Traditionally great visual European art was meant to be unchanging. And there was a canon composed of such timeless masterpieces. To be sure, this canon gradually expanded to include works by previously little known Western artists and, more recently, also art from other cultures. But these expansions of the canon aimed to identify additional time-tested masterpieces. Thus modernist European art and Tibetan paintings, Persian miniatures and sculpture from the New Americas supplemented but did not supplant the Western canon of works from Greco-Roman antiquity, the Christian middle ages and the High Renaissance.
Why do we need these canons? The Human Condition (1959) by the German-born political philosopher Hannah Arendt gives a challenging answer to this question.
The man-made world of things . . . becomes a home for mortal men, whose stability will endure and outlast the ever changing movement of their lives and actions, only insofar as it transcends both the sheer functionalism of things produced for consumption and the sheer utility of objects produced for use.
Distinguishing art from the products of labor, which are consumed in living, and the utilitarian objects produced by work, she argues that our lives are stabilized by these artifacts, created before our birth and destined, so we hope, to outlive us in our museums. Morality has evolved, and Western culture has become secularized. But canonical art remains of value. This may seem an odd view, for Arendt doesn’t discuss aesthetic pleasures nor the moral lessons art can provide. Rather she says that we find in art “a premonition of immortality . . . of something immortal achieved by mortal hands. . .” Marx and also Heidegger enter into her thinking. Despite their extreme political differences, they too believed in the canon.
In a world where technology is changing swiftly, this old art stabilizes thinking about values. But of course, her argument surely overestimates the present importance of traditional elite culture which has no obvious importance not just for the poor, but even for many privileged people. She speaks for the elite culture. What would happen if a society didn’t preserve these stabilizing artifacts? Here to answer the question we don’t need to speculate, for right now we are coming into that situation. Arendt lived long enough to see works which, incorporating into art consumer economy materials, the products of labor, undercut traditional ways of thinking about art. But she didn’t respond to Pop Art. And now, more radical developments are coming, often championed with reference to Walter Benjamin. Her pioneering collection of his essays includes his much quoted statement: “There is no document of civilization that is not also a document of barbarism.” That claim speaks to critics of the art museum in ways that Arendt herself didn’t discuss. She implies that stabilizing the life world is inevitably a good thing. But you might not think that way if your ancestors were enslaved or the brutalized poor. The creation of our traditional visual culture depended upon the injustices of the old regime. And the present survival of the masterpieces requires elaborate art museums, which need public validation. But once we now consider the social costs of this canon, it’s easy to wonder about its present day value.
Many supporters of the art museum, while recognizing these costs of traditional culture, urge that we should do everything possible to make these old master works accessible. My teacher, the philosopher Richard Wollheim, who was a leftist with patrician tastes, claimed that the great canonical art, though paid for by grand patrons, was really made for this larger public. His favorite artist was Nicolas Poussin. I can hardly reject this way of thinking, which (to be honest) has enriched my life and supported my own research. I admire that art museums have worked very hard to transform themselves from temples for the elite into popularly accessible institutions. And I acknowledge the importance of academic art education. But it’s impossible to understand the roots of the present crisis of our museums without grasping the problems inherent in this process. The difficulty, simply put, is that this intense populist activity does not – and, cannot – change the inherent nature of old master art, which was made for an elite audience. Can we match the beauty of Poussin’s history paintings against awareness that their subjects and aesthetic values are intricately bound up in the old regime culture? I am not sure. Once we know the human price of old canonical pictures, they may seem just too expensive to be of value. And so it’s just not clear that the traditional art museum can escape its past, at least without radically changing the identity of its core collections.
These issues are, of course, familiar, but thanks to the present economic and social crisis they have a new resonance. In an elegant brief discussion architectural historian Sanda Iliescu offers an important example revealing the problems. After describing the beautiful lawn at University of Virginia, Charlottesville, where she teaches, she discusses recent controversy about placement of a memorial commemorating the hundreds of slaves employed in constructing this site in the early nineteenth-century. Once you know this history, she asks, is it still possible to find this lawn beautiful? She doesn’t answer this question in so many words, but she does suggest that your answer depends, at least in part, upon who your ancestors were. And also, I think, about knowing that a great deal of slave labor was required to construct this beautiful site. Does not a similar analysis apply also to the collections of old canonical works housed in our public art museums? Beauty often is expensive. And often its human costs were distributed in ways that were extremely inequitable.