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|The Museum as Master
by Donald Kuspit
|"The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect," Mar. 14-June 1, 1999, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.
The artists in "The Museum as Muse" don't exactly reflect on the museum, as the exhibition's subtitle wistfully puts it, but rather seem to rage at it. The point is clearly made by the hostile paintings that form the temporal framework for the exhibition: Hubert Robert's 1796 painting of the Louvre in ruins, and Edward Ruscha's 1965-68 painting of The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire.
These works may be ironical, but their irony is a thin veil on their holocaustal intention. The museum is destroyed in pictorial effigy, but without the museum where will the artists exhibit their works? Hitler burned books, but they survived him. It seems likely that the museum will survive the contempt of the artist, all the more so when that contempt is self-defeating.
The modern artist's attitude to the museum is the basic problem that Kynaston McShine's ingenious exhibition confronts. The show not only demonstrates the artist's ambivalence toward the museum -- his dependence on it, yet wish to be independent of it (that old avant-garde fantasy) -- but re-appropriates for the museum works that mock it in the very act of appropriating it. After all, these anti-museum works are sheltered under the roof of a museum that is more famous than they are.
The wit of these works is no match for the museum's intelligence, which arranges them to suit its fantasy of history. They are a drop in its big bucket, which grows bigger with every new acquisition and each new idea of art history. The museum is a symbol of tradition, and however much an artist thinks that rebelling against museum art automatically makes his art avant-garde, avant-garde art also ends up in a museum, assimilated by tradition. It has to if it is to have credibility as art, and if it is to have a life longer than the moment of its making.
One can re-design the museum, as Robert -- the first official curator of the Louvre -- proposed to do in another painting, but that leaves the idea of the museum intact and confirms its physical necessity. Indeed, the surge of museum building in the last few decades suggests that museums are works of art in themselves -- the eighth wonder of the world, as their architects try to suggest -- and don't need works of art in them, except to show that, after all, they have some social use.
Do museums not justify their extravagant cost by sheltering precious objects? Does not their material grandeur testify to the spiritual grandeur of art? Are they not, like ancient temples, sacred precincts, for is not art a sign of eternity?
Museums are not wasteful luxuries, but confirm the glorious necessity of art. They make an ordinary society seem like a great civilization. Society builds them to show that it cares for the higher and finer things in life, not just mundane survival. Clearly, it is the institution of the museum that seems to matter more than works of art -- and even seems more complex than any of them -- whether they are impatient to gain entry into it or try to bring its raison d'etre into question.
Ironically, the works in McShine's exhibition seem to challenge the idea of "museum quality" -- the view that the litmus test of the quality of a work of art is that it can hold its own in a museum -- even as they eagerly try to show that they are in fact of museum quality. Without the imprimatur of the museum, it is not clear that they have any value, apart from the emotional -- therapeutic? -- value they have for the person who made them and the coterie of devotees surrounding that person. Thus, Marcel Broodthaers, Joseph Cornell, Marcel Duchamp, and Claes Oldenburg, among other artists, create personal museums (all exhibited, like circus rings, under the big tent of the Museum of Modern Art), as though that legitimates their art. Indeed, by installing their own works in what they call a museum -- often a glorified box (Oldenburg's is in the shape of Mickey Mouse, which makes it more attention-grabbing) -- the artists turn what might otherwise look like social detritus and frivolity into that sacred thing called art.
Even the most tongue-in-cheek works of art, like Duchamp's ready-mades, acquire quality and "difference" by being separated from the everyday things they would otherwise resemble. Unless they were set apart in the museum, many installations would seem like freshly arranged bric-a-brac -- bouquets of things that have to be changed when they become stale. The idea of an institution called a museum is necessary to give a mysterious significance to things that might otherwise seem eccentric and silly, as well as to confirm that the individual who exhibits them is in fact that mysterious being called an artist.
Even Hans Haacke, who mocks the corporate sponsorship of museum exhibitions -- Cowboy with Cigarette, 1990, trivializes Picasso's Man with a Hat, 1912-13, into a cigarette advertisement, calling attention to the fact that Philip Morris sponsored the Museum of Modern Art's 1989-90 exhibition "Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism" (suggesting the complicity between the museum and corporate capitalism at its worst) -- is obsessed with the museum, and needs to exhibit his clever ironies in it to have credibility as an artist (not just social critic).
