“The Finest Things on Earth”: the Elgin Marbles and the Sciences of Taste
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CitationGjikola, Ardeta. 2017. “The Finest Things on Earth”: the Elgin Marbles and the Sciences of Taste. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractIn this dissertation I consider claims often made in the long eighteenth century that beauty was objective, that aesthetic value was intrinsic to objects of art, and that, with the right conditions and training, both could be identified and assessed with certainty. To understand these claims, I examine concrete situations in which taste judgments were formed and acknowledgement of expertise in them secured. The aesthetic discovery in the eighteenth century of the sculptures that adorned the Parthenon, their removal by Lord Elgin while he was ambassador to the Ottoman Porte during 1800-1803, and their placement in the British Museum in 1816, offer a rare opportunity for a detailed reconstruction of such processes, because extensive documentation relating to these events survives in the form of personal correspondence, diaries and newspaper articles. Based on a close analysis of these, I identify specific practices painters and connoisseurs used for training their attention in order to observe particular features of the sculptures, practices which, I argue, they shared with anatomists and natural historians of the period. I examine in addition how the aesthetic evaluation of the Elgin Marbles as “the finest things on earth” was guided by a comparative logic that had an intellectual foundation in attempts to historicize art and a material basis in the emergence of an international market in antiquities and Old Master paintings. And I argue that the manner in which pronouncements on their value circulated—primarily in the periodical press of the period—was constitutive for the objectification of that value and decisive for the acknowledgement of particular artists as experts in matters of taste. More generally, I make the case that the experience of aesthetic taste as accounted by the historical actors involved can be understood better by introducing an analytical distinction between its various aspects—observation, valuation, and evaluation—and that each can be examined and reconstructed in ways similar to how historians of science have scrutinized processes of knowledge making and certification. Such treatment departs significantly from accounts of cultural historians who have interpreted talk about taste or the exercise of taste judgments in eighteenth-century Britain as performing primarily a social function, that of distinction. I bring to the subject insights from recent attempts by historians of science to historicize observation, as well as from new developments in cultural sociology.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:41140218
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