Gotham Diary:
Court Art
2 August 2012

The one thing that I didn’t mention in yesterday’s entry — I mentioned it, but not as one of the draws that keep me buying the latest Donna Leons — was Venice. I have never been to Venice, but I should be very surprised if it does not seem familiar the moment I arrive, not because I’ve seen so many photographs of the famous buildings and curious canals, but because I’ve followed Guido Brunetto, resident of the Polo district, throughout the city, and in all weathers. I’ve followed him across the campi and about the markets and into little trattorie tucked into the corners. I may not have seen anything, actually, but I’ve absorbed some of the pace and quirkiness of life in Venice, which is essentially life as it is everywhere but with a few little wrinkles. Walk or boat, for example; how many instances, in the Brunetti novels, are there of the commissario’s working out whether a given destination is better reached by boat or on foot? A conventional realist, Donna Leon knows how to bring Brunetti’s Venice to life, and the danger for me, if and when I visit the actual city, I don’t unpack too much of the one that I’ve brought with me.

Reading Lauren Collins’s profile of Tino Sehgal in the current New Yorker, it struck me that the rejection of representation that characterizes modern art (even pop art, which substitutes hallucination for representation) is also a rejection of everyday life. The Sehgal installations that Collins describes are systematic violations of the conventions that govern everyday life. These violations are tolerable, presumably, because they occur in museum spaces, and most viewers, if they may no know what they’re getting into, know that they’re getting into something. But, again like so much modern art, they have a jokey air, an aspect of Let’s Pretend This Is How Things Are. There is no educational mission here; the object is not to discover something about how things actually are. The sociologists and cognitive scientists tackle that project. Contrasted with their disciplinary rigor, installation designers such as Tino Sehgal are pretty clearly fooling around.

I don’t object to fooling around, although I’ll admit that I haven’t much patience for it. What really bothers me is that anyone thinks of it as “art.” Art is something else. Art descends from Court Art.

***

Court Art, eh — minuets danced by nymphs and shepherds in pastoral nowheres? Very expensive objects, such as bronze clocks and tables made out of silver. Objets de vertu that you might spend a fortune on at A la Vieille Russie. That’s a part of it, but not the important part. 

Court Art is art intended to be enjoyed and appreciated by the most important people in the land, gathered together at least occasionally in a town, usually a capital, centered on some sort of palace. The palace is the building in which the most important people in the land come together, especially for ceremonial occasions honoring the ruler or the patron saints. The court is the secular ritual that takes place within the palace and that spills out of it into the town. It is here that women approach most closely the freedom of men. The court is grave for the most part, but tempered by sophisticated, well-mannered frivolity. Grave or frivolous, the court is always serious, because it is the center of power.

I’m describing the earliest courts, which arose in the Thirteenth Century in Italy. By the Eighteenth Century, Court Art was so well understood that it flourished in England quite apart from the royal coteries. One might argue that all of London, together with the satellites of the great country houses, comprised the English Court in 1800.

By 1900, there were no more courts anywhere. There were still kings and even a grand duke or two, but there were no more gatherings of all the important people of the land, and few ceremonies with any claim on attentiveness other than that of great age. There were too many important people for such gatherings, and there were too many ways of being important, many of them having little do with sovereign power. Like electric power, sovereign power was domesticated by 1900. It hummed along smoothly, doing whatever needed to be done with as little violence as possible. The personal rule of warlords was replaced by the elected authority of committees. 

Court Art, as it had been known to the most important people of the land, for whom it had constituted a kind of mirror, was no longer called for (and so the genre of large paintings depicting historical or mythological scenes came, along with others, to an end). But it did not disappear altogether. It persisted in two ways, ways that have today become antithetical.

The first is the persistence of craft. The techniques of Court Art are still studied assiduously, and traditional artists — that’s what they’re called — continue to turn out paintings and drawings and even sculptures that serve the people who enjoy them, quite aside from decorative value, as mirrors. Looking at a traditional painting that appeals to you, you see yourself in part. The vision is a serious pleasure, just as it was for people at court.

The second is the persistence of expositions of new works. For a long time, these expositions continued to feature the same kind of art that was produced for the court, but traditional artists were developing other interests, subjects that, in court eyes, appeared insignificant and unworthy of attention. These interests, curiously, could be traced back to the first sovereignty to dispense with a court: the Netherlands. It was there that mirroring art was first created for people who did not regard themselves as among the most important in the land. This tradition flowered beautifully at the end of the Nineteenth Century.

But how to continue the officially-sponsored expositions? It did not take long for Marcel Duchamp to show up with a urinal. Next week, I shall take up the mystery of how this “fountain,” and the installations to follow, continued to be considered “art”