Commonplace

“You have to realize that museums are a relatively recent aberration in the history of art. This segregation of art from the world of everyday life has impoverished both. It used to be that a religious person, for example, would enter a cathedral, just as he did every Sunday, and the light might be streaming through the window in a particular fashion or falling upon a statue of the Virgin in a new way—the hue from the window intensifying the deep blue color of the Virgin’s garment—or there might be snow on the shoulder of one of the Prophets outside, and our friend would say, ‘Tiens. Look at that. I never noticed that before.’ Art existed in town squares, in the marketplace, in theaters, and in homes—you came upon it in the middle of your day, at the corner of your eye. Now Rembrandt’s Night Watch is enshrined behind thick glass in a dark, cold room in a large, cold museum. They make you stand there, almost pulling you by the hair: ‘Look, damn it, you idiot, this is the greatest work of art in the world, appreciate it!’ The trouble with many museums is that they impose this kind of demand for aesthetic worship.”

—Museum curator Knud Jensen, in “Jensen’s Shangri-La,” by Lawrence Weschler, in Shapinsky’s Karma, Boggs’s Bills, and Other True-Life Tales

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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One Response to Commonplace

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I disagree. Art is still everywhere. Talk to a graphic designer. Walk into Times Square (our new marketplace) and look around you; everything around you was designed with creative intentions. We simply don’t call it art now because of its dual commercial-aesthetic purposes.
    Anyway, for whom was art “everywhere” in pre-museum times — “in town squares, in the marketplace, in theaters, and in homes”? It was there for those who could afford it, an even smaller percentage than is the case today. I can pay a little money to walk into a museum today to look at a Rembrandt, or I could have lived in a time centuries ago when the men in my life would have had to live filthy rich, so filthy rich that they could afford to be patrons to an artist and hang a Rembrandt on their (not our) walls. Only our family and our servants could have seen that art.
    In that light, museums are populist institutions. I don’t know the entire context of the quote, but art is no more segregated from everyday life than it was before museums existed as institutions.
    As a side effect of picking certain pieces to present to anyone who walks through the door, museums do elevate art to the point where it’s supposedly impossible to equal it, just as university English professors often elevate the novels on their syllabi. I’d argue that the effect isn’t permanent, though, at least not for individuals. Just look at the number of people trying to be writers/actors/artists/etc. Artists all seem to say to ourselves at some point, “Hey. I could do that, too.”

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