Art of the impressives

17th November 1995 at 00:00
CIivilising Rituals By Carol Duncan Routledge #163;12.99. - 0415 07012 0

Soon America will have a real choice: the new taste of Coke or the original taste of Coca Cola Classic." Does this world of ad-speak, the world in which, as Carol Duncan puts it, the universe of public good is collapsed into one homogeneous commercial zone, match the world of the modern art gallery, where earlier 19th-century notions of the art gallery as space to realise ideals of good citizenship and ownership of cultural excellence are aggressively devalued in favour of celebration of the subjective as the only (ironic) mode?

And does this mean that advertising, "the official art of modern capitalist society" as Raymond Williams has called it, is the modern heir to the Old Masters' reflection of harmony and restraint?

Such and other complex questions are posed by Duncan in her profound and entertaining look at the meanings of public art museums. An anthropologist by training, she prefers to call her exploration an exploration of the "ritual" of the public art museum; to the non-anthropologist her argument is more of an analytic narrative of the historical development of these institutions in the great cities of the western world.

Much fascinating material - on the development of hanging Old Masters in historical schools by curators at the Louvre who wished to show the Republic as the pinnacle of human achievement, on the burgeoning of "whole room" displays of gifts from rich donors at the Met in New York, increasingly dependent for its funding on such donors, and on uncomfortable contingencies between the masculinity of the art of de Kooning and Picassoand popular soft core pornography - is swept up into the central thesis.

This central or animating idea rather echoes Durkheim's suggestion that society makes God in its own image. Carol Duncan aims to show how society, in creating public spaces in which to display art, also nurtures the kind of citizens it requires. Nineteenth-century Paris needed to show its historical legiticimacy; 19th-century Britain needed to subsume aristocratic ostentation into the machinery of a unified imperial state; 19th-century America had to demonstrate democratic ownership of the powers and privileges of Europe passe. Nowadays anxiety about gender, about private and state power and about the relationships between individual consumers and corporate owners are played out in these ritualised spaces. Well, it's certainly something to think about when you lug the kids round the National Gallery. And remember what J P Morgan said: "A man always has two reasons for the things he does - a good reason and the real one."

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