In the summer of 1971, A.i.A. published a special issue on the state of art museums, with essays by Linda Nochlin on the history of radical attempts to transform museums and Grace Glueck on the power of trustees, among others. The pressing issues that Brian O’Doherty, then the magazine’s editor-in-chief, set out in his introduction still sound current today. “Like many institutions in the late sixties,” he wrote, “[museums] were abruptly thrust from their historical context into the vicissitudes of contemporary life, where the problems of the entire society-many of them irrelevant to art museums-were brought to bear on them.” We’re revisiting that 1971 issue this month, as we examine how museums are adapting to the challenges and opportunities posed by digital media. While technology was not on critics’ minds at the time, they were thinking about the populism of new museum practices that online engagement has accelerated. Ernest van den Haag, a sociologist and psychoanalyst known for his advocacy of conservative positions on a number of social issues, wrote about the paradox of the art museum’s position in a mass-media society, criticizing the reliance of “snob appeal” to market art to people who could never own it. “Art is no longer part and expression of life,” van den Haag wrote, “but a special and separate domain of the artist, a domain which should be worshipped and supported by his public, but not actually participated in.” Then as now, his is a contrarian position, but one worth keeping in mind when addressing the museum’s relationship to its audience. —Eds.
Museums—public collections dedicated to preserving, researching, exhibiting and occasionally cultivating what they collect—are modern institutions responding to modern needs. They are not altogether new. The library at Alexandria might be regarded as a museum (or, as well, a university). And, collecting, of course, has been done since ancient times. Unlike the Greeks, the Romans were collectors: collecting often takes the place of creating, and some of it may well stem from an unconscious recognition of inability to create.
The borderline between some collections and some museums is certainly blurred. Yet, if history is continuous, historiography requires distinctions which, though they may overstress discontinuities, are necessary for analysis: they enable us to perceive differences and changes. With these qualifications I would assert that the modern museum became possible, necessary and useful only as a result of the industrial revolution, which both created and limited the function of museums.
When, about two hundred years ago, men bent their gaze from the heavens to this earth and decided to concentrate on comfort and convenience in their temporal and material life rather than placing all their bets on glory to come, they increased the productivity of their labor for this purpose. They have continued to do so ever since. But they did more. They also created mass production: the efficient production of standardized things by standardized methods; and, of course, mass consumption: widespread demand for the newly produced standardized things. A widely shared or mass taste (or set of mass tastes) had to be created which could be catered to by the production of standardized objects.
People’s attitudes toward their work and their life changed. Economic aspirations spread, as did mobility, education, income and highly homogenized taste in styles, which in turn were mass-produced by such processes as mass education, mass communication, advertising, etc. Since people worked less—fewer hours per day, fewer days per week, fewer weeks per lifetime—time began to hang heavily on their hands. But they earned more too and numerous products became available to help them kill time—newspapers, movies mass travel, to name a few. Ultimately there occurred a shift of economic, political and— most important here—cultural power from “the classes” to “the masses.” The masses now set the cultural styles. Not that they are not led—they always are. But it is the masses that are led (and, therefore, have at least veto power), not a small elite. Whereas profitable production of goods and services in the past largely catered to the rich—whether one has in mind the services of politicians, merchants or artists—now much of it caters to broad masses of consumers. Their purchasing power is incomparably more important than that of the rich. (Even Tiffany’s sells to the masses, though partly it sells the snob appeal derived from being reputed to sell to the rich.) It is the masses who create bestsellers, go to the movies, view TV, buy records and make up the vast market for art reproductions. They are beginning even to influence the collectors’ market for old and modern art. These changes have defined, limited and institutionalized the modern museum and now threaten to pervert it.
In former times, art was created-for customers who commissioned it: for princes and institutions—the church being perhaps foremost—or later, for rich merchants and merchant princes. Thus created, art often was meant to have specific functions, religious or political, or it served status maintenance in the tradition of noblesse oblige. In any event, art was usually commissioned for a specific occasion and destined to adorn a specific room, building, piazza, church, grave, etc. Often there was a quite intimate mutual relation between the artist and the customer. Finally, art was a public matter and a public issue. Donatello’s statues led to near riots in Florence, and so still did the Fauves centuries later in Paris. Today, tolerance extends further; or is it indifference? When there is a fuss about a museum ‘s exhibit—as there was about the Metropolitan’s “Harlem on My Mind”—it is never about the esthetic, it is about the political implications.
