As I wrote, in Painting (6) SOCIETIES STABILIZE AROUND WORLDVIEWS, the turning point between the age of the gods and the modern times has been engendered as a direct consequence of increased trade combining with the newly discovered desire for luxuries, by the aristocracy and then the new rich, that had been stirred at the contact of more advanced societies during the crusades.
"The values and ideas of the aristocracy and the new rich merchants have mutated.
They now search to establish as rights what their newly found material wealth can buy and individual ownership becomes the center of their discourse. Owning a richly decorated mansion gives them the sense of being different from the masses and this newly found perception of a differentiation infuses their minds with the illusion of their particularism, of the importance of their individualities. The aristocracy and the new rich merchants are driving the new fashion of the day and individualism and private ownership will ultimately take center stage in the European social and political game. "
This shifting of the worldview of the Europeans towards MODERNITY occurred over a few centuries. Three periods characterize that evolution:
- Early modernity: 14th-19th centuries.
- Modernity: 20th century
- Late modernity: 1975-2020 (arbitrary setting only for the purpose of facilitating the visualization of history on the move)
Early modernity (14th-19th centuries)
1. 14th-15th centuries:
Everything starts with the aristocracy and rich merchants of France, Flanders and the Italian city-states whose desires have been fired, during the crusades, by their envy for the richnesses of Middle-Easterners. This small group will gradually expand geographically towards England, Spain, the German Lander and the Northern countries. Trade will establish an early network of relations from the British Isles, through France, the Italian city-states to the Middle-East and the financial instruments of trade will impulse this network to adopt the logic of capital as the driving understanding between its members.
The clergy will consume the same goods transported through trade but will also acquire new sources of knowledge from the Greek classics and the works published by the Muslim universities. The first areas of activity that will be influenced by this influx of knowledge are the activities of the clergy itself. Clergymen are indeed the only ones who are literate and they'll apply the lessons learned from their reading first and foremost to their own activities :
- Creating the message and enriching the creed: priests philosophers will try to adapt the Christian vision to the new ideas they read about. Thomas d'Aquin, the greatest among them, has linked Aristotelianism with the Christian philosophy inherited from saint Augustine and defends the idea that creed and reason cannot contradict because they both originate from God.
- Diffusing the creed to the flock of followers: painting and sculpture are playing a decisive role as instruments for spreading the Christian worldview and they will thus be the first activities to benefit from newly gained knowledge. The Greek ratios and Muslim scholars' mathematics are going to efface a thousand years of conceptions about time and space. Visual artists will be asked to absorb the lessons recently gained by the clergy in new commands of works to adorn the walls of churches. Gradually artists will produce the forms expressing the spirit of the new age. Giotto is the first to represent a scene from a stationary point of viewing representing an instant of reality, a snapshot, rendered in three dimensions. Piero della Francesca later introduced shades in zones of the image that had been left out of the path of light.
Displayed in sacred objects of veneration (paintings) the spirit of the new age diffuses slowly within whole the social body. A new vision of Space, time, light and the the logic that is inherent to capital is starting to take roots. The church will react and eliminate all deviances from the canon of the creed but it will be overwelmed by the new worldview in the shaping.
2. 16th-19th centuries.
The initial small volume trade in luxuries results in intensifying greed and desires and the will grows to discover new lands to plunder. The logic of capital brings capital holders to pull their means in big stock-companies established for the conquest of new lands that will procure them gold, silver and precious stones. As a result of the discovery of the Americas Europe will be inundated, in the 16th century, under an avalanche of gold and silver transiting through Spain. The newly gained richness of Spain is envied all over Europe. In a first time, English, French and other privateers and pirates will loot the loaded Spanish ships on their way back from the Americas. In a second time, the capital accumulated through piracy will be invested in new stock-companies to undertake the conquest and plunder of ever more lands. Asia is the next on the list that will give economic dominance to the Dutch from 1600 to 1750. Bankrupt the Dutch East-India Company will be succeeded by the English East-India company that will be one of the most potent instruments giving Britain a world empire for the next 150-200 years.
The story of capital is foremost the story of its logic. Accumulation of capital and profit generation is engendering gradual cultural shifts:
- The capital owners want establish the principle of their difference with the mass of the people and this ultimately materializes in the building of mansions and castles that have then to be filled with luxuries. Mirrors, tapestries, paintings, sculptures are the most important commodities to be produced in the 16th and 17th centuries and France will establish its cultural hegemony through its State Manufactures churning out such luxuries at the attention of the European aristocracy.
Until then paintings had been used as illustrations of the Christian creed that became sacred once they made it to the walls of a church. This sacrality of paintings will be hitchhiked by the new rich. They want this sacrality to reflect upon their own. They want their new values and ideas to be immortalized and thus their local landscapes and their portraits, they think rightly I must add, will be perceived as containing something of the sacred character of the paintings hanging on the walls of churches and cathedrals. This is a crucial turning point in Western painting. Till then painting had been a craft exercised by image makers who were poorly paid which shows how little appreciation they were recognized by their society. With the secularization of their works, in the mansions of the new rich, painters at once were recognized a status of exceptionality that continues to this very day.
- Paintings were coming to be seen as sacred displays of the veneration of the spirit of the new age and thus the Greek ratios, Muslim mathematics and astronomy, that painters tried to emulate metaphorically on their canvas, became a central source of inspiration for the early generation of scientists. Physicists as Leibnitz and Newton started experimenting with the rays of light two centuries after Piero della Francesca. In those days science and technology are not a systematic affair as today. Chance and necessity are the most important guides of the thinkers of the day.
By the end of the 18th century the flow of gold and commodities into Europe had taken such proportions that the whole of society was under its spell. At the center of dominance Britain received much gold, from the less advanced colonial territories from America and Africa, that was used to purchase the commodities that Asian nations were rich of. Only gold and silver were accepted as means of payment in Asia for the good reason that Europe had nothing to sell that interested Asians... Along the 18th century the situation was such that Britain had to disburse most of its reserves to pay for its imported goods. Necessity and opportunity combined. Spinning and weaving techniques allowed for very cheap productions in Britain self and political power forbade the Indian cotton weavers to weave cotton locally any longer. The raw material had now to be imported into Britain and cheap mechanically woven British cotton fabric and other cotton commodities as socks were then exported back to India. This mercantile policy, combining with technical advances in the processing of cotton, built the first marches towards mass marketization that would in turn unleash a huge demand for steel, machinery, faster transportation and distance communication.
The story of the 19th century is the story of all those novelties coming together. For the first time in their history, with trains, humans could go faster than the gallop of a horse, for the first time they could communicate at a distance through the telegraph.
All those changes impacted on traditionally slow moving societies and resulted in a deep cultural shock that is best observed in the paintings of Van Gogh and his fellow innovative painters.