Why is Bertel Thorvaldsen Cultural Heritage?

Golden days at Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen, 18 Sep 2015

Architect Anna Maria Indrio, Sculptor, Professor Bjørn Nørgaard and Museum Director Stig Miss each have their opinion on why Bertel Thorvaldsen is a cultural heritage. Is it the sculptor, the museum or the sculptures?

Bjørn’s opinion:
Culture is in principle all of it. It is the sum of all the activities – the human relations and their consequences, material as well as spiritual products, be they existing or no longer existing, police, athletics, politics, sex, art, private, public – which together is expressing cultural society in a given period.

In retrospect historians, politicians and writers try to divide “cultural history” into epochs by selecting special characteristics. And this is how we get cultural history and museums of cultural history.

What makes the concept of history so decisive in our European national democratic states of law is that the power of the king or prince in absolute monarchy is legitimized by God. When God is declared dead and when absolute monarchy is abolished it is history that legitimize the law of the people to the nation. Because of this the national museums in the 19th century is having a decisive influence in establishing the new national identity. Of course this identity builds on a long traditional understanding of belonging in a language and in a specific geographic area, but now it is the law of the people, meaning international law, which is the national.

Art is the special, the unique, it is not the universal story but the personal story.

When in everyday language we equate the arts with cultural life confusions tend to arise because in a cultural context art is the special. While events are taking place, art situates itself elsewhere and looks back at “us”; while we act and live, art describes morality, ethics, everyday images representing us, helping us to understand ourselves better. Art becomes a kind of superego, a voyeur, often it shifts temporal events into the present and reinterpret them, making it possible to understand our motives for this and that in new ways. Just like art we “project” our reality into the future etc.

The role of art since the 19th century has changed like everything else. In the beginning when the national romantic museums are founded cultural history and the national romantic artists have in many ways a common goal in the new democratic national states: To create a national identity. But especially during 20th century modernism and the increasingly negative understanding of the nation as being repressive, art detaches itself from the power structure to instead define the world through the artist, often in a critical opposition to the existing values and therefore perceived as provocative.

In the ‘60s people seek to redefine the “modernist” role of the artist and today we have an almost schizophrenic situation where the market completely dominates the art world. Simultaneously, in an almost sadomasochist manner, capital invests in and funds famous artists who in their works are showing how wrong the consequences of capitalism are. So that capital can set up charitable foundations to

ward off the damages they earned their money on. Anyhow: This museum and Thorvaldsen come into being exactly at the moment when all of this begins to happen with the birth of the national democratic state of law. It is not the king that gets the collection, although he actually owned the production, but the citizen of Copenhagen. And it is not the king that builds the museum, but the city.

At the same time, the thing is that for a cultural historian an artifact from the 19th century is an artifact from the 19th century, whether it is a chest of drawers or a sculpture by Thorvaldsen. In addition the chest of drawers might well be more interesting in a cultural history perspective and therefore more valuable.

An art historian sees the sculpture by Thorvaldsen first and foremost as a work of art. After that history may provide a more detailed understanding of the work’s emergence.

In the light of today’s trend of uniting art museums and museums of cultural history it is worth discussing if we in our global world have arrived at a moment where cultural history and art history again share an identical idea, as they did in the beginning.

But this is happening not for the sake of cultural history and definitely not for artistic reasons. It is because we are at a moment where democracy is being abolished. The algorithms and numbers machines of the ministry of finance neither needs history nor art.