Objects of veneration

Edward Skidelsky finds that aesthetic appreciation is a surprisingly modern idea

It seems odd to talk about the "idea" of art. Isn't art a basic human impulse, like eating or making love? Haven't we always told stories, banged drums and decorated walls?

Perhaps, but the idea of art is a recent and rather peculiar innovation. Visit the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and you may see babushkas bowing and crossing themselves before the icons on display. They have failed to realise that these are now works of art, not objects of religious veneration. Nor, presumably, did the fabricators of those masks and fetishes which adorn so many western museums realise that what they were making was sculpture.

It is we who, by removing such objects from their originally functional setting and exhibiting them in galleries, insist on viewing them in a strictly aesthetic light. "Art" is a distinctively modern, western institution, even if the artistic impulse is common to all human beings.

The word "art" (from the Latin ars) referred originally to any skilled activity (hence "artful" and "arts of war") or to the products of such activity (hence "artefact" and "artificial"). It was not until the 18th century that the so-called fine arts were singled out as the expression of a special "disinterested" attitude to the world, a suspension of our normal desire to possess and consume. We don't rush to the grocer after looking at a still life of apples; we don't (one hopes) rush to the brothel after seeing a nude. "A man of polite imagination," wrote the essayist Addison, as the chief populariser of this new view, "looks upon the world, as it were in another light, and discovers in it a multiple of charms, that conceal themselves from the generality of mankind."

It is not an accident (as Marxists say) that the notion of aesthetic disinterestedness took shape in a society increasingly dominated by material interests. For many educated people, art rather than religion became the sanctuary of "higher values" in a commercialised world.

To us, children of the 20th century, the idea of aesthetic disinterestedness looks rather bucolic. Freudians mock its naivety, Marxists its hypo crisy. And yet, when all is said and done, what else is there to distinguish art from propaganda, pornography or advertising? Should we accept that there is no longer any essential difference?

"We want to be individual but within a new climate," writes the TV art critic Matthew Collings, "a climate where basically we have signed up to advertising. We simply don't challenge its assumptions." It is not surprising that the main collector of modern British art should be an advertising magnate, and that his purchases should have the slick cleverness of the best commercials. To ask "Is it art?" seems gauche, like questioning the profit motive at a company board meeting. Perhaps we should just follow the babushkas, and bow our heads.