Isabella d’Este wrote fifty-four letters to Perugino (at least that many remain) about a simple painting she had commissioned. She and the artists lived in the same community in which art mattered. Mantegna’s art did well with her fussiness, as did Titian’s with that of her brother Alfonso. And the relationship of Michelangelo to Giulio de Medici (Clement VII)—the endless fussy bickering and replanning—is well known. Michelangelo liked it, or so he explained to his pupil Condivi. Today such a participatory relationship is unlikely; the expectation of it would be resented as patron’s arrogance and would not be approved by the general public. We assume the patron doesn’t understand beans about what the artist is doing (the assumption is often correct) and should, at most, be allowed to buy the stuff as an investment. There is no community, therefore no common language, no communication or common concern (mutual concern is not common concern) and aspiration. One uses the other—politely. Art is no longer part and expression of life, but a special and separate domain of the artist, a domain which should be worshipped and supported by his public, but not actually participated in. (The theatrical arts seem on the contrary, to try to ‘Involve” the spectator and make him a participant. But not actually so. He is used as a prop rather, and assigned a role. He is not an independent participant—you’d be dead if you acted alive in the Living Theatre. Yet the fumbling attempt indicates a vague perception of something wrong.)
The artist still addresses—or thinks he addresses—the public. But there is no dialogue. He lectures to a mass meeting. Participation has been replaced by indifference, disguised as respect, which inhibits even such hostile participation as marked the reaction of the French bourgeois to the Impressionists.
To be sure, private collectors still are around. Indeed, art collecting has become not only an investment for prestige and status—it always was that, although in a less impersonal way—but also for money. Yet the position of art and artists has changed. In the Middle Ages they were part of the social structure, as craftsmen were. In the Renaissance they moved nearer center, becoming indispensable to the glory of their patrons. The industrial revolution pushed them away from the center toward the margin. Artists became marginal, dispensable and thereupon obtained the license of fools—they were allowed to lead la vie de bohème as Murger imagined it.
After the industrial revolution art no longer was part of the essence of life, nor meant to reveal it. It was treated as decoration, fashion and entertainment. Little public place was left for art—few princely and ecclesiastical commissions, few palaces, churches, public buildings, parks and occasions to celebrate. And little remained of which art could be an emblem and monument. It is hard to celebrate comfort and convenience—though it is not hard to deride it, as Pop art demonstrates. Museums became shelters for art of the past. Art became homeless—a commodity, not a personal relationship, and alienated from the surrounding reality. This development was intensified as more and more art lost its original home and its original function. Museums not only became shelters, but also—as was said disparagingly—cemeteries of art. Museums cannot be cultivated gardens, let alone natural habitats of living plants. They are places where art is preserved, as dried flowers are. This development surely was not the fault or the doing of the museums. The function of graveyards was forced on them; someone had to give a decent burial to art, a sepulcher had to be found so that the unburied bodies would not be lying around, a nuisance, and also a burden on people’s consciences when the works were gnawed at by commercial rodents. Now, as Ugo Foscolo so lyrically wrote in his great poem Dei Sepolchri, cemeteries are monuments to the affection borne by survivors to their dead, to the continuity of human civilization, and of its institutions. Ancestral graves may inspire deeds, may broaden and deepen our experience of life, and may help us to develop what our ancestors started, or to continue it. And, this too is the function of museums.
Surely in fulfilling all these functions—in preserving art, making it available to scholars and artists, displaying it to the public, in rescuing the artistic past from destruction and oblivion—museums have their hands full. Or so one might think. But it seems that all this does not keep them, or their ambitious directors, busy enough. They feel left out. They are not satisfied with being curators of cemeteries, however marvelous the illustrious remains, however great the monuments in their care. They do not want power over the dead. They want power among the living. To fulfill this ambition they do three things.
First, they become acquisitive. Additional purchases steadily add to collections. Never mind that there is not enough space to display what is already there. More can be built. If I can add to collections and buildings, I have made, out of this monument to the past, a monument to my living self as well. And, while doing so, I must be reckoned a force on art markets, and among artists, builders, politicians, donors collectors. I will preside not over a cemetery, but over a growing empire. So used, the past will give me power, and increase my present status. (Of course, to make occasional well-selected acquisitions is among the tasks of the museum director. But this task is as easily distinguished from what has just been described as normal nourishment is from greedy overeating and the consequent obesity.)
