Museum as Reliquary

It is pretty trite these days to compare art to religion. Every man and his dog has observed the hushed tones spoken in museums, the pilgrimages to collections and the willingness to cede taste to a priestly caste of critics and art historians who mediate our connection to the godhead.

People seem to fix on individual artists rather than their works, and throw around the term ‘genius’ very loosely; which gives those artists the air of prophets rather than workmen. And the prices paid for art of doubtful long-term significance show how strong the push is to sacralise art objects, and to objectify the sacred.

Tooling around the South of France gives you much opportunity to observe this, as it is a modern art Mecca. No stronger opportunity than at the Renoir museum near Nice. Given that most of the best Renoirs are in the US or major European museums, what does this museum – currently housed in the Chateau Grimaldi at Cagnes-sur-Mer – offer the visitor?

Almost no works at all. Rather, the atelier he used, with the brush he touched, the chair he sat on, photos of people related to him, works executed by others with his assistance, photos at various stages of his life.

This is a reliquary, not a museum. The reliquary of a modern secular saint operating on a plane beyond us mere mortals.

OK, so you could explain this as a small regional museum desperately trying to round up a few tourist dollars. But how do you explain the thousands of pilgrims dutifully filing past these objects made sacred by the touch of someone who could, well, draw and then put paint on a page?

As a society we seem to have forgotten that great artists are above all super-skilled technicians; conceptually they used to have more in common with engineers and tradesmen than with priests. But no more.

This sense of artists as tradies with thick-skinned fingers has disappeared. Artists should spend all their time covered in paint, or plaster, or metal shavings, and if they don’t, they’re just poseurs.

They, like many highly skilled specialists, seem to do things that humans shouldn’t. But we don’t make prophets and priests out of expert jugglers and drive 500 miles to see the first ball they used displayed under glass. And before you say “but artists reflect our world, society and emotional responses to them”, try justifying that sentence while looking at a Rothko, a Mondrian, a Pollock, a Hirst, or even a Léger or Picasso, without reference to a priestly text.

Earlier generations of modern artists – Picasso and Léger for example – were superb technicians in traditional forms before embarking on their innovation. Now, any ten-thumbed egoist can spit out conceptual art (in its broadest sense) and justify it in the priestly manner: through obscure text reiterating accepted doctrine and borrowing from the status of other, respected art.

When you take a long term view, what’s worse is the self-delusion among modern artists that they are innovating in this religious vocation. Like a post-modern novelist in the 1980s “innovating” forms that Laurence Sterne had already used in Tristram Shandy in 1759, the 20th and 21st centuries have been pretty much a footnote to their first 30 years.

This sort of self-delusion is a function of seeing art as a priestly vocation mediated by experts and governed by texts, rather than a technical skill gained after a long, practical apprenticeship.

When I’m back from holidays I’ll indulge my suspicion and do some research on the early 2oth century marketing and branding behind this deification of the artist. I’m looking at you, Messrs Picasso, and Dali, and entourages. But perhaps I am too cynical.

Ultimately though, such artistic self-delusion is of no consequence so long as a paying public is willing to join in it.

  1. Ellie

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