need, this life of ease has become the aesthetic of Art.
' The pure gaze implies a break with the ordinary attitude towards the world which, as such is a social break. One can agree with Ortega y Gasset when he attributes to modern art-which merely takes to its extreme conclusions an intention implicit in art since the Renaissance-a systematic refusal of all that is 'human' , by which he means the passions, emotions and feelings which ordinary people put into their ordinary existence, and consequently all the themes and objects evoking them' 67
The gaze of Art eliminates function and replaces it with aesthetics, this gaze rejects the base and venal pleasures of the body, the vulgar entertainments of the masses, the recklessness of political action, the vulnerability of emotion. In the silent gallery the viewer is never lost, but remains amused with their own perception. This impartiality fixes the superiority of the bourgeois as those who have risen above not only the animal passions of the lower
classes but also the superstition of Christianity and the primitive bloodline of the aristocracy.
This ascendance is the content of Modernism; function, representation and affection are all purged, the autonomy of Art becomes both the form and content of the Artwork; pure aura.
Which of course is the terrible irony of Modernism and the Avant-Garde, because the Avant-Garde is not the spearhead of a radical new future, it is the means by which the bourgeoisie perpetuate the social hierarchy of feudalism.
And Modernism is not modern socially, technologically or industrially , it is the survival of a feudal handicraft into the age of mechanical reproduction. This is the paradox of autonomisation as a process which eliminates the human from the work of Art, for as the human is refused as content, so it becomes the guarantee of aura, as mechanical reproduction becomes ever more efficient so what cannot be reproduced becomes ever more fetishized, which is to say that the humanity of the Artist becomes fetishized as the referent of the aura.