The world’s big national museums are deeply glamorous places. We keep quiet in their hallowed halls, we wander the galleries in reverence, we look at a caption here and there, but, sometimes, if we’re honest, deep in our hearts, we may be asking ourselves what we’re doing there.Art enjoys unparalleled prestige in the modern world, but the reasons for this are rarely explained in plain terms. Just why does art matter? When people want to praise art museums, they sometimes remark that they are our ‘new cathedrals’. This seems an extremely accurate analogy, because for hundreds of years, cathedrals were, just like museums, by far the most significant places in society; they were the buildings people lavished money on and felt proudest of. They were the spiritual hearts of the community.
But there remains a huge difference between museums and cathedrals in terms of our collective awareness of what the two types of buildings should be for. You used to go to the cathedral for some clear reasons: because you wanted to save your soul, because you were looking for comfort, you needed community, you wanted to develop your moral character or you were hoping for consolation and redemption.
What do we go to the art museum for? We know that art is meant to be somehow good for us, but to ask simply ‘What is it for?’ may sound childishly naive, impatient or vulgar. Some of our visits therefore bear the hallmarks of an uncertainty about their purpose. There is huge respect but also, somewhere within many of us, a distinct confusion.
Now in truth, art can do for us a remarkable number of the very things that religion once did. Culture is in a position to replace many of the functions of scripture.