The Changing Status of the Artist

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The Changing Status of the Artist
At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the social status of the artist was far below that of those who hired them. According to Michael Baxandall in his book, Painting and Experience in the Fifteenth Century Italy, in the eyes of the social elite—the Catholic Church and the noblemen—that hired them, artists were closer to servants or tradesmen who provided them with goods and services on a “bespoke basis” than creative and independent geniuses. However, as the fifteenth century came to a close society’s view of artists’ began to change. Artists’ skill became increasingly respected by those who wanted to be seen as being aesthetically sensitive, and as such, artists began to rise in the social world. The respect for skill is especially prominent in Giorgio Vasari’s book, The Lives of the Artists, in which the author takes special note of Michelangelo’s genius. The change is especially noticeable between the beginning of the fifteenth century and the middle of the sixteenth century, in which artists began to be seen as masters of their craft instead of simple providers of goods and services, but while Baxandall sees the shift as a mere reaction to cultural and economic forces in which skill became the new commodity, Vasari, an artist himself, sees the master artist as something close to the divine.

According to Baxandall, art in the fifteenth century was a commodity that suited particular personal, social, and commercial purposes depending on the needs of the patron, or whom Baxandall refers to as “client.” The motives of such a “client” can be seen in Giovannni Rucellai, a Florentine merchant Baxandall quotes as saying that patronage of the arts “give him ‘the greatest contentment and the greatest pleasure because they serve the glory of God, the honor of the city, and the commemoration of myself.’” Art then, was created for the pleasure of the people buying them. Art was created on a “bespoke basis,” or made to order,...
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