Artists' Biographies and the Anxieties of National Culture
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Artists' Biographies and the Anxieties of National Culture Julie F. Code// Amid the immense popularity of biographies in the nineteenthcentury , perhaps no single figure was more scrutinized and surveilled than the artist who was represented in every biographical form: press interviews, expensive two-volume family biographies, and serialized biographies. In an 1856 statement defending the popular mania for artists' biographies, TheArtJournalcalled artists "public property," who as such deserved public scrutiny of their works, the "sanctity" of their homes, and the "solitude" of their studios.1 Artists' biographies derived many of their features from their antecedents, the series and "libraries" of great authors and literary classics that appeared beginning in the 1770s. Like these literary series, art series were promoted as self-improvement vehicles to help readers familiarize themselves with their own national culture.2 Malcolm Bell, one of the most popular biographers, explained the genre's vogue as due to increased leisure for learning among the general populace.3 Bell argued that art was a means to assure the improvement of the race and thus provided a public good for the nation (Bell, 1910, 2). The producers of that public good rose to become national heroes and icons, but their former associations with Bohemianism and degeneracy made them suspect and thus in need of public scrutiny and domestication which biographies offered. Between 1880 and 1914, there were at least sixty-two art and architecture series, mostly biographies, but also historical, critical, and technical books. Victorian artists were juxtaposed with and interposed among Italian and English Old Masters, creating a popular canon by association and accumulation that argued for progress and British Victorian Review (2001) J. Codell culture as the culmination of the greatness of the past. Serialized biographies bore tides that ranged from the grand - "The Makers of British Art" (Walter Scott Co.), "Illustrated Biographies of Great Artists " (Sampson Low, Marston), "Masterpieces in Colour" (T. C. and E. C.Jack) - to the cozy - "Popular Library of Art" (Duckworth), "Litde Books on Art" (Methuen), and "Miniature Series of Painters" (George Bell). While series generally served overarching functions of defining and legitimating national culture, there were differences among series and also within series. Scholars and journalists wrote biographies for the same series at a time when the distinction between the popular biography and the scholarly monograph had not yet emerged. Volumes within single series varied widely in style, accuracy, popularization, and arguments about art's morality and commerce and the didactic identification of the artist's character with the artwork's merit. These debates were widely disseminated through a range of series' prices and sizes intended for an economic spectrum of middle- and working-class readers.4 Versions of the same book would appear recycled in both cheap and expensive editions.5 The popularity of Victorian artists' biographies as part of a larger process of acculturation of the middle- and working-classes coincided with a growing obsession over national identity, itself shaped and defined through emerging cultural canons of art and literature under construction through these same series. In biographies, artists and the public mirrored each other through mass-produced images of artists' bodies, homes, studios, families, and their most well known works accompanying many texts. The French critic Robert de la Sizeranne in English ContemporaryArtdescribed the nationalism peculiar to English art which was popularly treated as "the outcome of national life and national thought," unlike its treatment on the Continent (La Sizeranne, 1898, 318). La Sizeranne noted that English art was central to the formation of Englishness and related concepts of history , progress, and cultural superiority. Other cultural institutions fashioning modern national unity and identity included Mechanics' Institutes, museums and galleries, a wide-ranging art press, and a voluminous trade in cheap prints. volume 27 number 1 Artists' Biographies Theodor Adorno's and Max Horkheimer's concept of "culture industry" stresses mass culture's subjugation to the organizational principles and values of industrial capitalism, which directed "standardization and mass production, sacrificing . . . distinction between the logic of the work and that of the social system" (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1993, 30-31). Artists' biographies constituted a culture industry. They regulated artists' personae through performative repetitions of social and professional norms, homogenizing individuals into...


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