Transformative Beauty: Art Museums in Industrial Britain

Transformative Beauty: Art Museums in Industrial Britain

Transformative Beauty: Art Museums in Industrial Britain

Transformative Beauty: Art Museums in Industrial Britain

Synopsis

Why did British industrial cities build art museums? By exploring the histories of the municipal art museums in Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester, Transformative Beauty examines the underlying logic of the Victorian art museum movement. These museums attempted to create a space free from the moral and physical ugliness of industrial capitalism. Deeply engaged with the social criticism of John Ruskin, reformers created a new, prominent urban institution, a domesticated public space that not only aimed to provide refuge from the corrosive effects of industrial society but also provided a remarkably unified secular alternative to traditional religion. Woodson-Boulton raises provocative questions about the meaning and use of art in relation to artistic practice, urban development, social justice, education, and class. In today's context of global austerity and shrinking government support of public cultural institutions, this book is a timely consideration of arts policy and purposes in modern society.

Excerpt

In 1885, James McNeill Whistler gave a brilliant and caustic speech attacking the then-pervasive habit of understanding art as a means to an end: “the people have acquired the habit of looking, as who should say, not at a picture, but through it, at some human fact, that shall, or shall not, from a social point of view, better their mental, or moral state.” Indeed, late-nineteenth-century civic reformers used this idea of art as the experience of its subject matter to support art galleries as part of a profound reimagining of their industrial cities. Alongside libraries, schools, town halls, sanitation works, drainage systems, food inspection, and the panoply of state-sponsored reactions to industrialization, municipal art museums and galleries of contemporary art became a fixture of city life. Inspired by social critics such as John Ruskin, who connected aesthetics and ethics, middleclass civic leaders worked to rectify the moral and physical ugliness of industrial capitalism through access to art. As Whistler complained, “Beauty is confounded with Virtue, and, before a work of Art, it is asked, ‘What good shall it do?’”

A generation later, this understanding of a purposive social role for art persisted, predicated on looking “through” paintings: for example, in 1911, Professor Michael Sadler gave a lecture to the Royal Manchester Institution, which in 1883 had given its building and collection to the city to become the Manchester City Art Gallery. Sadler was an important art collector and professor of education at the University of Manchester; in various posts from Oxford to Calcutta, he developed an internationally influential, sociological approach to education. In this talk, “Pictures in a Great City,” he explored the relationships between urban space, nature, art, and beauty, with particular reference to the city art museum in Manchester. Sadler understood the art collection in terms of its urban location: “Those who live in Manchester have their sense sharpened for the beauty and refreshment of unspoiled landscape. We are hungry for it. Through separation from it, we understand what it means to us. And the pictures in the gallery reveal its delights and prepare us for a deeper delight in it.” For Sadler, the city was defined by separation from the beauty of nature, and while some could— . . .

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