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CfP: The Art of the Poor in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance

Monday, June 19, 2017   (0 Comments)

The art history of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance has generally been written as a story of elites: bankers, noblemen, kings, cardinals, and popes and their artistic interests and commissions. Recent decades have seen attempts to recast the story in terms of material culture and include a wider range of objects than are discussed in the traditional surveys of painting, sculpture and architecture, but the focus has not fundamentally shifted away from the upper strata of society. One otherwise excellent publication following this new approach even states confidently that ‘there was no such thing as poor man’s art in the Renaissance.’

There are, however, countless modest images, decorated objects and buildings across Europe that belie this notion, from lead and tin pilgrims’ badges in the Museum of London to frescoed churches commissioned by village communities during the Venetian period on Crete. These works of art were made for the more than 95% of the population who were economically less privileged: peasants, unskilled and skilled workers in the building and manufacturing industries, small-time artisans. They are works that tend not to enter the major art museums and exhibitions of the western world, or feature prominently in tourist guide books; they can be found in museums of urban history and archaeology and the closest they come to mingling with ‘real’ art is in shows with an anthropological approach, such as ‘the art of devotion.’ If they are discussed in artistic terms at all, these are often negative: ‘coarse’; ‘crude’; ‘primitive’; or ‘provincial’. There is also a common assumption that such objects did not have artistic traditions of their own but were always derived from the shining examples made by famous artists for the rich.

This conference aims to challenge these perceptions. For the first time, ‘the art of the poor’ will be given centre stage. Through a variety of case studies, objects, their functions and manufacturing traditions will be re-evaluated and established aesthetic judgements and tacit assumptions in scholarship re-examined. The conference will seek to give impetus to a new field combining the expertise of urban archaeologists, historians, historical anthropologists, and art historians. This field, different from general studies of material culture in that its principal object is ‘art’, can help us re-assess the very concept of ‘art’ and its function in society, neither of which can be understood properly without taking into account the broadest range of artistic activity. Topics for papers may include, but are not limited to:

  • Art forms made for people with lower incomes, e.g. decorations of village and small parish churches, pilgrims’ souvenirs, woodcuts, decorated ceramics, drinking glasses, textiles, costume, modest paintings and sculptures
  • The iconography of images for the poor
  • The ‘art market’ of the poor, including manufacturing traditions, vending of artefacts, (collective) commissions, second-hand retail
  • Relevant aspects of social history, e.g. income levels and purchasing power, records of transactions or possessions, anecdotal evidence from literary sources, visual evidence from paintings, manuscript illuminations and other images
  • Relations between the art of the poor and more upmarket artistic manufacture
  • The historiography (or lack of it) of the art of the poor
  • Relevant finds in urban archaeology, relevant aspects of museum collections

Papers by early career scholars are particularly welcome. The aim is for the conference proceedings to be published. Papers are restricted to 25 mins. Please send a short abstract and a brief CV to rembrandt.duits@sas.ac.uk by 28 July 2017.


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