Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Objects of Veneration: Edward Skidelsky Finds That Aesthetic Appreciation Is a Surprisingly Modern Idea

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Objects of Veneration: Edward Skidelsky Finds That Aesthetic Appreciation Is a Surprisingly Modern Idea

Article excerpt

It seems odd to talk about the "idea" of art. Isn't art a basic human impulse, like eating or making love? Haven't we always told stories, banged drums and decorated walls?

Perhaps, but the idea of art is a recent and rather peculiar innovation. Visit the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and you may see babushkas bowing and crossing themselves before the icons on display. They have failed to realise that these are now works of art, not objects of religious veneration. Nor, presumably, did the fabricators of those masks and fetishes which adorn so many western museums realise that what they were making was sculpture.

It is we who, by removing such objects from their originally functional setting and exhibiting them in galleries, insist on viewing them in a strictly aesthetic light. "Art" is a distinctively modern, western institution, even if the artistic impulse is common to all human beings.

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The word "art" (from the Latin ars) referred originally to any skilled activity (hence "artful" and "arts of war") or to the products of such activity (hence "artefact" and "artificial"). It was not until the 18th century that the so-called fine arts were singled out as the expression of a special "disinterested" attitude to the world, a suspension of our normal desire to possess and consume. We don't rush to the grocer after looking at a still life of apples; we don't (one hopes) rush to the brothel after seeing a nude. …

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