Paintings and body parts

on .

Matthew Bown's article in the Times Literary Supplement, April 10 ("Traces of the Holy") makes much of the comparison between enthusiasm for authentic works of art and for holy relics. 

But it is easy to oversell the case. "The art market today", says Bown, "is a market in crypto-relics, no more, no less." Really? Paintings and finger joints are all, as he puts it, "traces" of artists and saints. But they are different kinds of traces. Finger joints are merely traces of agents, while paintings are traces of agency--of the active, conscious and (sometimes) talented imposition of paint on a surface. They are traces which may manifest admirable levels of technical and imaginative skill. 

Bodily remnants, photographs of loved ones. discarded clothing sometimes have an intense and intelligible value for us. But it is a different kind of value. Making an effort to see an original Rembrandt makes a kind of sense that going to see Rembrandt's knuckle bone would never do unless you had some close personal relation to him.