Second, these additional purchases then are used to attract great masses to the museums. Look, we don’t only have the Rembrandts you are bored by. We also have a new Rembrandt! Which must be wonderful! It cost a million! Look at it! It is new! new! new! And so they troop in, lured not by interest in art, or the past, but by interest in the sensational, the new, the expensively prestigious. A similar motivation underlies not a few—though by no means all—special exhibits.
The ambitious museum director may also resort to making his museum a cultural conglomerate. Thus he may put on exhibitions of photographs about the life (not the art, the life) of a fashionable minority group—anything to get people involved, to lure people not interested in art into the museum. It is the number that counts, not what they are doing there, nor what leads them there or what they gain by coming there. Never mind, then, that these people attracted ad majorem directoris gloriam may disturb those who actually want to see the things the museum was to cultivate. There are more people who care little and understand less of art than there are people who care and understand. Hence the former matter more. After all, the more people the museum becomes important to, the more people its director becomes important to, and the more important he feels. We live in an age of mass production and consumption. Even snobbery is sustained by the number of people one is known to, rather than by their quality.
Now, it is true that many people go to a museum out of mixed motives, and snobbery frequently plays a part in the enjoyment of its treasures. I am not against snobbery—the wish to be associated with one’s betters, or those of higher status, to be counted among them—even though this, almost by definition, confuses appearance and reality. However, I am against deliberately catering to it in the place of cultivating art. It is true that most people do not see paintings so much as themselves looking at the paintings. They do not really see what the painter painted, but rather his reputation, his brand name, as it were. If the painting were replaced by mediocre imitations, they might admire them as easily as the originals—until told. (Perhaps, then, they are gazing at least as much at the reputation of the painting as at the painting.) Still, this kind of snobbery seems preferable to that of people—and of administrators who cater to them—who come to look at exhibits as though they were celebrities, because they are in the news. Directors who themselves want to be in the news get there by “making news,” buying or doing things that are “newsworthy.” They themselves become celebrities and are looked in on by those who look at whatever is in the news.[pq]A museum seems as unlikely to replace purchasers [of contemporary art] as a cemetery is to replace life.[/pq]
There is a confluence of several forms of snobbery here. They have in common only that they all endanger the actual mission of the museum. The most prominent of the snobberies—democratic snobbery—seems to imply that only what attracts great masses is good, and conversely, what is good does attract great masses, and finally, if it does not seem to, it must have been insufficiently advertised. A corollary is that any means, even the most dubious, if they succeed in attracting great masses, can be used, for “success” justifies. The masses cannot but benefit from their presence in the museum, whatever brought them there. No matter that the people attracted may neither learn anything nor enjoy any of the works of art at the museum. It’s the body count that matters. It is assumed—by definition not evidence—that anyone who comes goes away improved. (Art is thought of as an instrument of improvement—an effect it has neither on those who care for it nor on those who come and don’t.) Hence one must lure people to museums by any kind of gimmick, for it is good per se to attract more people to museums at whatever cost to the museum function, and, one is tempted to add, to the memory of the dead muses.
A third way of perverting the museum’s function is to collect contemporary art. Some museums are dedicated to nothing less. They are honest. But they should not have to exist. What artists now create ought to be created for an understanding public, for persons or public institutions interested in buying what they create. If there are no such persons I doubt that artists can create any art. A museum seems as unlikely to replace purchasers as a cemetery is to replace life. One hardly encourages a mother by telling her she bears children so that they may be decently buried. In the end, indeed. But there is life between birth and death. And so with works of art. If any are to be created, they cannot be created for museums. Nor can museums—possibly their final resting place—replace the life that works of art, if they are to be alive, must be created for.
If one leaves the metaphor of the cemetery, it still remains an unavoidable fact that nobody lives in a museum. One goes specifically to see the exhibits, one next to the other. But how can a work of art live under these circumstances? No more than a person who spends his life bereft of a personal environment, a habitat to which he relates and which becomes, or was created as, an extension of his personality.
This is not to deny that the purchase (and exhibition) of contemporary art by museums helps contemporary artists; it may even be the best that can be done. Such purchases also document our times for future historians and anthropologists. Nonetheless, to make of museums not the last resting place of works of art but their immediate destination is to avow that works of art have no function in our society and no place to go. Under these circumstances I cannot see how they can be created.