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Art in Strange Places


Trevor Harris

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1The long-running dispute between Britain and Greece concerning the “Elgin Marbles” or “Parthenon Sculptures”, foregrounds the obvious links between artworks and a specific place. For the Greek authorities—who made their first formal request in 1983—it seems very strange to deny that these sculptures belong in Athens, in the Acropolis Museum; for the British authorities, the artifacts, “legally acquired” by Lord Elgin in the early 1800s and for so long a jewel in the crown of the British Museum’s collection, belong in London. The attempts to resolve this dispute have been made in the wider context of a steady rise in the number of demands by governments around the world for the return of artworks—and the restitution of cultural property more generally—which, in their view, were illegally removed from their original territory and from their rightful owners. Whether in terms of international law or those of natural justice, these items are seen as inextricably tied to the history and culture of the place where they were first produced.

2The contributions to this issue all explore the nature of the link between artworks and the context in which we find them. In many cases the connection between artwork and physical context can appear unusual or unexpected, and the contributions below attempt to highlight different facets of that problematical relationship.

  • 1 In practice, it seems that many visitors are underwhelmed : not least because of the overcrowded co (...)

3There are specific places where we expect to come into contact with “art”. Both the expectation and the place have their role in the perception of that art—the perception often being closely linked to the expectation. The expectation, indeed the hope, of many people queueing at the Louvre, to view Mona Lisa is that, once in the presence of this piece of “great art”, some kind of personal transformation might come about. The aesthetic encounter it is hoped, perhaps even assumed, will initiate a communion, possibly even some intense, epiphanic joy1. And the particular spatial context in which the artwork is presented adds to, maybe even generates, the spectators’ disponibilité as they file past the painting, held all the while at a reverential distance from the canvas.

4By contrast, objects presented as the products of obvious talent but not accorded the status of “great art” appear portable in a way that the artwork is not. Their appreciation often remains intact as they are transferred from place to place. Their production is seen as a quite spontaneous event and the context in which they are to be experienced does not seem to be strictly defined or to have particular pre-requisites. The craft or skill—elements at the etymological heart of ars/artis—, or the technological knowhow, required to produce many objects may be considerable, but they seem to be realisable and appreciable irrespective of where they are. It would sound natural, for example, to say that an exhibition in Sydney which included the Mona Lisa had that painting “on loan from the Louvre”. It would not sound natural, however—except possibly as a humorous remark—, to say that a postcard sent to a friend by someone in Sydney who had been to the exhibition was “on loan”.

5At least this is how many people might habitually think of the importance of place in relation to “great” art. It is an account which would seem to subscribe fully to Walter Benjamin’s idea that great art has an “aura” which is linked to a specific context, an autonomous “here and now”, in which a unique, original work of art is presented and experienced; a context which, furthermore, is given weight and solemnity by the cumulative reverence of the centuries. And it is this account of art and place which is still staunchly defended—whether by individuals or institutions—, which still has considerable currency beyond the “Establishment”, and which many, in truth, might find it difficult to abandon. And yet, the obvious hierarchical implications of this have become increasingly difficult to justify. The concept of a “high”, hallowed form of art, lording it over all other artistic endeavour, is now routinely taken by many people to be a hangover from a societal model which no longer exists or, at least, is under permanent challenge. The ritualistic, quasi-religious adoration of “great” art—what Benjamin called the “cult value” of art—still forms an element of cultural capital; namely, one’s ability to appreciate “beauty” or l’art pour l’art. But the hieratic implications of even this diminished, decayed or “withered” aura have become increasingly at odds with the secular and democratic or demotic dimensions of art, and the evolution of new norms and points of reference in use in mass society.

6This contrast between, on the one hand, (fine) art as possessing special, sublime qualities which can only be appreciated if one experiences the art in a specific context—and are thus devalued if one does not—and, on the other hand, art as disconnected from this and available to all, can be seen as an iteration of a familiar quarrel between “ancients” and “moderns”, between cultural conservatives and progressives. Conformity to an exclusive canon is now something which is widely thought of as being a form of snobbery, of cultural arrogance, in some cases even a form of aesthetic extremism. True, the erasure of the binary line between high- and low-brow never has been and is still not total, but the principle—if not the practice—of access for all to art, would now be a very difficult one to challenge successfully. Restrictive or prescriptive interpretations of any given canvas from the fine art canon can now be routinely challenged: indeed, the “standard” interpretations of how such works “ought” to be experienced have themselves evolved. Some will still bemoan the demotion of revered aesthetic touchstones, but a majority of people find the free circulation of art a natural, inevitable thing and see as perfectly normal the availability of an artwork for interpretation, by anyone who comes into contact with it, according to wholly personal criteria.

7In the first of a series of television programmes linked to the book Ways of Seeing (1972), John Berger staged just such an encounter when he conducted a brief experiment, asking a group of young schoolchildren to interpret a canonical artwork: their reactions were at once totally unpretentious and very lucid. Berger, in proceeding in this way, was keen to subvert the usual criteria of reception of a “great” artwork, of how we see it, and to demonstrate the pertinence of reactions obtained by his method and, by extension, to underscore the importance of politicising—or, possibly, re-politicising—the aesthetic experience. For those who think of the original of an artwork as the only authentic object, any attempt to disseminate the work concerned beyond the confines of its original context is liable to provoke their criticism or opposition. By extension, seeing a reproduction of that work can accordingly generate a sense of being somehow short-changed, cheated, of the genuine experience which only the original can provide. The unregulated circulation of a reproduction, for those entrusted (or who deem themselves so) with the preservation of that uniqueness, thus becomes fraught with difficulties. Some of the implications of this—notably the legal status and artistic value of copies of a masterpiece—are explored below in the article by Béatrice Laurent with reference to a short story by Saki, “The Background”.

