Joseph Cornell's discarded, familiar items aren't just a load of old rubbish, they represent an ongoing theme of the art of the artless, writes Richard D North
JOSEPH CORNELL made a name for himself half a century ago as a man who most mined his own rather limited life, but also his quite small world - New York and its suburbs - for shards of memory, scraps of equipment. A broken wine glass, a portion of electrical plug, a bit of a map: these were things made redundant by progress or abuse, which he treasured and presented to us because they trigger a reflection.

Joseph Cornell's Vision of Spiritual Order (Reaktion Books, 20 April, pounds 14.95) by Lindsay Blair, a committed Cornellite, shows how he turned these items into something which was quite like art, but the value of which to its audience was to do with it being artless. He seemed to be saying that one might order oneself, and especially get to grips with the transcendental, by being careful about the contents of one's dustbin.

This is a sort of work which is very resonant just now. When Damien Hirst shows us his pharmacists' cupboards of mind-enhancing drugs, he is casually reminding us to look carefully at the dreams - and the life-avoidance strategies - which lie within these clinical bits of furniture. The surprise arises because one doesn't usually look in a shopfront or a clinic for visual clues about the big issues.

Hirst may seem heartless as well as artless, but the effect remains a substantial jolt. The device reminds us of 17th-century still-lifes, and especially those trompe l'oeils of letter-boards to which are taped and pinned the lucky hands of cards, the tradesmen's bills, the scrawled notes in which our successes and failures and hopes and fears are also flagged up. It is seen in still-lifes, whose power comes from the transforming force of close inspection of the ordinary. Nicholas Volley's work at the Browse and Darby gallery (19 Cork Street, London W1, until 9 April) relishes kitchen and pantry in a big-boned, jolly sort of way which would only have slightly startled a 17th or 18th-century still-life painter.

The Albemarle Gallery (49 Albemarle Street, London W1) opens a show of trompe l'oeil by Elena and Michel Gran (2-25 April), a French painting team who depict maps and playing cards and much other detritus of a cod- Medieval and early modern world, and though the joke of these seems a little overdone, and the painting a little sentimental, some of them hit the spot, as though a memory had been stirred by a sudden waft of perfume. The show will be followed on the same walls by glamorous, glowing paintings by the Bosnian, Mersad Berber (30 April-23 May), in which trompe l'oeils of collages make visual puns, again to perhaps overheated effect, but to effect nonetheless.

Cornell concentrated on objects rather than painting, but the point is the same. He produced "dossiers" which were accumulations of files, a bit like a child's scrapbook in purpose. And then there were his "boxes", which are most like art, because they have a front and a frame. The found objects within make us wonder what they meant to the artist. And the supposition is that Cornell had a half subversive thought that he might force us to consider what such things mean to us, never minding why he lighted on them.

There is something in the air now which makes such work doubly powerful. We know well enough that scrapbooks and collage and decoupage have been the nearly artistic activity of ordinary people for generations. Our window ledges and office desks have always been littered with objects which acquire a talismanic quality, and whose arrangement and rearrangement is done with fetishistic care.

Nabokov wrote about the psychotic end of this sort of obsessiveness, an exquisite over-refinement of feeling and self-awareness which shades into depravity. Lindsay Blair's account of Cornell makes one think he might well have been a pill-or-three short of a happy bunny. Like the Surrealists he admired, he was infused with ideas about exploring the subconscious. The idea of a freefall through associations mattered. He held himself together by making little altars of the humdrum, small sacraments of preservation. Mental chaos was soothed by listing and assembling things and ideas, by making a taxonomy of litter.

But even those who think of themselves as robustly well or normal can be touched by this stuff. There is now a quite strong - often suspect - revolt against the Modern, and perhaps against the western. It takes many forms, but it is clearly seen in our admiration of images such as those in The Art of Holy Russia at the Royal Academy (until 14 June). These must be the most artistically intelligent, various and stylish of any collection of icons, and yet they remain - by the highest Western standards - inadequate technically, tending to the monotonous, and excessively stylised. They move us, though partly because they remind us of a tradition in which not artfulness, but seriousness of purpose, is admired. Icons are intended for worship not scrutiny, for adoration not criticism. That wrong-foots us: it's our absence of prayer, not the painter's absence of genius that we must address.

That's true of this entire genre: Hirst or Cornell are admired only for what they choose to show us, and the effect they create in us, not really for their arrangement or depiction. They join the icon painter in conveying a message and invoking a response. If any of them were more intellectually or technically accomplished - or it showed - they might be less effective.

It is tempting to see much of this tendency as dim-witted or cowardly. But there is something solid, too, in our nostalgia for an age of faith, but also for an age which had the luxury of leaving old things around. There are physical as well as religious or cultural traditions we fear we should not have junked. Sometimes, we simply recreate them, nervously. Prince Charles' Poundbury (Some first stage houses remain: C G Fry and Sons, 01305 257267) is a rather good architectural ensemble. If his architectural dossier, his collage, is a bit comical, isn't it better than hammerhead cul-de-sacs?

So many of us now, thank goodness, have new things around us that we are bound to place a premium on the aura and the patina which only long use confers on the old. Country Living has just published a guide to Architectural Salvage centres called "Reclaim and Restore"( in association with SALVO, 01890 820333)

It lists Bailey's, a household fittings store at Ross-on-Wye, outside which there's an old bicycle, rotting in a camp and disingenuous way among the wrought iron features on sale. This is salesmanship of a high order. The place sells many new things, but they are presented in the manner of an architectural salvage depot. The baths, the tables, mantles are designed to go into the kind of houses in which expensive kitchen units come ready "distressed". The window of L'Occitane, the soap shop in Regent Street, and the products within, are designed to evoke an age of "proper" ironmongers, of enamel and wood, to recall memories of carbolic while erasing the chilblains.

All this is as easy to send up as Andy Goldsworthy sheep-fold, which is no more than dry stone walling with attitude. Often enough, nostalgia is merely cowardly, "spirituality" merely self-serving, the artless merely a con. But it's hard not to admit the force of much of this iconographic material. Our civilisation has always played around with these themes. But it has seldom made such a fabulous assault on the familiar. A reaction was inevitable.