museums2
Venice Biennale 2011

(from ARTMargins) The original impetus for this reflection came from a series of visits and encounters with new and old museums in Wien. One could find at the more discrete institutions insightful and scrupulously presented work, and at the more grandiose sites, exhibitions that were infuriating in their clumsy submission to the needs of financial survival. This is not meant as a blanket characterization but describes a trend that Bettina Funcke states is “part of a current emphasis on the spectacularization of the museum in general: start with a great building, attract tourists, and then fill it with whatever traveling exhibition happens to be at hand.”
This spectacularization is nothing new nor are the examples I found in Wien isolated. Rather, they illustrate the more visible markers that dot the global cultural landscape; markers which designate not simply notable concentrations of cultural provisions but structures enmeshed within the particular ideological scaffolding of the host environment. Structures which have stood now “For some two centuries” as Donald Preziosi states and in which “the museum has been a powerful and effective crucible in which modern historiography, psychology, ethics and aesthetics have been brought into mutual alignment as coordinated and complimentary systems within the Enlightenment project of commensurability.” In this context, at this moment in time, the thrust toward spectacularization is not surprising.
My earlier notes resurfaced when I encountered – in different publications - Marina Grzinic’s essay, “Does Contemporary Art Need Museums Anymore?” Grzinic touches on more than simply a timely slogan. In the sweep of its rhetorical motion she seeks to examine the question by constructing a fragile analytical tension that mixes bursts of scattered insinuations with critical metaphors. While the ardor of her undertaking is laudable her ultimate destination is unclear.
Grzinic’s question cannot merely be read as the reiteration of a “rhetorical” proclamation nor simply a sign of a communal disenchantment. Rather, it designates a fecund – recurring - marker in a tumultuous cultural geography.
But, the implied duality of the question skews the discussion in disturbing directions. There is the sense, also, that it sidelines the public as a relevant participant in this conversation.
Consequently, a public stake in a ‘museum discourse’ is minimal. Thereby answering Nick Merriman’s question about why museums “consistently seem to be associated with certain social groups” and thus narrowing the field of factors that “determine the exact nature of the relationship between images of the past, museum visiting and ideas about the present.” However, my intent is not a critique of Grzinic’s essay but rather to extend her inquiry and to elaborate upon a timely subject.
This is an inappropriate review in which to attempt a thorough analysis of the history of the museum and museumology; however, by locating the origins of the present-day art museum in the vicinity of the Louvre and the French Revolution, we have a useful jumping-off point for a more abbreviated discussion.
The forces which inaugurated the Louvre did more than create a physical repository, they also substantiated the social space of the art museum within an ideological context. It became for Donald Preziosi “a device for distributing the spaces of social memory” wherein “art provided the means for envisioning all times and places and peoples within a common and universal and “neutral” frame.” Consequently, it is both the form of the museum and its contents that give dimension to a range of questions pertaining to intersecting convolutions of art and society.
Public exhibition sites - museums, parks or galleries - define and render a spatial context for the various forms of discourse. They define the perceptual and physical realms in which the public can interact with objects and systems of knowledge. Yet, in spite of its auspicious beginnings, as Merriman has suggested the museum “followed aristocratic models both in buildings, contents, and methods of display.” Thus, the present-day art museum is enshrouded in ideological baggage.
With this background, does anyone need museums? As social spaces capable of cultivating numerous public reactions their existence is dependent on public and private funds. And, although the art museum fulfills a multitude of generally accepted social functions, its survival and relevance is constantly linked to such recurring questions as: within what economic framework can the art museum best survive? Should a museum’s civic status and purpose simplify economic autonomy and institutional independence? Can it – should it - exist independent of the criteria and conditions that circumscribe other modern institutions?
An art museum’s relevance – especially the larger institutions - is often measured by its ability to reach an array of people and present a range of experiences. To fulfill this aspect of its commission, and with government funding diminishing, it follows that its economic viability is tied to a mix of funding streams.
As Hans Haacke states: “the power relations between art institutions and their sources of funding have become more complex. Museums used to be maintained either as public agencies – the tradition in Europe – or through private donations and philanthropic organizations, as has been the pattern in the United States.”
Today, museums, like most cultural endeavors, must negotiate their way through a complex of responsibilities that are civic, educational, and curatorial. Behind this web of obligations lie basic underlying assumptions: institutions that garner public funding must provide a direct public service and furnish an accountability for the public funds they utilize. Private institutions, though less dependent on public funds, must also nevertheless maintain a positive civic image.
In this framework, it is simplistic to diminish a museums relevance simply because budget balancing is dependent on an ability to attract tourist money. Far more important is how to address financial difficulties without sacrificing the surrounding issues of institutional independence and purpose.
