“Hang him on my wall”: Why Museum Failures Concern Me
(When we last left off…)
New Dealer did a solid job recently of answering “Why We Should Care About Institutional Failure” in response to the question posed (in the comments of my own post) about why one should be concerned if the Corcoran Gallery or a local opera house fails. Falling shorter, I basically shrugged off the question because I think it’s a bit tricky to tell a stranger why they should care about any particular thing, knowing nothing about their life and experience, although seemingly this is the backbone of Facebook posting. An easier question to answer is why I care and the implication is these are things worth caring about for at least a few others.
New Dealer basically celebrated the experience of seeing great art in its intended form and those aspects of art which cannot be replicated through different mediums. Instead of appealing to vague notions about the “aura” of an original work of art, New Dealer pointed out that digital reproduction, which has far surpassed mechanical reproduction, cannot replicate key aspects of many works, giving the example of the Mona Lisa, a very small and thus intimate painting when viewed in the Louvre. The example I usually give is another Louvre-dweller, the Raft of the Medusa, a powerful depiction of a 1816 French naval disaster with serious political overtones in the era. Imagine a painting like this of stranded New Orleans residents dying during Hurricane Katrina to get an idea of its impact.
Now, consider that this painting is massive: roughly 16 by 23 and a half feet. Showing death in agonizing detail and overwhelming scale, its impact is undeniable. I remember an ex describing sitting before the painting in the Louvre and weeping for half an hour. Viewed through a glowing plastic screen, the painting hasn’t the same effect at all. New Dealer explains that we often need to see great art in its intended form in order to have certain enriching experiences that we would not have otherwise. And this fits in with the reason that cultures have funded museums: so that all classes could be enriched by the artistic experience. Again, there is an egalitarian aspect to museums- note that the Louvre opened during the Revolution, stocked mostly with seized property of church and crown.
The loss of a museum here or an opera there might not be devastating in the long run. However, the Corcoran story causes me concern because the problems that the gallery faced, as well as the insufficient ways they addressed those problems, might well be widespread. If they are, we should expect more cultural institutions to fail. I suggested that many universities make the same mistakes and suffer the same problems, although academia is a special case because it can still rely upon an artificially inflated market.
Like universities, museums are fairly important to community identity, which helps keep them afloat. Raymond Geuss makes an interesting observation in his essay “On Museums” that the institution as we know it was birthed by an Enlightenment notion of critical and questioning knowledge, which is no longer at odds not with any particular religious groups or ideas, but with “the general idea that what our cultural institutions should do is give us or reinforce in us a natural sense of belonging, identifying with a prestigious collectivity, being at home in our world.” The “Heritage Industry” needs museums to help to create an idea of a venerable and coherent culture. But, if museums (again, the same could be said for universities) are going to remain true to the ethos of critical inquiry, this puts them at odds with some of the key cultural needs they serve.
(What does culture do?)
I’m not sure there’s much use in talking about “national cultures,” a nineteenth-century fiction for the most part. But there are local cultures and the strength or weakness of those local cultural institutions have resonances around the world and in the lives of their people. We could say that culture is the means by which communities explain themselves and how one is to live, both to outsiders and to their members. So, for instance, the Met “signals” the cultural importance of New York City to outsiders, but it also tells New Yorkers what is valuable in an individual’s life in that city. Culture serves to give coherence to existence within the context of a community. It is where members work out tensions within the community before resorting to violence. It compels us to opt into a community, or fails to compel us, and so cultural collapse can be as devastating as economic collapse.
We can see, therefore, why governments have an interest in maintaining strong cultural institutions and why government support is highly problematic. There is an idea in some corners of academia, deriving from the work of Michel Foucault, that centers of knowledge production also serve as power centers, shaping the souls of the citizenry. So, when we go to a museum like the Smithsonian, the authoritative voice of the museum exerts a subtle influence over our thoughts and behavior. This isn’t just a matter of state authority either; according to the Foucaultian idea, power can arise in any human relationship, but is intrinsic to knowledge production. Museums tell us how to know and how to be.
The difficulty I have with this argument, and the Foucaultian universe in general, is that, viewed from one angle, it looks as if all societies are somewhat authoritarian, and I think it is safe to take Foucault as an anarchist. But viewed from another, it looks as if power is simply weak and ineffectual in most cases. There is a Foucault line, beloved of his critics, that seems to equate Truman’s America with Stalinist Russia. A bit of an unfair reading, but if one society controls through gulags and the other uses dioramas, it’s fairly clear which will have more impact. And what basis does this give us to oppose no knock raids and drone strikes if it’s a matter of degrees and we were already fine with museums and state school textbooks?
I’m being a bit flippant here, but it is interesting how we’re now inching closer to right-wing criticisms of current cultural institutions, and someone should note how unconsciously the American right has accepted the ideas of Foucault (and postmodernism in general) with a few modifications. Perhaps not even that. The idea that the producers of knowledge- professors, curators, editors, doctors, and scientists in particular- act in the production of power and control is pretty standard Foucault. The main difference in right-wing thinking is that the loci of power, equally widespread and diffuse, seem to be better coördinated. But, even there, it might just be a matter, in both cases, of socially mandated “right thinking” seeming to be coördinated to the outsiders.
This might explain the right-wing disinterest with, and alienation from, art galleries, and why it is that, for many American conservatives, contemporary art begins and ends with Andres Serrano dunking a plastic Jesus in a hot cup of urine. But it doesn’t explain why they have ceded the field of battle so completely. There is a smirking on the sidelines aspect to much criticism of art and knowledge production that would make sense in anarchism, but not in an organized political movement.
(The Point as such)
The real issue here is that nobody sees himself as exerting political pressure on cultural institutions. We all want schools and museums and operas to remain free from political influence because we understand that artists and thinkers tend to lose big in political struggles. So, when we give, we tell ourselves it’s not to shape the institutions into mouthpieces for our beliefs and values, but because we assume on some level that they already embody those values. Since we all support the disinterested pursuit of knowledge, we also understand that what corrupts that pursuit are other people with their more self-interested values. If we react against those people asserting their values, it is apolitical on our part and political on theirs. We can’t enter into good faith discussions with them because, simply by entering the discussion, they are “bringing in politics” and corrupting the process. The problem is this is equally true if we’re broad-minded and tolerant liberals taking a stand against the blue nosed Jessie Helms types, or if we’re rigorous thinking and erudite traditionalists taking a stand against the destructive, hateful armchair radicals. Like bitter divorced parents, we can’t protect those in our care against the influence of the other without also warping them with our influence. So, most of us sit it out.
And yet… we still sense that the soul can no more survive without art and beauty than the body can without air and water. Great art endures because it plucks a secret string in us and sounds a note somewhat beyond the level of language. We can’t fully articulate it, but we can hear it resonating inside, sounding out the contours of our internal landscape. Most of what we call “media” or, worse, “content” has the opposite effect- it draws us away from contemplation and that inner space. It distracts and alienates us from ourselves. Its noise remains out there, which is why we can’t remember it an hour later. It washes over us in gentle waves. It finds no purchase.
And we find ourselves steeped in content, up to our hairline in the ephemeral and disconnected, decontextualized feed. More than ever, we feel the yearning for something that will affect us, resonate, something we cannot articulate that will help us to cultivate inwardness and live with it, rather than keep us from it. Therefore, we will continue to seek out authoritative cultural institutions to serve as what Henry Adams called signposts to the next station in life. I’m not sure we can help it. The real problem is we find it difficult, if not impossible, to take these institutions’ claims to any real authority seriously.
And since this authority corresponds both to our spiritual need and their need for funding, we can expect both to be continually impoverished.