Wolterstorff: Art Rethought, Social Practices
Nicholas Wolterstorff: Art Rethought: The Social Practices of Art, Oxford University Press, 2015.
by Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin
One of the least expected outcomes of the French Revolution was the birth of the public museum of fine art. Following frenzied iconoclastic attacks on the symbols of the hated ancien régime, the new National Assembly confiscated the royal art collection alongside other paintings and precious artifacts from churches and aristocratic estates, and put them on display as the public property and national heritage of the people in the former royal palace now turned public museum, the Louvre. Stripped from their resented religious and political meaning by the neutralizing space of the museum, the works could now be looked at and admired purely for their artistic qualities and craftsmanship.
More generally, though, the eighteenth-century rise of separate institutions for viewing art or listening to music contributed to the idea that fine art comes into its own when it is attended to aesthetically for its own sake. This idea comes under sustained attack in Nicholas Wolterstorff's stimulating and absorbing book Art Rethought: The Social Practices of Art. For him, this idea of art only as an object of aesthetic contemplation is a philosophical misinterpretation of the story of the social changes that affected art in the eighteenth century—the shift from patronage to markets, the rise of a middle class with increased leisure time, the importance of the education of taste, the prestige of connoisseurship, and so on. This pervasive misinterpretation—or "grand narrative" as Wolterstorff will call it—has led to a widespread neglect of art outside the modern "institution of art," that is, the world of artists, art critics, curators, audiences, educators, and so on.
In Art Rethought Wolterstorff draws attention to the fact that there are many different ways of engaging with the arts that do not imply absorbed aesthetic attention.