While in the past artistic production was dependent on the benevolence of the aristocracy and/or the clergy; today both government, corporations, individuals and public foundations fund art work. Art work, then lies within a conundrum. For although specific artworks certainly exist outside the actual physical domain of an art museum, it is increasingly difficult to imagine art existing outside of the institutional framework that the museum represents.
And, since art as a praxis – as a realized project or object – concerns itself with processes of intent, the articulation of that intent, and interactions between the work and the public. The museum is thus a primary site wherein the public and the work converge: where diverse publics - school children, pensioners, tourists, families, students, other artists, etc. - and the realms of art intersect.
When Haacke stated that “museums work in the vineyards of consciousness” his observation sought to guide us to a place where constructive engagement with the issue was more possible. Particularly, as he further observed that “an institution’s intellectual and moral position becomes tenuous only if it claims to be free of ideological bias.” Thus, barely twenty years ago, the parameters of the discourse were discernible.
Further clarifying Haacke’s remarks Donald Preziosi states that “since the end of the eighteenth century” museums, as ideologically defined zones of activity, “are heterotopic sites within social life which provides subjects with some of the means to simulate mastery of their lives whilst compensating for the contradictions and confusions of daily life.”
As a place of assembly and encounter, the art museum is therefore a form of charged social space – offering the possibility of a multitude of responses, i.e. solitude, ecstasy, anger, fear. In its various spheres of activity, it is capable of engendering forms of discourse that might emanate from a public exigency, curatorial practice or the quality and import of artistic work.
Museum directors and management –artists- all comprehend that each art work represents a site of potential encounter. Their task involves the spatialization of an experience that is dormant. The means of presentation and methods of communication they employ signify the organization and definition of a museum’s social space and through its articulation and definition it becomes crucial to the form and comprehension of an artistic work.
For the observer, viewer, there is a basic ephemeral quality to the process. (It might reappear as we turn the next corner or within a dream). An uncertainty about what is being seen (has been seen) that can linger or evaporate. These diverse dialogic occurrences, forms of communication, arise when a work of art moves from the conceptual arena to the various forms of public presentation. They are difficult to quantify. The types of exchanges and their dynamics cannot be reduced to a few words.
Furthermore, the place or site at which these exchanges takes place represents a place of mediation between the work and its witnesses. Regardless of the nature of the response - anger, laughter, pleasure, pain, etc. - a form of understanding, an agreement of sorts, is acknowledged between artist and spectator/s.
The site of encounter might have actual physical contours or could be signified by a brief or protracted gaze; It might be a glare of utter confusion. It could be as Joseph Kosuth said that the viewer “experiences the language of the construction of what is seen… which makes the language visible also forces the viewer/reader to realize their own subjective role in the meaning making process.” Thus, in this scenario, the museum has the potential to serve as a crucible within which new relationships between the work and the public can be developed.
Then, the museum mediates and defines relationships between the public and the realms of art. It is simultaneously an experiential space and a civic institution. Yet, as social space the curatorial and architectural qualities of the museum and its role and functions as a quasi-governmental institution are inseparable.
In this framework, the world of art and the work of the artist has expanded from a ghettoized sub-culture into and arena that reflects the tools and economies of a larger social context. Whether transparent or hidden, debated in public forums or the subject of dictatorial boardroom proclamations, Art making has become a reflection of the proclivities and designs of individuals and institutions. While the individual artist might find solace in the privacy of his/her studio, they ultimately confront the institutional-corporate-governmental actualities that define the cultural environment within which they work.
The art work -innocently, willingly , or with little choice – has succumbed to its inclusion within the ancillary transactions that define relationships between the numerous spheres of the art world and the public. Questions of analysis – critical analysis, observation, critique – are no longer simply about the work but draw upon interstitial indices of language, culture, and nationality. While an analysis might originate from the specifics of the work, it finally encompasses elements from a broad matrix of factors contributing to its gestation and realization.
As an
experiential space, as an architectural entity, there are numerous factors which detract or contribute to the presence of an aura that is attached to a museum. Its qualities, facets of the architecture, history, location, etc. can support or delimit the contextualization the work. One can say, then, that each museum has the capacity to extend a language of mediation between the public and art. Grzinic’s assertion that “the museum of 2000 is… almost deprived of any aura” is the type of blanket statement that forecloses any discussion of how exactly the architectural qualities of a museum function, and their relationship to curatorial practice.
The form of the museum and its contents are influenced by social and political factors. The primacy of any one factor can change depending on shifts in individual benevolence, institutional priorities, civic upheaval or economic stability. Thus, the art museums that Grzinic says “institutionalize and regulate a public sphere of demand, production and consumption” are only the social spaces that contain the end results of processes of cultural construction.
