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Allegory & Narrative

September 24, 2010

“Innocence Prefers Love to Riches”

 Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, circa 1804, oil on canvas, Museum of AIC

This is a neat little painting; it is very small from 8” x 10” to 9” x 12” or so in size.  It seems so very 19th Century not only in that the characters have the imagined Romanesque clothing and mythological overtones but in that this is an allegorical painting.  Allegory is out of favor these days; I can’t think of a living artist that does allegorical work, if you know of one please contact me.  I checked dictionary.com for the definition of allegory which was listed as

        “a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms; figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another.”

Allegory is probably out of favor because its focus is moralizing.  One of the biggest debates in art history for centuries, particularly from Immanuel Kant to present day, is whether or not art should be moral.

Every time I think that debate has faded from relevance, some artist does something inflammatory to the general public which brings the debate back into popular circulation.  People will think art is fine and dandy until a Robert Mapplethorpe or Andres Serrano puts out something the general public gets riled up over and intones you can’t do that.  Whatever the forbidden “that” may be to the objector, it is an indicator of a new round of morality in art debates.  This is particularly interesting in America, where the freedom of speech and expression laws are very clear; so people will debate that an artist can do that legally but to do so is or was immoral, unethical or repulsive.

I wonder what will spark off morality and ethics debates in the future for a society that is becoming more accustomed to or desensitized from formerly shocking subjects.  If young teenagers can recognize and describe BDSM, then I feel it has gone mainstream.  When the formerly extreme goes mainstream, then what is the new extreme?

This painting makes me think about how much Western culture has changed from the time when an allegorical painting had importance in expressing the virtues of love as superior and more noble than possessing wealth.  What would this artist chosen to extol if he were doing this work today?  I’m too jaded to even imagine what that could possibly be.

Categories: Art History, Uncategorized
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