Hierarchy of genres, hierarchy of materials

I’ve been thinking about the old-fashioned rules for art materials this week, but I can’t quite remember the list from art history, nor can I quite seem to find the right search terms for it. I did manage to find the hierarchy of genres on Wikipedia. The idea is that the best paintings are of allegorical and historical scenes. Lesser subject matters are portraiture, landscape, and finally still life.

But there’s a parallel set of rules for what you make the art from: bronze or marble is the best for sculpture, followed by other stones, followed by plaster or wax or wood. Oil painting is better than watercolor, ink is better than charcoal.

Like the white-after-labor-day rule, the art hierarchy rules barely matter now they go back to the 18th century French academy and the formation of the discpline of art history, and they’ve been toppled and challenged and explored by every generation of artists since 1850. Besides, they fail to take into account things like video art, electronic prints, lithographs…

But on the other hand, the old rules still matter at least a little. And without being formalized, they’re still part of the air and they still influence the way people feel about art. A handmade photo print with silver emulsion is somehow better than a computer print, even if they appear identical. You’ll find acrylic paint in the official canon (that is, H. W. Janson’s History of Art— see Barnett Newman, for one) but oils are still the tool for most “serious” painting. And you certainly won’t find a lot of airbrush or spraypaint art in galleries, a few representatives of street culture notwithstanding. If your drawing is pencil instead of loose charcoal, it might not look different, but it’s different. And when you say pen-and-ink, you better not mean ballpoint.

I’m not sure why I’m saying this or where I’m going with it so I’ll stop now.

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