I am a university lecturer and each year am obliged to teach a course entitled ‘Museums and Society’. As you might imagine, I frequently find myself ploughing through the propaganda produced by museums, negotiating their claims to exist for the broader good of the public and of art at large. Every time I teach this course, it reawakens within me the devil’s advocate that exists to counter any type of self-serving rhetoric. One of my suspicions is that museums have become the special place of art, taking it out of the sphere of everyday existence and, in the process, occluding the fundamental need for it. Art, when found in a museum, can be visited from a sense of morbid duty, as one might visit some distant relative in an old people’s home. That duty has been extended to include claiming that the whole experience is marvellously enriching.
It was because I tend to think in this way that I welcomed Shaping the World, a new book by the sculptor Antony Gormley and the critic Martin Gayford, as a veritable liberation. The book, which consists of an extended dialogue between the two men, is a vehicle for exploring