Monday, 7 September 2015

Art Snobbery

A few years ago I happened to be in Palermo just for one day — (as one is, you know) — with no particular place to go. As usual in such circumstances I spent most of the day in a bar; this time one down on the waterfront, frequented by some very sinister looking people. We tried to make conversation — they had sussed at once I wasn’t local — but, lacking a common language, we didn’t get very far, though it’s amazing how much can be conveyed by simple gestures such as raising a glass or proffering a cigarette packet.

I did find my way to the cathedral. I had to pay to go in — it’s a disgrace that people must pay to enter a place of worship; they do the same at Canterbury cathedral, and if one protests that one is there for Christian worship one is directed to a small roped-off area — time, it seems to me, for Christ to come back with his whip — where was I? Yes. It was very dark in Palermo cathedral, but I tried to peer at the various works of art, or attempts thereat. Some of the paintings were at least interesting, but the sculpture, especially the life-size wood-carvings, were dreadful religiose kitsch. I was glad to get out in the open air again.

The main drag of the city had been ‘pedestrianized’, and a lot more strictly than in England or Greece. One could walk up and down without fear of being crushed by huge beer-delivery trucks, or getting glancing blows from buzzing little two-stroke motorbikes. Every fifty metres or so there were large bronze sculptures on plinths and, blinking in the sudden sunlight, I thought ‘But these look like Rodin. Surely not? Palermo couldn’t have such a large collection of his stuff.’ I went to look more closely. Indeed they were Rodins, on fairly long-term loan, and left out in the street day and night. So much for the popular idea that in Sicily anything not nailed down is at once stolen. Or perhaps the Mafia or Camorra or whatever has a high respect for art. Quite probable that.

And I thought — just how different are these Rodins from the stuff in the cathedral? Superficially, not very. Deep down, very: the Rodins were imbued with the spirit — real art is the manifestation of the spiritual in the material — and the stuff in the cathedral wasn’t. But was that, really, truly, honestly, why I thought ‘How wonderful’ looking at the Rodins, and ‘How ghastly’ looking at the cathedral sculptures? How much of it, actually, was to do with the fact that I simply recognized, on a straightforward material level, the stuff in the street as being by Rodin, and not really because their greatness as artworks called to me from across the street? True, at least I didn’t have to go up and read the labels to make sure, but even so.

Am I, in short, just a pretentious name-dropping snob?

(Answers by e-mail, please.)

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