8The plight of the hapless Henri Deplis, at the centre of Saki’s tale, constitutes a (humorous) deterrent aimed at those who would entertain thoughts of defiling “great” art by challenging its quasi-sanctity and thereby seek to question the prevailing artistic rapport de forces to the detriment of tradition and its keepers: a potentially revolutionary development always liable to be strongly resisted. Yet politically innovative approaches to the aesthetic were, precisely, at the very centre of the activities of some of Saki’s contemporaries—the Bloomsbury Group—whose work is explored below in the article by Nina Eldridge on the Omega Workshops. The rebellious liberalism espoused by members of the group had its limits, and the relationship between originality and reproducibility remained a problematical one. But, as highly articulate heirs to William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, and committed practitioners of the applied arts, the group sought to privilege the aesthetic dimension of a wide range of everyday objects for the home. The displacement or migration of art does not devalue it in any way. On the contrary, as the contribution below by Sabine du Crest emphasises, the transmissibility of an artwork, far from impoverishing the object, adds to it, renews, extends and reinvents it. The object in question—a Persian woven carpet—, freed from any fixed role or frozen state, becomes a dynamic presence, the materialisation of an interactive experience, the traces of its “odyssey” new-woven into the pile of the carpet, creating a new and unique work of art.

9These examples underline the positive, regenerative dimensions of prising art free from any traditionalists’ view of an artwork as the repository of an eternal value associated with a specific context, and underwritten by the cumulative chronological endowment of that association. Such examples can encourage us to subscribe to a view which shades towards a vision of art as both liberated and liberating, as disponible for insertion into a new paradigm where its role and values are freed from the control of a conservative elite; an elite bent on using art as part of a strategy to maintain the status quo of aesthetic, but also economic and social relations. Other art forms—pop art, for example, or street art—have developed strong links with political activism and seem to confirm the productive relationship between the two, as well as their ability to mount a durable and successful challenge to the assumed hegemony of canonical art. Removing artistic practice to “strange” aesthetic and physical contexts, as Elise Brault-Dreux shows in her study of poetry in hospital/hospital in poetry, proves to be less a question of art in a strange place, than the odd, revitalising displacement of language with hygienic purpose, into the artistic space of poetry.

10Contemporary art is, of course, no stranger to “estrangement”. Defamiliarisation—or ostranenie to use Victor Shklovsky’s term— constituted a new “way of seeing”, but this is itself now a recognisable tradition. As such, it has exerted its own influence on “original” voices or visions, their newness being produced in spite of the anxiety induced by earlier originalities and often being drawn into acknowledging a debt to them; thus arguably participating in a process of perpetual canonisation. Since the end of the 20th century, technological change has accelerated, profoundly affecting not only possibilities of reproduction, but also those of dissemination and access: the field of potential innovation would seem, prima facie, to be limited only by the restrictions—if they exist—of the internet: an infinity of possible mutations, variations and appropriations available to artists to reveal and rebel against the processes of habitualisation, and help us to renew, or reconnect with authentic (aesthetic) experience.

11Yet art’s constant renewal, each successive re-estrangement, can never be sheltered entirely from the ability of power relations to constantly mutate and reinvent themselves also. As the other contributions below emphasise in different ways, it is over-optimistic, even naïve, to believe that the increased aesthetic ouverture and conceptual plasticity afforded by “estrangement”, which encourage innovative art, remain always under the control of artists or aim always to empower via an aesthetic experience. The “innovative”, but quintessentially official visual art in the architecture commissioned by the Imperial War Graves Commission, for example, explored below by Raphaël Willay, was a vast, but micro-managed propaganda exercise. Similarly, Susan Finding, examining the role of the key “visuals” at the Festival of Britain, underlines how advertisements in the Festival programme are central to this colossal exercise in government propaganda for a beleaguered domestic audience, and in cultural diplomacy for foreign visitors. The advertising industry, initially seen as a rather low-brow method of “hawking” one’s product, had by the later 20th century evolved into a global presence, any large company or organisation necessarily boasting its in-house team of “creatives”, now firmly established and perceived as artists in their own right. Jeremy Price explores below how a young Ridley Scott, in a carefully crafted television advertisement which uses all the know-how of the film-maker, clothes the homeliest of homely products—bread—in an elaborate mantle of cultural heritage: comforting illusions which the viewer is invited, literally, to swallow whole.

12Yet perhaps—finally—a more powerful, and a more sinister, technological recuperation/manipulation of creative energy is also the most recent/topical. Hopes that that new and strange place, the internet, would provide a perfect cadre, a ludic paradise in which the most humanistic creations and progressive intentions might flourish unabashed have proved very short-lived. Few would deny the internet’s day-to-day usefulness. But the lightning-fast and exponential growth of the web since the 1990s has both traduced the ludic into the lucrative, and created an ultra-familiar, almost banal, taken-for-granted place in which we are nonetheless required to rely on the honesty, the integrity, of… algorithms: in effect, the web is an omniscient, omnipresent narratorial framework which can, unchecked, navigate us at will. Ondřej Váša, in his account of an artistic tradition—the figura serpentinata—which he follows down to its present, perplexing manifestation, shows how the creative possibilities of technology, the creation of an image, in fact threatens to destroy all animation, in which the “selfie” in practice erases the self. Strange art indeed.

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1 In practice, it seems that many visitors are underwhelmed : not least because of the overcrowded conditions in which the painting is usually viewed. As a consequence, at the time of writing the museum’s managers are considering relocating the painting to a dedicated room.

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Electronic reference

Trevor Harris, “Introduction”Miranda [Online], 29 | 2024, Online since 18 April 2024, connection on 22 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Trevor Harris

Professeur (retraité)
Université Bordeaux Montaigne

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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