Throughout most of human history, the artist was an anonymous figure. We have records of credited sculptors and architects from classical grecian times, but only a handful since most artists were still unnamed. It was not until the Renaissance that artists began to receive regular credit for their work, although this was the case only amongst the elite members of society as they were the patrons and connoisseurs of art. Museums and galleries had existed during the Roman Empire and, starting in the 18th and 19th centuries, several opened throughout Europe. They continue to provide a way of bringing fine art to the people today. Unfortunately, despite the availability of this method of fine arts viewing, museums were widely considered to be a mode of entertainment reserved for people of a higher class who sought to display their collections amongst their peers. It could be argued that public recognition towards artists really began in the 19th century, with the rise of the middle class and people who could afford to buy works of fine art. Therefore, it is only since rather recently that the artist as an individual had a role in the public eye.
Roman-era fresco in Villa Livia, near Rome built 39 BC
Canonical Renaissance artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael were well known among the nobility of their times but turned into figures from history books whose works would never be seen firsthand by most. The first artists who were truly in the attention of the wider public were those of the 19th century. While the Romantics would be well known in the traditional art scenes, it was the second half of the 19th century that really made the artist known to the public. The Impressionists were an example of a scandalous group who were barred from conventional art schools and exhibitions, making a name for themselves while continuing to paint controversial subjects such as prostitutes and dancers. The Pre-Raphaelites premiered works considered blasphemous. Artists’ names were brought into a wider range of homes as either respectable classical figures deserving of study and emulation, or as shocking examples of la vie bohème.
Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880 by Pierre Auguste Renoir
With the 20th century and especially the post-war period came a generation of artists of great acclaim who were public figures and received accreditation as such. Pablo Picasso used to pay for restaurant bills with doodles on napkins that have been valued at as much as £20,000 in auctions (via The Guardian). The restaurant Serendipity 3 in Manhattan is famous largely for its regular patronage of Andy Warhol. Mark Rothko was even invited to sit next to Joseph Kennedy at an event held by John F. Kennedy during his presidency. It was in this time that artists became icons in a post-war world where the highest levels of society became intermingled with newly-monied individuals like film stars, musicians, and artists. While it was still not necessarily a reputable profession, being an artist of some modicum of success meant more public exposure through the lenses of journalism, television, and film. Fine art and the artist himself became a widespread commercial commodity.
Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger photographed in a restaurant, 1977
Nowadays we have figures like Anish Kapoor or Damien Hirst, who are well known in the art world and beyond, with works collected and exhibited globally, a sizable income and creative infrastructures resembling more of an industry than the easel painting ideal of Impressionist times. Conversely there are also figures like Banksy, whose works have immense value on the market while the artists themselves maintain anonymity. While these artists and others have achieved fame, today with social media and the rise of art fairs there is a shift in how art is accessible to people. For instance, Yayoi Kusama’s works are popular as immersive installations and environments where people’s interactions with the piece become a part of the artworks themselves (such as her Obliteration Room) or that are very aesthetically interesting from a photographic and Instagram perspective, such as her Infinity Mirrors. Another example is Chris Burden’s Urban Light at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – a famous sight in films and in museum visitors’ phone photo-galleries.
Singer Adele performs inside Infinity Mirrored Room by Yayoi Kusama in 2016
The age of technology that we live in is reflected by the increasing number of artists who create bodies of work easily adaptable to a computer or phone platform. Art has always been dependent on the viewer’s interpretation – and now more so than ever. With increasing trends in immersive and digital art, the audience themselves joins the artist in the creation of the piece, negating the primary importance of the initial creator. While artists continue to receive acclaim, in the digital age a new way to recognise works has emerged, allowing artists a new freedom to exhibit themselves in an entirely new platform.