What Do Saints’ Bones and Duchamp’s Urinal Have in Common?

Why do art collectors pay millions of dollars for works that have no apparent material value? In a lengthy and rambling essay, Matthew Brown makes a persuasive case that the market for modern art can be traced back to the tradition of relic-adoration:

Prior to the Renaissance, and even during it, the supreme objects of popular and official veneration were not works of art: they were the relics of the saints. That is to say, pieces of the saints’ bodies, and objects which they had worn, touched, or with which they were associated. It is in the culture that flourished around such relics that we find the ancient analogue of our own art-world. From early in the first millennium AD and for a period of over a thousand years relics — essentially useless and worthless pieces of bone or hair or skin, or scraps of cloth, or other random objets – were collected and worshipped with a fervor that is today reserved for art. [. . .] Nothing foreshadows the contemporary attitude to art so much as the medieval Christian veneration of relics. And it’s a corollary of the self-awareness of contemporary artists that some at least should also realize that they are producing a kind of contemporary relics. Duchamp returned to us the ancient understanding that that real-world objects and artist-created images and can exist in a single discursive continuum; and this article suggests that this continuum should be extended back in time to incorporate the relics of the martyrs.


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