Museums and Modernity: Art Galleries and the Making of Modern Culture

By Nick Prior | Go to book overview

4
Stirrings of the Modern: Art, Civil
Society and the Scottish
Enlightenment

At this point I want to effect a subtle change in the tempo and detail of the argument in order to focus on a particular case study – that of Scotland. Not, perhaps, the most visible or alluring of cases to choose: its national gallery, founded in 1851, did not ascend in spasms of revolutionary fervour; nor was it the glorious monument of a centralised state with an ideological script and patterns of individual conduct to marshall. The developmental trajectory of exhibitionary cultures in Scotland was, instead, relatively distinct and convoluted. Like Scotland itself, a nation sans état, the National Gallery of Scotland oscillated between sociopolitical dependence and cultural autonomy. And yet this is precisely what makes the Scottish case so fascinating – its location between local conditions of cultural production (as informed by the Reformation, the Scottish Enlightenment and Romanticism) and wider trends towards modern nation-building and bourgeois society. Focusing on Scotland, in other words, adds purchase to understanding the development of national art galleries because of its unique historical configuration. It is, indeed, often only by reflecting on the ‘marginal’ or ‘difficult’ cases that we are able to fully understand the nature of the core phenomenon.

The next three chapters will be taken up with a substantive analysis of the relationship between refined visual culture and social change in Scotland. The task is to construct a sociological account of the rise of modern structures of artistic production in Scotland's capital. How did a fine-art field, with a fully developed national art gallery, emerge in Edinburgh? What role did the gallery play in articulating or refracting the world-view of the nation's cultural leaders? And what does this say about the relationship between Scotland's social structure and its visual arts?

The investigation begins, in this chapter, with some historical background material on early modern Scotland and the cultural catalyst that was the Scottish Enlightenment. Chapters 5 and 6 will portray a more detailed socio-genesis of the cultural field in the early nineteenth century and the rise of the National Gallery

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