If it's perched on a table, it cannot be art

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LAST WEEK, a group of distinguished art historians wrote to this paper to correct the impression that Canova's Three Graces was a second-rate work by a minor artist. On the contrary, they said, it was one of the most beautiful works of neo-classical art, and the consummate achievement in post-Baroque sculpture.

Poor old Three Graces] As a popular work of art it has everything going against it. It is neo-Classical - a style which has been revised in esteem but never taken to heart. It is post-Baroque, but in the unspoken mental history of art there was the Renaissance (Donatello, very good), High Renaissance (Michelangelo, very, very good) and Baroque (Bernini, dodgy). And after the Baroque there was . . . nothing. There was a Dark Age. Then there was Rodin and then Modern Art. So the 'consummate achievement of the post-Baroque' is not a popular selling line.

The third thing against the Three Graces is that it is a sculpture. Popular taste in the visual arts is largely drawn to painting. Sculpture is a specialist interest. People do not like to admit this.

In theory, painting and sculpture should have an equal claim on our attention. But I'm afraid observation proves otherwise.

Take Michelangelo, revered as the best sculptor of all time, but more revered as a painter. Nothing compares with the sight of the crowds making their way down the long corridors to the Sistine Chapel. I was there recently, and before taking the Sistine plunge I followed another sign which said, simply, that this other corridor was a dead end. At the end of this corridor (which was, in fact, a celebrated gallery) lay another gallery, the Braccio Nuovo, full of classical sculpture. In the last century this would have been a place of pilgrimage. Now it was almost empty.

If you set yourself the goal, as I have done several times recently, of concentrating on the scultpures in a gallery that mixes the arts (such as the Wallace Collection, the Frick or the Ashmolean), you will notice you have a much more relaxing time than if you look at paintings.

Few other people seem to pay the sculptures the slightest bit of attention. You could be going round a different museum.

When a cloak of invisibility descends on an object which was once believed to be a masterpiece, this is what we mean by a shift of taste. A thing highly prized becomes utterly obscure. The Three Graces vanishes from mental view. Sculpture itself loses its leading role.

Last Tuesday this paper ran an extensive, somewhat adverse account of what Tim Clifford had done to the National Gallery of Scotland. This is one of those galleries which mixes furniture and sculpture with painting, and Mr Clifford has extended the collection in the direction of Italian Renaissance medals. He had also made a heroic effort in the direction of a Giambologna. But this did not carry weight with the author of the article. Somehow, sculpture did not count.

Sculpture is always vulnerable to a form of downgrading, when it is considered as one of the decorative arts. People will walk past a bronze on a table, because they think of it as an ornament rather than a work of art. Yet a gallery that successfully mixes painting with furniture and sculpture has a warmth of atmosphere and an extra level of meaning which a plain display of paintings is denied.

A gallery, conversely, which displays only sculpture, or even only sculpture in stone, can be an extraordinarily handsome thing. The Glyptothek in Munich is one such. The Braccio Nuovo is another. The Woburn building from which the Three Graces was removed would have been another such, and it is frustrating to think that all the rest of it is still there, distributed around Woburn. It could be put back together again.

We do not have a national gallery of scupture. Instead, the national collection is held at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where it is seen in the context of the decorative arts. This is quite appropriate in the case of many objects which were originally designed for a function (architectural details, door knockers, lamps, parts of furniture), but which have come to be valued in their own right.

What seems to have faded weirdly in the V & A is the sense of sculptures as individual masterpieces by great artists. You would think that a museum is supposed to communicate, but apart from a general guidebook which devotes a few pages to sculpture, there is no museum guide to the sculpture collection as such. There is (at pounds 22.50) a book called Northern Gothic Sculpture by Paul Williamson, which turns out on close inspection to be a catalogue of 50-odd pieces from the collection. But that is as far as the helpful hints go.

A recent catalogue of Donatello puts the total number of his works at 83. The largest proportion of these is in Florence. Next in importance come Siena and Padua. After that, the V & A, with nine items, is the place to go. But you would never have guessed from the museum's own presentation (even before some of the relevant rooms were closed for re-wiring).

I went to the V & A on Saturday, and managed by chance to find a few of the Donatellos dotted about (it was quite a thrill). The famous Cellini Madonna, which they say once served as an ashtray in a country house, is upstairs in the gallery devoted to small bronzes. Few people went into that gallery or stayed long if they did (a large group of small bronzes, however good, makes a tedious visual impression) and while I was there no one at all looked at the Donatello. The Donatellos downstairs were also wrapped in a cloak of invisibility.

Occasionally some statue was labelled or signalled in a way which made visitors stop and give it a really good look. One such was the Bernini Neptune and Triton. Another was Giambologna's Samson slaying a Philistine. But the impression gained from much of the labelling was that, years ago, the museum had once owned a typewriter, but it had hit a snag.

I looked at the display of Canova and his contemporaries, which would have shocked Canova. It looks like an afterthought. Then, as urged, I went back to the entrance to make my contribution to the appeal fund. I hope the Canova is saved for the nation. I think it would look good in Mr Clifford's National Gallery of Scotland. After that, perhaps we could have an appeal to save the V & A for the nation.