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

By Nick Prior | Go to book overview

5
The Birth of the National Gallery
of Scotland, 1800–59

In the pursuance of their own interests, several key institutions struggle over the stakes of the art field in the early nineteenth century. The outcome of these struggles is the foundation of the National Gallery of Scotland in 1851. The objective of this chapter is to unravel the specific conflicts at work within the artistic field and point to the elementary economic, cultural and social conditions which underpinned the foundation of the gallery. I hope to reveal key transformations in the morphology of the fine-art field in Edinburgh between 1800 and 1859, reconstructing the shape of the field through an analysis of the position-takings of the most influential institutions. For as Bourdieu (1993) indicates, the structure of any field is dependent both on the internal distribution of possible positions and on the social characteristics of the agents occupying them. That is to say, the structure of the field at any given time is firmly reliant on the oppositions, combinations and altercations of the constituting agents or systems of agents.

Here, Bourdieu uses the notion of force-field to characterise the artistic field as a locus of struggles between agents who use the force of their capital to maintain or improve their position within the field. Agents possessed of specific capabilities (or in Bourdieu's terminology, a sum of capital, composed chiefly of economic and/or cultural resources which energise the habitus) engage in strategies appropriate to their location in the game. Those in a position of dominance will tactically deploy their capital in order to conserve their position, whereas agents looking to outflank, displace or overtake those in a dominant position (arrivistes, avant-gardistes, heretics, the ‘dominated fraction of the dominant social class’) will attempt strategies of succession or subversion (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 98–; 9). Indeed, this on-going battle between orthodoxy and heresy – which in the artistic field has been drawn between defenders of traditional, aristocratic or centralised structures of patronage and defenders of an unfettered modern art constitutes the driving dialectic of change in all cultural fields:

the process that carries works along is the product of the struggle among agents who, as a function of their position in the field, of their specified capital, have a stake in

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