Art is Social: ‘The Visible Meaning of a Good Picture’

Professor Janet Wolff
27th September 2017, 7:30pm
Manchester Conference Centre (Sackville Street)

The above quotation is from art historian Lawrence Gowing, objecting to John Berger’s interpretation of Thomas Gainsborough’s painting, Mr and Mrs Andrews. Berger asked why the painting had been commissioned, and suggested motives other than aesthetic ones: ‘They are landowners and their proprietary attitude towards what surrounds them is visible in their stance and their expressions’.  This provocative statement, in Berger’s landmark 1972 BBC series, ‘Ways of Seeing’, turned out to be a formative and influential intervention in art history and art criticism.


The conventional notion of the history of modern Western art is as a sequence of styles and movements: Realism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism and Abstract Art.  The story is also typically told as a chronology of great artists, each of them achieving a kind of revolution in art: Monet, Cézanne, Picasso, Mondrian and on to Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. In recent years, this linear account of ‘great movements’ and ‘great artists’ has been supplemented – and to some extent questioned – by sociologists and social historians of art, who have shown that it is not possible to understand aesthetic developments without paying attention to social factors: contracts and commissions, museums and galleries, dealers and critics, and so on.  This talk will consider the difference a social history of art has made to the story of art in the modern period, and what the implications might be for perennial questions of beauty, value and aesthetic taste.


Note regarding AGM

Please note that this is no longer the date for the AGM. This has been rearranged to precede the lecture on 7 November. If you registered for the AGM before the change, please restate your intention to intend the AGM on the new date. The rest of your original booking for the lecture or lecture and supper on the 27 September will remain valid.


About the Speaker

Janet Wolff is Professor Emerita of Cultural Sociology at the University of Manchester. She returned to Manchester, her home town, in 2006. Before that, she taught at the University of Leeds; the University of Rochester, New York, where she was Director of the Program in Visual and Cultural Studies; and Columbia University, where she was Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the School of the Arts. Her books include The Social Production of Art, Aesthetics and the Sociology of Art, Feminine Sentences, Resident Alien, AngloModern, and The Aesthetics of Uncertainty. Three recent edited volumes are: Traces, Memory and the Holocaust in the Writings of W. G. Sebald (with Jean-Marc Dreyfus); Writing Otherwise (with Jackie Stacey); and Culture in Manchester (with Mike Savage). Her latest book, Austerity Baby, published in June 2017, is a digressive memoir/family history, centred on Jewish experience in England and Germany through the twentieth century.


Image Credit

Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews, c.1750, in the National Gallery


Menu for Supper

Beef bourguignon or baked sea bass with patatas bravas or mature cheddar & red onion pie (v) with a choice of the following sides: steamed new potatoes, steamed market vegetables, pilaf rice

Pear & Almond Frangipan or Chocolate Truffle Torte

N.B. the Lit & Phil office have to inform venues of catering numbers approximately 7 days before an event so please make sure you book as early as possible to avoid disappointment.