A continuación reproducimos el texto de la comunicación presentada por Antonio URQUÍZAR HERRERA al XVIII ISA World Congress of Sociology de Yokohama:
This paper aims to study the role that collections of art works and other artifacts played in the definition and exhibition of social discourses of legitimacy and differentiation of the social estates.
It pursues an inquiry in the historical roots of our modern notion or art, as well as in the relation of this notion with social profiles.
It is finally focused in Early Modern Europe, using some Spanish examples as case study.
During the last decades, the History of Art has stated that the study of art goes beyond the simple analysis of the art objects to include the examination of the cultural construction of the art works, and to consider, among other issues, their social production and reception.
As it is well known, Early Modern society experienced the birth and spread of the notion of art. This process, which had started in fifteenth century Florence, was first received and then progressively understood as a common belief all around Europe; but it lasted almost four hundred years to become the ideological principle of contemporary civilization that it is in present time.
Court culture and noble collecting played a major role in this process. Noble cabinets and galleries were the place where art objects, such as paintings and sculptures, first were received using narratives that clearly stated its aesthetic nature. However noble cabinets and galleries were places where the aesthetic recognition was also clearly framed by other narratives subjected to social issues.
Pierre Bourdieu’s arguments about taste, distinction and social structure in twentieth century France should be somehow linked to this previous process. The analysis of Early Modern noble collecting can offer sustainable evidence about how modern and contemporary art notions should be historically rooted in cultural habits related to strategies of social legitimacy.
Literature on collections has converged during recent years on the study of the ideological contents of the cabinets and the analysis of the modes of relation between the collected object, the holder and the audience.
Collections have been defined and explained through the existence of narratives that transfigure the nature of the objects, setting new uses and meanings in the context of the gathering.
In this vein, the implementation of social narratives to art, antiquities, and curiosities cabinets can define a sort of social collecting. There were objects that had been collected, as Krzysztof Pomian pointed out, for being visible proof of invisible social hierarchies.
Obviously, in this period objects were gathered in answer to different concerns, and love for the cited antiquities, curiosities and art was not uncommon. Also, alternative interpretations and double addressing discourses were suitable. However, social issues had a recurrent intervention in all kinds of collecting narratives, being indeed the leading discourse in many instances.
Historical sources evidence that the artistic nature of paintings, sculptures, antiques or weapons were perceived in relation to lineage and to the virtues of the houses. While Early Modern Art Theory described noble collections in terms of aesthetics, Early Modern Social Theory, which was closer to the horizon of expectations of both the owners and the public of the collections, explained them in terms of social differentiation.
Noble collections embodied social theory and social legitimacy in gathered objects.
During the last ten years I have been working on the study of this social profile of art collecting using Spanish and French sixteenth and seventeenth case studies. A couple of years ago, I have started attending to the evolution of these historical collections at the end of the Ancien Régime, which is a topic yet unattended by historiography.
Old noble houses transformed their artistic policies in the transition between Early Modern and Modern and Contemporary Europe, as a response to the competition environment due to the new trade and political nobility and other groups climbing the social ladder.
Also these old noble houses had to answer the coincidence with the institutionalization of the new artistic system represented by academies and museums.
All these elements promoted the rearrangement of old collections and the display of new social narratives for their public interpretation. For these reasons the period 1750-1850 is particularly interesting. In my opinion, the tensions and contradictions that appear at the end of the system show a valuable view of its basis and principles.
This aim has been pursued through the analysis of the ideological narratives on collecting deployed by Spanish ancient nobility in this period, focusing on the houses of Osuna, Alba, Medinaceli, Fernán Núñez, Híjar among other families.
These old noble houses had been displaying social narratives through collected objects since 16th century. Portraits, religious and historical paintings, a few masterpieces with acknowledged aesthetic value, weapons and many other different items had been collected, organized and narrated through the ideas of lineage and differentiation of social groups and estates.
The analyses of the reorganization of these collections and their new narratives at the end of the Ancient Régime could offer valuable information about the social profile of these objects and their use as means of social structuration.
