That’s certainly what Canon Samuel Barnett and his wife Henrietta thought in 1881 when they established what would become the original Whitechapel Gallery. “The finest art of the world for the people of the East End.” The gallery has recently expanded and reopened, having usurped what once was a public library next door. The Whitechapel and the public library were both, in their time, efforts to bring culture to the poor masses of East London, a working class area that has been regularly inhabited by waves of recent immigrants.
Those damned Christians — always on their evangelizing missions. Always bringing what is right, proper, and by implication, morally good to the poor heathen or unwashed.
Edward C. Banfield, a Harvard government professor, writes: "The art museum was founded soon after the Civil War as part of a long struggle by the Protestant elite, which ran the large cities, to moralize their populations by eliminating vice and inculcating the domestic and civic virtues." [Link to article]
According to John Ruskin, the English writer and painter who was widely read and hugely influential in the 19th century, “Art is not a study of positive reality, it is the seeking for ideal truth. All great art is the work of the whole living creature, body and soul, and chiefly of the soul.”
Ruskin paraphrased: Art is the expression of delight in God's work. From that, he glides to: “All great Art is praise; and, Art is the exponent of ethical life.”
And paraphrased again by art historian Kenneth Clark: The greatest artists and schools of art have believed it their duty to impart vital truths, not only about the facts of vision, but about religion and the conduct of life. [Source]
What mystifies me is the “morally good” part — that a leap is made from simply enjoying or being inspired, to being “improved” as a person by viewing pictures. These guys imply that art that is good (according to whom?) contains vital truths… and therefore functions as a signpost — a guide — for correct and better living. This is the part where I become very skeptical. If being educated at the best schools Western education has to offer doesn’t cultivate morality (look at all the white-collar criminals, and crimes against humanity committed by Harvard and Yale graduates), then what hope does looking at a picture have?
On the foundation of the National Gallery (in 1824, initially a banker’s picture collection), Sir Robert Peel said, “In the present times of political excitement, the exacerbation of angry and unsocial feelings might be much softened by the effects which the fine arts had ever produced upon the minds of men.” [Link] The Gallery, on Trafalgar Square, is located there because at that spot, the rich of West London could visit on their carriages and the poor from the East End could walk — thin pale wife and ill-fed children both. Significantly, admission would be free, further emphasizing that exposure to art could benefit all. Peel trusted that “the edifice would not only contribute to the cultivation of the arts, but also to the cementing of those bonds of union between the richer and the poorer orders of the State...” [Link]
It was thought that by exposing the poor and often uneducated to “culture,” their minds and hearts would be stimulated to deeper, more profound and noble thoughts. That exposure to culture is somehow morally uplifting, a bit like a church sermon, but presumably slightly less tedious. It also seems that culture was thought of as a kind of protective security device — from the angry and unsocial feelings mentioned above — and that exposure to it would alleviate the anger of the lower classes and thereby buffer the upper classes from their wrath. It was also thought that learning to appreciate culture would keep the rabble out of pubs and from pursuing other dubious activities.
In two senses this seems ridiculous — the first being that the modern art the Whitechapel was aiming to show was and is simply baffling to ordinary people, though in the UK arts current, shock and tabloid value is certainly a draw to many. Ordinary folks — and this is not a criticism — tend to like pictures that show evidence of skill and time spent in their production. Most folks also like to recognize what it is they’re looking at, be it a landscape, a face, a spear or an abstract pattern on a rug — across cultures, the forms may vary greatly. For poor English folks to be told back in the day that looking at wacky pictures would make them better people must have seemed like some sort of cruel joke — or that there was something profound in the pictures they didn’t yet understand.
The second absurdity is that this art, and the serious books that the library would deem to make available (libraries don’t usually stock porn or pulp fiction), were deemed worthy primarily by one’s “betters.” The higher, more educated classes naturally decided what pictures and books were good and capable of moral uplift. Given that the higher, especially the upper, classes of English society by nature had more spare time on their hands, there is at least some rationale that they would have had ample time to read and gaze upon pictures… and therefore might have some favorites to recommend — a service which might save those with less free time some precious hours, should they grow curious about those pictures or books.
Whether the lower and immigrant classes would be interested in the same pictures or books as their “betters” is never questioned — it is just assumed that the more “refined” taste of the higher classes is better and therefore more worthy. Why this should be so is not explained. For example, I find the machinations surrounding Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy amusing but somewhat disgusting as well — the lives of the rich and bored are often overrated, it seems to me. (However as a witty soap opera the book is hilarious.)
