the breathless historical present

Andre Malraux sought the key to man’s fate by a philosophical study of all the world’s art in his Metamorphosis of the Gods…

…Writing almost continuously in the breathless, historical present, Malraux began by reporting a fact: the discovery during the last hundred plus years of countless ancient and exotic works, most of them religious in character. In the West, these works brought about an aesthetic revolution. In the late nineteenth century, they were looked on, if looked on at all, as archaeological curiosities. They were fetishes, icons, idols- exactly what they had been to their creators, who were “artists for whom the idea of art did not exist.” Now they were regarded as art, and used to teach men to see in a new way according to Malraux, something that made sense given Picasso and Breton’s fascination. Malraux said, ” Europe discovered Negro art when looking at African sculptures placed between Cezanne andd Picasso, not when looking at fetishes placed between coconuts and crocodiles.”

Saint Luke was painted with mystical fervor in the Gospel of Ebbo, an illuminate manuscript of ninth-century France. Such painting was meant not to depict reality but “to express what cannot exist on earth.” Image:

Malraux found it remarkable that our civilization,”the first agnostic civilization,” should be so busy resurrecting sacred works.” But busy it was, and with the attention to this sacred art “which nobody had ever admired in a body before, and which nobody admired at all a century ago,” men’s feelings about all art began to change. As Malraux wrote, ” …just as many Japanese file past the pictures of Braque, and millions of Americans past those of Van Gogh and Picasso. Pilgrims to the cities of art are more numerous than those who came to Rome during the Holy Year. Faced with the figures of Florence and Venice, these pilgrims may mix the idea of art with happiness, beauty, pleasure of the eye; but they do not so mix it before the figures of Chartres or Luxor, before Mexican or Etruscan statues. It is not in the name of happiness, in the name of the traditional ideas of beauty or visual pleasure, that the movies make a hero of Van Gogh…people from all countries,scarecely aware of their community of feeling, seem to expect the art of all ages to fill an unknown void in them.”

—In the abbey of the Moissac church in France, this tympanum illustrates the Apocalypse, the second coming of Christ. The purpose of its design was to remind its onlooker to prepare his/her soul for Christ’s second arrival on earth. This sculpture, and others like it, appealed to the lay worshipper rather than to members of a closed religious community. Personal emblems clearly marked all the sculpted figures so the faithful could understand the meanings and messages implied by the artwork —Read More: image:


(see link at end)…Fifty years ago, AndrĂ© Malraux speculated about a “museum without walls” in which the easily reproducible character of the artwork would make it circulate in the city, in direct contact with its inhabitants. Marshall McLuhan went one step further and insisted that the mass media themselves were museums without walls, instantly available. Other authors such as Fredric Jameson and Jean Baudrillard spoke of the “aestheticization of everyday life” to describe the blurring of boundaries between the real and the imaginary, and the total enmeshment of art into daily life that happens through the proliferation of media and art work into the city space.

In the midst of this spatial diversification, the institutional framework of art is still pervasive. This happens through the proliferation of museums where archives of collections are stored and displayed, the role played by curators and staff being the one of filter into the realm of culture what deserves to be collected and valued as cultural form. This work of filtering and validation has to do with power: who and what gets to be represented is a much contested domain appropriate for artistic interventions aiming at expanding the criteria of collections to include the signifiers of race, gender and class which have in many cases been left outside of the frame.

The other side of the expansion of the museum into daily life is the proliferation of public art initiatives. Presenting themselves as community orientated or spatially driven, many of these projects still perpetuate the modernist ideal of the museum in the public realm by separating, labeling, and cataloguing what deserves to become part of the definition of locality, to be construed as socially acceptable, and marketable for tourism and leisure commodification. Here also there is scope for artists interventions aiming at revealing the hidden, subtle mechanisms of power and reveal the discourse of public art as construction that needs to be challenged. Read More:

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