The Public Interest

Judging democratic art

Alvin Kernan

Fall 1999

FEW ideas have had more staying power than that of Art as an absolute—a permanent human reality, psychological or cultural, or both. It is commonplace to speak, for example, of the art of early painters of bison and mammoths in the caves of Lascaux, of the art of the fugue, and of the art of television, as if art were a permanent and unchanging human activity, expressing itself in different media over time but crystal perfect in its motives, its formal characteristics, and its functions. Museums make this Platonic concept of Art real by removing various objects from their original setting and assembling them in one place. In their original provenance, these objects served very different purposes: ritual masks, portraits of ancestors, tapestries, cult statues, sacred vessels, etc. But when they are merged with the paintings of Jackson Pollock, the brass statues of Brancusi, and other objects consciously designed as art, one gets Art, in the museum at least. Aesthetics, in the Kantian manner, systematize Art, laying down its formal characteristics and defining its motives and functions.

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