Ideas that add up #128

I found myself wondering whether I was just wandering around a huge gallery full of fakes, or shadows, or ghosts of art works. Then I thought…when you see them in their original setting, a lot of other thoughts are taking part in your evaluation. You think: oh, well, it’s very very old, and Michelangelo might have touched this marble. And all that’s quite extraneous of course to what the work of art is, aesthetically speaking. And here, you see just the work, occupying a space, and what the work of art actually is…. So, yeah, it seems to me, to have it severed, cut off from all the extraneous, sentimental ideas of its setting, and its foreign origins, and just to see it as an art work, is what this gallery is valuable for.

Guest reviewer speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Review, Dec 20th, 2014

The cast court at the V&A in London, housing Victorian plaster cast reproductions of famous European statuary and artefacts, has been refurbished and reopened. These are plaster copies which will never have the crowd-pulling power of the original works, not having been “touched by Michelangelo” etc, but which carry authentic historical pedigree of their own and promise the observer pure access to aesthetic magic, uncluttered by the emotional entanglements of the Duomo and the Parthenon.

Direct access — this generally seems to be the warrant for hefting art out of its earlier, religious context and into the airy, unconsecrated spaces of our post-Enlightenment museums and galleries. 

Interesting to speculate, though, whether the sacred function is actually art’s core attribute, even when diminished by removal to a museum setting. I’m thinking of icons which don’t so much portray holiness as embody it — vehicles for raw, supernatural power, expected to bless, heal and elevate the observer. A faint echo of that power is still discernible in every glossy poster of a Van Gogh painting, in the overnight Banksy that appears on the wall beside the goods entrance of a supermarket, and in Tracy’s unmade bed. 

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