Inventories, judicial documentation, familial histories, diaries, press news, travelers’ descriptions and many other sources of different origins allow a comprehensive view on the issue and also give appropriate means to check the possible conclusions.
Three main questions arise in relation to the study of this material:
- How did the emergence of the public sphere and the institutional art system affect the exhibition of art in noble residences?
- Reorganization of collections in parallel to the opening of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Museum and the Prado Museum.
Centralization of the best artistic pieces in the main residences of Madrid. As happened with the Osuna legacy, sometimes the masterpieces were previously scattered in different towns and had to be searched and transferred to Madrid in a process of recognition and evaluation of their artistic value.
Use of aesthetical criteria in the display of the collections. Moving from inventories to catalogues, which imply a different view on art.
- Public opening of the collections, setting fixed days and times for the visitors.
Loans of works to the National Exhibitions.
Discussions of collections, commenting in the press the acquisitions and the selling as a part of an open debate.
- How did the nineteenth century art notion affect the traditional view of noble galleries as collections of social visual signs?
- Changes in the repertories of objects and their narratives. New hierarchies in the collections that reinforced the position of artworks in the wider context of the decorative and symbolic programs where, for instance, weapons and antics were no longer playing the major role that enjoyed before.
- Changes in the right of succession. The procedures for the entailing of collections and their transgenerational lasting as family property were based since 1505 in the mayorazgo, which was a fideicommis, a tail of goods for the eldest son of a family, reserved for noble families.
A basic ground of noble collections was the transgenerational transmission of goods as evidences of the virtues of lineage. Social theory not only offered interpretations for the meaning of objects as portrait, but also provided a social interpretation of the very process of collecting that was closely related to lineage. The idea emphasized the perception of the objects as entailed familial property, and thus favoured the maintenance of the objects in the lineage. Thanks to this trans-generational perpetuation, collected items furnished with genealogical legitimacy became an exemplary support for the transmission of virtues.
The abolition of this law of mayorazgo at the start of the nineteenth century reinforced the dispersion of the collections. Old noble collections maintained many of their old masterpieces as distinctive signs of their familial symbolic capital, but the number of judicial processes related to the end of the mayorazgo, and especially that of the Alba house (which for instance moved Velázquez’s Rockeby Venus to London), evidence the new mobility of artistic goods in the new artistic system.
- What were the consequences of the assertion of the new aesthetic nature of collections for the legitimacy of social mobility?
- Apparently the traditional understanding of collections as signs of nobility was a barrier designed for social closure, but even social authors were aware of the fact that the signs frequently worked as support for inclusion.
On the one hand there was a wish to limit the scope of the signs, in order to point out differences of estate.
On the other hand there was some interest in facilitating ways to acquire these signs, in order to answer the need for legitimacy that newcomers had. In terms of social mobility, signs should be related to the old debate between blood and virtue.
In this context, their narrative potential made them very interesting for social authors. Since visual signs of nobility conveyed cultural content, they contributed to the assimilation of the newcomers and the ideological reproduction of the estate. The narratives on collected items also did so.
- Concurrently, the explosion of interest in art theory in 18th century supported a new framework for art collecting that challenged these previous social narratives that noble theory had supported, which were commonly based in iconography and semantic contents. The descriptions of works of art moved from a narrative nature that stressed iconography to an analytical nature that targeted the formal attributes of the pieces.
Art theory somehow substituted social theory in the provision of narratives of distinction to collecting.
From the art theorists’ scope of interest, taste and the appreciation of style started to become a sign of noble virtue in itself. Although this change was the result of an academic debate, it reached the emerging audience of noble connoisseurs.
This new aesthetic perception of art collections cut the thread of lineage and moved away from the exhibition of the virtues of the ancestors.
At the same time, old noble collections lost a great share of their previous public interest in competition with the more progressive collections of emergent social groups.
The process was to be slow but in the long run this shift had relevant consequences for the social role of collections in the ideological reproduction of the estate
In the modern system of art, simple artistic conciousness entails social legitimacy, as Bourdieu proposed. Lineage went away with the social retreat of nobility in modern times, but their understanding of the social shape of the art notion remained.