Friday, 3 November 2017

A Barbarian in the Church of Art

In Paris for five days, I visited four art galleries. No big deal; that's the same as the number of restaurants I ate in. It's what you do, isn't it, when visiting Paris, or Florence, or anywhere that looms large on the cultural map? It's what I do, anyway, along with the thousands of others queueing for tickets, and walking the parquet floors in an arted-out trance. Cultural heritage is big business.

But, art... It may be big, but it's a funny old business, too, isn't it? At some point in the 18th century, painting and certain allied trades began to throw off the label of mere "decorative crafts" and became the focus of a new but ill-defined set of attitudes in European society around talent and individual genius, and also of certain yearnings towards transcendence that were, at about the same time, shaking themselves free from religion. Like paper money, works of art by bankable names came to be regarded as objects that embodied certain values greater than themselves, and – for as long as that faith and bankability remained good – assigned a monetary value that far exceeded the net worth of their actual canvas and paint or billable hours of labour. To own a Rembrandt and to be Rembrandt were rather different things.

Arted out

This revaluation was applied retrospectively to works made in the past, so that former jobbing painters became "artists", and were ranked according to their relative endowment of "genius". Thus, painting acquired both a history and a hierarchy, the administration and authentication of which inevitably gave rise to a new priesthood. As a consequence, although the great galleries of Britain and France are, essentially, bank vaults for the trophies brought home from abroad by aristocrats on their Grand Tours or looted by their invading armies, they function more like churches of art. We tourists shuffle reverently from chapel to chapel within the great cathedrals of art such as the Louvre, mentally genuflecting before, say, the Mona Lisa, although we may often be as baffled by the unspeaking physical actuality* of such a famous painting as any peasant hoping for a few intimate words of advice or comfort from the Virgin Mary.

Almost a perfect "Mona Lisa selfie scrum" picture...
Can you believe that guy's bag? And can you see
 anyone looking at the damn picture?
Sadly, it's not as sharp as I'd like.

On the evidence of the Uffizi in Florence last summer, and the Louvre this year, such world-famous paintings actually serve mainly as ticks on a bucket-list, or as a backdrop for a selfie, on a par with the Eiffel Tower or standing in front of an impassive sentry at Buckingham Palace. If you want to know where the Big Pictures are just follow the crowd; the rest are just handy space-fillers to spread the Big Ones out a bit. And let me be perfectly honest: I wouldn't care in the slightest if 80-90% of the paintings in the Louvre were stolen tonight (you'll be needing a very big van). I wouldn't contribute one Euro to the ransom. Much as I love the enamelled perfection of a mediaeval altarpiece, I have no interest whatsoever in the repetitive, unimaginative, grandiose, post-Renaissance art that occupies wall after wall after wall. It puts me in mind of the racks of suits, shirts, and ties in Marks & Spencer: nothing here for me, let's move on.

Priestess and worshippers

Obviously, most of us lack the education or background to evaluate or distinguish one royal portrait, martyrdom, Annunciation, or Ovidian transformation from another. I certainly do, and I'm pretty sure that the ever-increasing numbers of gallery visitors from the Far East have about the same grasp of Christian or Classical iconography as the typical western tourist has of those of Angkor Wat or the Todaiji Temple. Although we are free to simply pick out the bits we like and ignore the rest – and I do – you can feel rather like a barbarian stripping the gold and prising out the jewelled eyes of a Byzantine statue. But the only alternative (apart from doing lots of homework) is to take the value and relative merits of what is on display as a matter of faith and, on balance, I'm a happy barbarian: I reject your faith but I have a use for that gold and those jewelled eyes!

This matter of faith is most sorely tested when standing before (or, increasingly, inside) the more baffling manifestations of contemporary art, but that will have to be another post.

Nice frame! I can see a use for that...
(N.B. would you believe this is by Raphael?)

And nice devils! Ditto...

* This is where the audio guide comes in... Only an extra 10 Euros!


amolitor said...

Perhaps when the tulips went bust, the money had to find a new place to roost and settled on art! I dare say the priesthood has some detailed commentaries on this, if one cared to take a break from prying rubies loose and look around.

Meanwhile, can you hand me the large sledgehammer?

Mike C. said...

Certainly there will have been a connection with the rise of mercantile capital -- there always is...

Mind how you swing that thing!