Monday, March 15, 2010


The Metropolitan Museum of Art currently has a small exhibition entitled "Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Collage." It contains charming examples of photocollages by a number of aristocratic ladies, including Alexandra, Princess of Wales; Victoria Alexandria Anderson-Pelham, Countess of Yarborough; and Constance Sackville-West.

The works combine photographic cutouts of humans or animals in fanciful landscapes or ordinary domestic settings that have been rendered in beautifully executed watercolors. The exhibit made me think of Goethe and Schiller's writing on dilettantism, which addresses the subject of "amateur art," especially as practiced by ladies.

According to Michael Niedermeier, who wrote the entry on dilettantism for the Goethe-Handbuch, "dilettante" was coined in the Italian Renaissance to distinguish the connoisseur of art from the "professional" artist. The term only began to have a negative connotation in the late 18th century. As part of this critical evaluation Goethe wrote a short epistolary novel in 1798 entitled Der Sammler und die Seinigen (The Collector and His Circle). The letters characterize different responses to art and contain a criticism of amateur art, especially the mixing of media, the tendency to naturalism, and subjectivism. Shortly after it was published, Goethe and Schiller began to plan a larger treatise on the subject, which remained fragmentary, however, and was published (as "Über den Dilettanismus") only after they had both died.

On this subject, Rüdiger Safranski notes in this book on the Goethe-Schiller friendship that amateur art (or, in German, Laienkunst) was widespread in aristocratic and bourgeois circles. Watercolors, papercuts, versifying, singing, acting in amateur performances -- everyone was being "artistic." Goethe's Iphigenie was first performed in the Weimar court theater made up of non-professionals, including the young duke Carl August. Goethe, when he went to Italy in 1786, still wasn't sure whether he would be a writer or an artist; in other words, he was still trying to find himself, as we would say today. He had drawing instruction from Tischbein and others while in Italy and discovered that he was not an artist, but an amateur. (See example below, executed in Pozzuoli in 1787.)

This immersion in art, however, and the exposure to classical and Renaissance art made him think more seriously about the aims of art. When he had returned to Weimar and became, in 1790, the director of the theater there, he became much more professional about the business of acting. By 1796, part of the "classical" program of art that he and Schiller were developing was concerned with the objective rules of art and with the training and attitudes that distinguished "real" artists (which would include literary artists) from those who were only playing at being ones.

Here are some of their thoughts on the subject (in the translation of Ellen and Ernest von Nardroff):

The dilettante always shies away from serious study, avoids acquiring essential knowledge in order just to practice, and confuses art and subject matter. Thus, one will never find a dilettante who draws well. If he did draw well, he would be on the path to art. ... Precisely because most dilettantes lack a true concept of art, they prefer quantity and mediocrity, the unusual and costly to what is select and god. Many dilettantes have large collections. We might even say that all large collections owe their existence to dilettantes. For the dilettante's desire to collect, particularly when supported by great wealth, usually deteriorates into an obsession to amass as much as he can. He wants only to possess, not to select judiciously, and be satisfied with less, but of good quality. ...

Art creates its own laws and sets the standards of the time; dilettantism follows the trends of the time. ...

Toying with the serious and important corrupts man. [The dilettante] skips some levels, lingers on others, which he regards as goals, and he thinks he is justified in judging the whole from this vantage point, thus hindering his advancement. ...

All dilettantes are essentially plagiarists. They undermine and destroy all natural beauty in language and thought by mimicking and aping it in order to cover up their own vacuity.

By the time this was written there were many women who wrote and painted and performed. Helen Fronius, in her book Women and Literature in the Goethe Era, writes that Schiller and Goethe saw a connection between dilettantism and the presence of women in the literary scene. At the same time they acted as mentors to certain women, e.g., the poet Amalie von Imhoff, pictured here in a charming portrait miniature, an artistic genre that certainly must be included in the ranks of amateur arts. Indeed, the Metropolitan devoted a rather large exhibition and catalogue to painted miniatures several years ago.

1 comment:

Amelia said...

Hi! Great post. Do you think Goethe's view of dilettantism was shaped by his encounter with William Hamilton in Naples?