Likewise, the novel and convoluted new ways of interpreting the world, and the investigation into modes of visual perception and into art itself that modernism focused on, might also seem a trifle irrelevant to those struggling to stay afloat — unless some of those strugglers aimed to someday pass themselves off as being from a higher class. Good luck with that in the UK!
However, I myself can testify that being from an upper lower-class background in Glasgow, with parents who had immigrated and then worked and saved themselves into the middle class in suburban Baltimore, the local public library was invaluable. It was the Internet in a building — a building located down the road, under a bridge, past the train tracks, on a slight rise.
For example, in the late 60s, when I was in high school, I fell upon a copy of Naked Lunch, among many other strange and unusual books. I found it innovative, weird and slightly disgusting — though not in the same way as Pride and Prejudice. Even the book cover seemed to refer to some mysterious universe — the shadows and objects depicted are unclear. Maybe they are a junkie’s “works,” but I’m still not sure.
I also borrowed vinyl from the library — Folkways records of gospel, blues and Bahamian singers, Nonesuch recordings of Xenakis, Indian classical music and Balinese gamelan. There were also albums of pop music that weren’t getting played on the local rock station — The Kinks and Buffalo Springfield and many others. So, while some might have represented a rarefied academic and presumably more refined world — Xenakis, Varèse, Ives and Stockhausen, for example — even the academic composers were pretty trippy, and not all that different than what some of the pop musicians were doing, just less accessible. It was all a gateway into a host of new worlds. Lowlifes, highlifes and weirdness beyond anything I could imagine.
So, in a sense, the public library did do partially what the Victorians claimed — it made available to me a whole world I never knew existed. On the other hand, it opened my mind to realms of debauchery, experimentation and craziness that was like nothing else in suburban Baltimore. Nothing I’d seen, anyway… though I did go camping with some gal pals once, and their biker friends shot up a watermelon with vodka. That was pretty wild — and tasty.
I also took a liking to the visual arts at the time, stimulated at the outset mainly by album covers, psychedelic posters and underground comics. That was what was available to me. I was aware that some of those images and artists overlapped with what was deemed to be fine art, but that was not what made things interesting. I’m not sure if I went to an art museum more than once during high school — though I remember the Walters Art Gallery downtown had a very cool, small ancient carving of a man that seemed to be half tree. There was no modern or contemporary art there.
However, one thing led to another and connections, sometimes bizarre, were made. I painted a picture in high school of a phalanx of identical businessmen (who may have resembled my dad a bit), in a style reminiscent of George Tooker (I realize now) — standing against a wall of brightly colored, abstract empty picture frames and on a floor decorated with Northwest Indian tribal images, with hook-beaked creatures and densely packed biomorphic forms. It could have been a psychedelic record cover, and it referenced, or maybe simply imitated, everything visually available to me in suburban Baltimore that seemed wild and cool.
The big downtown art museum, with its Cone Collection of Matisses was, of course, a repository of high quality art — it had to be if it was housed in such a temple. I knew I was supposed to be impressed, but it was, at the time, nowhere near as inspiring as the counter-culture stuff that was exploding everywhere.
[Danielle adds: "Given these examples, another interesting question to pose would be, how has art changed — how have the values changed? And even if they have, has the role of art in social hierarchy changed or not? Because in fact you can now go Harvard on the basis of your Burroughs scholarship; counter-cultural art can give entrée into the privileged strata of society. There’s some interesting inversion that’s taken place where the avant-garde has been re-assimilated and the relationship between high and low has become infinitely more nuanced. Sotheby’s sold some of Manzoni’s shit for a couple hundred thousand dollars not so long ago."]
So, was art good for me? It got me out of gym class, that’s for sure. Working on these detailed and obsessive pictures took a lot of time, and the high school art teacher kindly sent a slip excusing me from gym. I made a bunch more of these pictures, and at some point they were “exhibited” in a display case in the school hallway. Probably due to their resemblance to record covers, they were deemed OK and even hip by some of the students, and I was cool for a day — which was pretty great for someone as shy as I, who managed to make this, and later music, a way to be in the world. So in this sense, art was certainly “good” for me at the time.
