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This review is taken from PN Review 146, Volume 28 Number 6, July - August 2002.

THE MATTER OF ART PETER DE BOLLA, Art Matters (Harvard University Press), £23.95

Art, as a concept and an experience, is particularly vulnerable today. A strong move in recent cultural criticism has been either to ignore it or to deny that it is anything other than a social construction; to claim that what is defined as art and the aesthetic is historically and culturally variable and has no enduring status. In this context, arguments that aim to uphold the validity and importance of art may be defensive or stridently affirmative. De Bolla's book is neither; he is well aware of the objections to the idea of art and the aesthetic but he nonetheless wants to argue, quietly and thoughtfully, on their behalf. In a sense, his approach is captured in the ambiguity of his title, in the oscillation of 'matters' between verb and noun. If art matters, this is best demonstrated by looking at particular matters of art, in the form of artworks. The four artworks on which de Bolla focuses are Marc Quinn's Self (1991), a cast of the artist's head composed of his frozen blood, which serves as the key point of reference in the book's introduction and conclusion; Barnett Newman's painting Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51); Glenn Gould's 1981 version of Bach's Goldberg Variations; and Wordsworth's poem 'We Are Seven' (1798).

To list these works is instantly to highlight the risk of de Bolla's enterprise. Marc Quinn's Self, above all, lies beyond the limit of some people's conception of art; Newman's painting can still encounter resistance; Gould's undeniable ...


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