"I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study
mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and
philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture,
navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children
a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary,
tapestry and porcelain." ~ John Adams
We just finished celebrating labor day here in the USA.
Labor groups have been much maligned the last few decades. Some of the criticism is just but a lot of it is not. With labor groups weakening we are seeing a return to pre-1920 work ideas. Almost gone are the 8 hour work day and 40 hour work week. Gone is the idea you get paid an hourly wage in some industries like entertainment and gaming.
What has this got to do with art you might ask? Well everything. Labor movements of the last few centuries took their cues from the artisan guilds that started during medieval times and led to the renaissance for arts and European society. It wasn't quick, or without suffering but artists were there at the beginning.
Before the guilds you had very few classes of people in Europe. You had the ruling class, the clergy, the military class and serfs or slaves. Serfs were beholden to their masters and their masters could do what they wanted with them. They were expected to do everything to provide their masters with leisure time. It became obvious though that some serfs were better at building things than others, some were better at painting or pot making than others. Some had greater skill at metallurgy or woodcraft. The division of labor started to fall along lines of skill but these people were still slaves and when the ruler needed something they stepped to it skilled or not.
Guilds helped to change that. Guilds shifted the power back to the artisans who had unique knowledge that gave them skill with certain disciplines. Groups of people formed guilds around disciplines to control the quality and the knowledge of a particular craft. The ruling class now hired and paid craft people to produce objects for them. Artisans became a class of people. It elevated them slightly from serfdom and peasantry. Their worth and status was not based on their bloodlines. Though the artists themselves were not revered individually their guild could be and that meant a better life for them and their family.
You worked as an apprentice in a guild under a master to learn to reproduce the master’s work exactly, learning over years to create a “master piece” something indistinguishable from the masters own work in the eyes of the patrons. Once this was accomplished an artisan could with his masters blessing then start another guild and continue the legacy of quality and style.
Guilds continued to elevate classes of people as society moved from small fiefdoms of slaves to freemen that were allowed to own property and control their own destinies. Again art and artisans led the way for this. As artists sought more control and expression over what they made the ideas of guilds loosened. Artists had more freedom for innovation and experimentation and this flowering of shared knowledge helped support the renaissance. Artists were elevated to some of the highest levels of society as court artists, portrait painters, musicians, architects and muralists.
Every century brought greater freedom and a better standard of living for more people. Whenever things reversed and society faltered, groups of people would band together for their common interests and demand fair treatment. The more skilled they were the more leverage they had over their place in society since their abilities could not easily be replaced.