As a civic institution the art museum represents the spatialization of its ideological determinants. Here these constituents can assume a physical, a material reality. Regardless of size, budget etc. museums are gatekeepers, judges or referees. Preservationists. They endeavor to substantiate a society’s cultural past, present and future.
As the primary venues for the presentation of artistic work, art museums are the most visible points in which corporate, civic and aesthetic values intersect, and in some cases collide. They are the most visible entities in the a web of relationships that affect what Hans Magnus Enzensberger had called the ‘consciousness industry.’ These connections were further clarified by Hans Haacke when he stated that “Artists as much as their galleries, museums and journalists, not excluding art historians, hesitate to discuss the industrial aspect of their activities.”
The ‘product’ lies within. The application of a veneer is provided by the site. A cache is added by the institution that houses or commissioned the work. Though there might be a certain subtlety to the style of these endeavors, the result is clear. After all, it is not unusual to see a myriad of corporate logos attached to an exhibition or particular work of art.
The elevation of the museum as a public site reflected the transformation of a popular cultural praxis dominated by the clergy and aristocracy to one in which as Maureen Sherlock states, “art becomes subjected to the laws of consumption.”
The appearance of individual donors, corporate logos and a structure’s status within the pantheon of civic architecture are markers in the processes of commodification.. They signal the degrees of institutional, governmental, and corporate integration.
The highly visible and commodified world of art continues to take on startling dimensions. New means of public exhibition and display have arisen alongside the standard commissions which fuel the museum. These developments have certainly extended its functions beyond the responsibilities of preservation and display into new institutional relationships – now always potentially global in reach.
The topography of this trans-cultural world is composed of multi-layered visual/virtual/auditory environments consisting of combinations of physical and imaginary phenomenon: seductive fluid images; clogged highways of melodic or discordant sounds; paths that might lead to a lament; forests of colored shapes and forms; or, smudged skylines dotted with primeval constructions. Through sheer density and variety of matériel this jumbled assemblage of stimuli would seem impenetrable and incomprehensible. Yet, its permeability, accessibility, emanates from the fomenting emotions and ideas –a pulsing plasma - that fuel this immense cultural environment.
An entire global network that evaluates, tags and packages ART has matured into an uneven yet definable system of public and private institutions. In the Western, industrialized world (and other countries clearly within this orbit) these institutions are central to processes of cultural definition and legitimization.
These networks of cultural activity congeal, dissolve and reform into new nodes of action. They contain what Homi K. Bhabha called “the space of intervention emerging in the cultural interstices that introduce creative invention into existence.” And, Within these spheres are the people and institutions whose pronouncements and ideas give substance and shape to cultural capital. They form discursive zones built around competing systems, interests and languages. They foster a discourse that is mostly disjointed or fragmented.
It is not solely the reified idea of the museum that has concerned us here. But, whether the museum (an embodiment of an Enlightenment ideal) can be more than another deflated model of a public sphere. Or, a site that Maureen Sherlock considers might offer “another chance to create those hybrids of social life and creativity where the real agents of history live out there daily lives.”
Or, as Rosa Martinez’s observes that “if we are to hail the survival strategies of contemporary art’s multinationals as something to be admired, at least let it not be at the expense of all the positive work that art is doing in its attempts to achieve a better understanding of our times.”
These stripped-down, no frills attitudes offer sobering perspectives. They emphasize that the dialogue is not internal, confined solely within a museum’s environs, and that the participants are more diverse. If the art museum is seen solely as an entity whose existence is forever suspended within an historically constituted web of relationships then there will be a parallel incapacity to reformulate or redefine its purpose and direction.
Perhaps what can be gleaned from Grzinic’s question is the realization that the institutional paradigm that provoked her inquiry is incapable of moving beyond its delimiting ideological parameters. And, critiques of cultural and economic entities originating in the 60’s and 70’s can only produce mixed results precisely because they rely heavily upon paradigms (and their variations) that were postulated within the specifics of that historical moment.
Thus, a critical language that would be capable of moving us beyond a flat diagrammatic inquiry of the art museum’s institutional malaise needs new conceptual tools. Incisive critical analysis born from the post-modernist condition now shows signs of cognitive slippage, a devolution of logic; discussions are too often conducted within a sandbox of restless cynicism.
Fortunately, the discursive domain is multi-faceted; there are many forces in play, not least of which are the artists themselves; and, yes, the public: the people whose perceptions – whether reluctant or eager - are intrinsic to resolving the riddle we have been trying to unravel. Allan Siegel
March 2005