What is art?

A few years ago, as I understand it, a group of feminists took over the Manchester Art Gallery. As part of their takeover, they placed new explanatory plaques in some of the exhibition rooms. The plaques, which are still there, riff on the existing ones, but provide a snarky radical feminist spin. Here is an example:

In the wake of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, male merchant manufacturers increasingly bought male produced art. Who knew?

Their grand homes housed impressive collections, again with the purpose of wasting money and showing off to other rich men; anything to distract attention from the crappy conditions they were making people work in.

As the male middle classes entered positions in public life, they also acquired male art for important civic buildings, including town halls and the House of Parliament. This did sod all for women who were not allowed in any of these places for fear that they might actually do something good for the world!

Other bodies such as the Royal Manchester Institution (this place here) were founded for the promotion of science and the male arts. The RMI was funded by public subscription from 1823 and along with its collection was based in this building. Its holdings and the gallery were given to the city in 1882, whatever that means!

Boosted by national pride through (massive capitalism) export and (ripping off the rest of the world) empire, the new male patrons preferred contemporary British art. How nice. This represented a shift away from 18th century taste, which was well past its sell by date and mainly favoured continental old (patriarchs) masters.

Seriousness and morality remained important in art as (like a dog with a bone) painters couldn’t waste an opportunity to paint naked young women, while saying they’re bad and scary!

There are about half a dozen such plaques, I think. As I recall, they stop at the room displaying the pre-Rafaelites. Perhaps these artists somehow escape the wrath of contemporary feminists. More likely, the rads ran out of sophomoric snark.

For centuries, philosophers have asked, “What is art”? I don’t think there’s ever been a good answer, but there have been plenty of bad ones. The feminist drivel at the Manchester Art Gallery is one of the worst.

Philosophy aside, there’s also the question of why visit an art gallery. If the art on display is a waste of money produced and consumed in order to distract people from awful conditions and out of the desire of men to paint and view naked women, the answer is that there’s no good reason to visit an art gallery.

There’s an obvious parallel to the study of literature. Some professors at American colleges and universities treat the literature they teach the same way the Manchester feminists treat paintings. As result, fewer and fewer students want to take their courses.

Unfortunately, some of the plaques written by the Manchester Art Gallery staff resemble the feminist diatribes, minus the snark. They widen the lens to focus not just about gender, but also race, sexual preference, and “powerlessness.” Thus, visitors to the gallery get a double dose of left-wing identity politics.

Manchester is a lefty city. Its last Conservative MP lost his seat in 1987. Still, I doubt that many Mancunians want to spend any part of their weekend learning about the oppression of women and the working class at an art gallery. At any rate, attendance was sparse when I visited the gallery on a Sunday.

As the left marches through our institutions, the public, to the extent it can, marches out of them.

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