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'Mere good taste is nothing else but genius without the power of execution': artists as arbiters of taste, 1792-1836

By Patricia Morales


During the transition from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, a sea change took place in the British art world that reflected a general shift in attitude towards the arts. Artists redefined their social status and fought for their criteria to be taken into account, acquiring a new, influential position within the artistic circles, in which the authority of theorists and connoisseurs, amateurs whose approach to the work of art was that of the collector and critic, never the creator, had been so far undisputed.\ud Influenced by new social theories and powerful contemporary cultural movements, and motivated by the success of artists like Hogarth and Reynolds and of the Royal Academy, artists felt encouraged to stand up for and secure their artistic authority. Thus, the increasingly widespread interest in art and aesthetics throughout the eighteenth century culminated in the realisation, on the artists' part, of their importance in such matters; subsequently, the long-debated issue of the dignity of the artist was brought to the forefront and became key in the artistic discourse of turn-of-the-century Britain.\ud We can trace the evolution of the discourse on the authority of artists from Reynolds's idea that a painter can be a gentleman despite being a painter, to Ruskin's humble acceptance, in the prologue to the first volume of Modern Painters, of the necessity to have a practical knowledge of art in order to understand it. It was a veritable revolution in art theory, a 'second renaissance' for the figure of the artist, who until then had been considered a mere craftsman. A whole tradition was being challenged, and the new language artists employed to advance their ideas was not that of theory, but practice

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