I think discovering and making stuff was good for me in another way too. Not only did making stuff give me, a painfully shy person, a way to communicate, but in the process I got myself sorted as well — at least a little bit. Expressing myself became a process of self-discovery and healing, casting out demons and finding joy. (Not that I’m done now, by any means.) The process was far from conscious — only in retrospect can I see what was happening. And it doesn’t mean the things I was making were all explosions and expressions of angst, terror, fear or guilt — though occasionally, yes, those things would surface. Making stuff gives someone like me a reason for going on, a focus, a pride in oneself. I’m not saying one has to be damaged to benefit from this kind of activity — but we all need a little sorting here and there. I’m not sure the creative process works for everyone — in fact, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. And I’m not saying that “everyone is an artist,” though I suspect many people have creative urges that go unacknowledged. I’m not sure everyone needs to make arty stuff as a path to self-discovery — home improvement, software development, getting dressed up and general problem solving are all immensely satisfying.
But back to the question as to whether art is morally uplifting. If idle hands are the devil’s playground then doing this stuff indeed kept the devil away — for a while. But what about looking at pictures, as opposed to making them? I love doing it — my house and office are plastered with stuff — but I don’t see how it can be uplifting, though I’m willing to be convinced otherwise. My friend C says that pictures are indeed a place, a forum, a venue for ideas, deeply felt emotions and radically new ways of looking at and being in the world. They are, she says, stimulating and inspiring — when they connect, at least. It’s certainly true for those of us who are part of that world. It seems to me that more consistently, it is the act of making stuff that changes a person, although with books, just reading them can certainly open new worlds. Looking at a Jackson Pollock is about as innately stimulating as looking at gum on the sidewalk — but that is not meant as a criticism. Reading about Pollock, his world, why and how he made his stuff and what kind of life he and his contemporaries had, might indeed be stimulating. Then one might see his picture as a kind of corollary — an adjunct piece of evidence connected to his story and those of his peers.
So, interesting that the Whitechapel displaced a public library. When I was there a month ago the crowds were immense, with a line to get in, and the galleries were chockablock. The work, mainly a show by Isa Genzken, was pretty kooky, and not at all “easy.” All the papers had run lengthy pieces on the re-opening. Everyone was making a pilgrimage to see the revived and improved space — one had to say one had been there and seen it with their own eyes. I’m not sure all these folks are experiencing self-improvement, and I’m certainly not sure they emerge or soon become capable of greater and sounder moral judgment. But they’re hell-bent on having the experience.
But where did the books go? Reading, the part of the Victorian outreach that involved more interaction and could actually be brought into one’s house for a while, is gone.
Maybe, with the sheer volume of text on the Internet, it isn’t deemed as important to make books available for free to the poor and newly arrived in the East End. Art you have to visit and see, for the most part, and books you can buy, browse at bookstores or now download. Maybe part of the museum or gallery’s attraction is the social aspect — reading is solitary. The Whitechapel was crowded, and people would presumably discuss their visit later over dinner, or at the office the next day. Picture viewing is also fast, while on the other hand, it takes many hours to read a book — which is another reason the literary experience has such a profound effect. Viewing an exhibition can be done in an afternoon or much less, and if you don’t like it you just walk out. The speed of the visit doesn’t make it less deep — a short experience can also be profound — and visual experiences can imprint if we are receptive enough. (Movies and music, I’ve noticed, are like books — you have to commit a sizable block of time to the experience.)
I can see that if exposure to culture brings the lower classes and immigrants into contact — indirectly and incrementally — with the world of the accepted and dominant classes, and thereby into the world of their values and morals, then yes, that exposure helps society to become more harmonious. Most moral values, in my opinion, are not absolute. They vary depending on the culture, and vary from place to place (though some moral commandments, like not having kids with your sister or mother, could be considered absolute — for humans anyway). Morals are rules that allow a society to function smoothly, or smoothly enough. By assimilating the implied values inherent in pictures, viewers are subtly brought into line with what has become accepted and dominant in a society. Although one might complain that what is acceptable and moral has been determined only by a portion of society — the portion in power — if harmony can be achieved without force, terror or fear, then maybe that’s nothing to sneeze at. Survival is better than pure chaos and destruction, though we seem to like those things too. Funny how things that may have once been attempts to overthrow the apple cart of power and dominance are now taught as fine literature or art at major universities. Some might say that this kind of harmony is like living ignorantly inside the Matrix — that it’s not “real” — but maybe that’s another rant.