Detail from Reynolds self-portrait with scroll

The key to the collapse of our cultural self-confidence

Why have our great cultural institutions been among the first to fall?


This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

In 2019 Rachel Whiteread was made Dame of the British Empire “for services to art”. Since her “art” consists in making casts of the interior of everyday objects (the underside of a chair, a room or, most famously, an entire about-to-be-demolished house) her honour is one of those moments — up there with Kissinger’s Peace Prize or Caligula’s supposed appointment of his horse Incitatus as consul — when satire dies. 

But Whiteread’s damehood is worth more than a world-weary shrug. Instead, properly anatomised, it helps explain one of the most important and yet most mysterious phenomena of our tortured age. Why, at the very moment of the triumph of the West — “The End of History” in Fukuyama’s magnificently hubristic formulation — has there been such a sudden collapse of our cultural self-confidence? 

And why in particular have our great cultural institutions, like the Committee on Honours, our national museums or the Royal Academy itself, which should have been our first line of defence, been instead among the first to fall? 

There is even an important place for slavery, our current bugbear, in the story. For slavery is — and here I would shake hands with the wokest of the woke — our Original Sin. But it is so by inheritance and not our own practice since the West was singularly, save for the colonial episode, free from the practice. Not so its ancestral civilisations of the ancient world: Greece and Rome. This matters because between them Greece and Rome supply most of the fundamental concepts of our culture: including the idea of art itself. 

How painting and sculpture usurped the name and status of art is one of the most audacious smash-and-grab raids in intellectual history

“Art” comes from the Latin ars/artis (skill as the result of knowledge and practice). For the Romans, “the arts” fell into two groups. And they were divided, like most other things in the Roman world, by whether their practitioners were free men or slaves. 

The “liberal” (the word means free) arts were those practised by free men and they included the literary arts, like rhetoric, law, politics and poetry, and the useful arts, like medicine and architecture. 

Opposed to these “liberal” arts or professions were those considered “sordid”. These were the occupations of slaves and key examples included portitor (boatman or carrier) or fenerator (usurer or capitalist). Lowest of the low were the craftsmen who worked with fire — like smiths or potters. Their skills were called banausic in Greek and mechanical in Latin; their jobs were seen to be as dirty as their persons and were beneath contempt. 

One “art” is conspicuously missing: the art of painting which, to the modern mind, pretty much stands for art itself. And it is so because the Romans did not regard painting or sculpture as one of the liberal arts. On the contrary, they were mechanic or sordid crafts, to be performed by anonymous slave-craftsmen along with the rest. 

How painting and sculpture usurped the name and status of art is one of the most audacious smash-and-grab raids in intellectual history. It is the work of one man: Giorgio Vasari in the preface to his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, otherwise more briefly and revealingly known as The Lives of the Artists. 

Vasari used two sleights of hand. He deliberately elided Roman culture with the very different attitude of the Greeks. The former, as we have seen, treated painters and sculptors as anonymous slaves; the latter as named and revered artists. He also, more insidiously and on the basis of no evidence at all that I can see, claimed that the great artists of antiquity were also learned in the literary arts of philosophy and poetry whose liberal status was unassailable. This latter device became a  permanent cultural cringe.

It can be seen most clearly in the life, art and writings of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792). Son of a Devon schoolmaster and largely self-taught as an artist, Reynolds’s prodigious talent, ambition, hard work and ruthless social climbing made him the unquestioned founder of the British School of painting and the inevitable choice as the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts. 

Honours clustered thick and fast, both in life and in death with his state funeral and burial in St Paul’s. But what Reynolds valued most was the conferment by Oxford of the honorary degree of doctor of civil law. In his self-portrait he wears his scarlet doctoral robes and velvet bonnet and rests his hand upon a bust of Michelangelo. The hand holds not a brush but a scroll of paper. 

The scroll is intended to represent one of his annual presidential Discourses on Painting, which he delivered at the Royal Academy for more than 20 years. In the Discourses Reynolds consistently elevates the intellectual side of art and denigrates its craft skills. To learn the latter, he declared loftily, you go to the Dutch, as you “would go to grammar school to learn languages”. But for the former, you must go to Italy. There you will learn “the great style”, which alone endows a work with “intellectual dignity”, “ennobles the painter’s art . . . [and] lays the line between himself and the mere mechanick”. 

All of this culminates in Reynolds’s grandly Platonic definition of beauty: “The beauty of which we are in quest,” he claims, “is general and intellectual; it is an idea that subsists only in the mind; the sight never beheld it; nor has the hand expressed it.”

The keyword in all of this is “ennobles”. We tend to think of it metaphorically. Reynolds saw and experienced it literally. It was his approach to art that enabled the Devon-born apprentice lad to sit at the tables of the great whilst he lived and to lie in St Paul’s in splendour in death. It put painters and sculptors firmly above the salt, distinguishing them from the “mere mechanicks”, like cabinet-makers and silver-smiths, who were irretrievably below it.

Rachel Whiteread with her Dame Commander insignia presented by the Prince of Wales during an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace in London

But it would also — which has not been fully appreciated — leave “high” art and the sort of art institutions that Reynolds did so much to foster peculiarly exposed to the nihilism of the Modern Movement. The key lies in the shared elevation of the supposed intellectual as opposed to the craft or mechanical aspects of art. Marcel Duchamp, the ur-modernist, called his craft-free anti-art of ready-mades (like the urinal), mobiles and so on “conceptual”. This was to distinguish it from the supposedly “retinal” or eye-pleasing art of the past. 

But, as we have seen, Reynolds, the doyen of the old art, repeatedly used almost identical formulations, insisting that art was a product “not [of] the industry of the hands but of the mind”; and not a thing but “an idea”. Reynolds, the founding genius of the Royal Academy, had left the door ajar with his theorisings. The conceptualists, the Young British Artists and the rest had only to push and it swung open. 

And all of this is, to repeat, what the Graeco-Romans — with their slavery and their snobbery about getting your hands dirty — did for us. We inherited a culture of empty intellectualism which, from the first, moulded scholasticism and the universities of the Middle Ages in its own image. It took the Renaissance and Baconian empiricism to rescue Western thought and immerse it in reality. 

But, as T. S. Eliot taught us, “human kind cannot bear very much reality”. It is too difficult, too much like the hard work of learning the craft skills of anatomy and perspective if you want to be an artist, or mastering languages and palaeography and labouring through the archive if you aim to be an historian. 

So much easier to bid craftsmanship and empiricism farewell; cry “Eureka”, emote and wave around a concept or a theory or a cast of the underside of a chair. After all, it didn’t do Dame Rachel Whiteread DBE much harm, did it?

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