Similarly, when Daniel Buren paints his so-called "signature stripes" in lieu of the paintings that would otherwise be on the wall as part of the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection, he declares that his stripes are indeed the signature of an artist, not some absurd anti-social gesture, the "theoretical" equivalent to slashing a painting.
Barbara Bloom's wonderful installation The Reign of Narcissism -- she plasters her picture on such things as Greek-looking sculptures and tea sets (the many volumes of her "Complete Works" were also displayed; the guard stopped me from opening one of them to see if there was anything inside) -- says it all: the artist needs the museum as the mirror of his own grandiosity.
The wonderful thing is not the artist's aggrandizing narcissism, which in Bloom's case functions as an institutional critique, but the way the many critiques of the museum in the exhibition become part of the institution they critique, proving the institution's resilience -- its dialectical superiority to the critique. Indeed, the museum's power of accommodation keeps it fresh and modern. (And shows that it is much more comfortable with its imperialistic narcissism than is the artist.) By incorporating the critique, the museum shows its own criticality.
In a sense, the works in McShine's exhibition function as rejuvenating feedback for the museum, confirming that it is an open rather than closed system. In fact, the exhibition demonstrates that the Museum of Modern Art is willing and able to transcend the limits of its own exclusiveness, which in the past has made it the object of much resentful criticism. For "The Museum as Muse" is not only remarkably inclusive, in type of art and medium, indicating that the Museum of Modern Art is more flexible and adventurous than it is usually understood to be, but also cleverly suggests that it can take criticism, and is in fact inherently self-critical: why else would it show works that bring it into question (at least on the surface)?
If nothing else, the exhibition shows that the Museum of Modern Art is capable of as much if not more self-reflection and self-exposure than the artists. Even more, McShine shows that it is just as "experimental" -- if not more -- than the art it exhibits.
In short, while ostensibly critical of the museum, and sometimes cynical, virtually all the art in the exhibition is an unwitting homage to the museum, and especially the museum that houses it. Thus there is a peculiar conceptual trickery and redundancy to most of the art. Two works in particular set the general tone, both because of their material cleverness and facile irony. Richard Hamilton's The Solomon R. Guggenheim (Spectrum), 1965-66, turns the facade of that museum into a Pop logo -- instantly recognizable, all the more so because it has been brightly colored.
Louise Lawler's glass paperweights, each containing an installation view of some aspect of the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection, also cut the museum down to everyday size, reducing it to absurdity. Like so many artists, Hamilton and Lawler bite the institutional hand that graciously feeds them. They seem to get away with it, for their malevolent works are, after all, included in the exhibition, which gives them the mystique of "museum quality" -- ironically, no doubt, because they are not part of its permanent collection.
To me a more thoughtful work was Thomas Struth's color photograph Musée du Louvre IV, Paris, 1989, one of a series showing the crowds in a museum. Struth's images raise the all-important question of what people want and expect from the works of art they see in the museums. Do they go to museums because they are currently "in" places to visit, or do people come for a certain kind of experience, not available anywhere else?
The most engaging works in the exhibition seem to evoke such a special experience, causing the viewer to reflect rather than smirk. Christian Boltanski's mournful installation Virtrine of Reference II, 1970, reminds people of the suffering of childhood. Lothar Baumgarten's photographs of Unsettled Objects, 1968-69, from an anthropological museum in Oxford, evokes the native peoples who once owned them. The subjects have been colonized -- if not exterminated -- and their possessions have become scientific, esthetic, and imperialist trophies. Susan Hiller's From the Freud Museum, 1991-96, reminds the viewer of the mysteries of the psyche -- his or her own psyche.
These works, and others, suggest that the museum, however often it is deconstructed and debunked -- analyzed into disbelief and oblivion -- remains an unusual place: a kind of sanctuary where it is still possible to have an extraordinary introspective experience by way of works of art. The works on display may have been removed from their original context -- when not made to be shown in museums in the first place -- but this is to the viewer's advantage, for it facilitates cognitive and emotional attunement to the work. It seems more important to acknowledge this special function of the museum than to find fault with it or gratuitously satirize it, however many faults there may be and however much its pretentiousness and snobbery make it ripe for satire.
In the end, it really doesn't matter how the museum markets its exhibitions, only what they are. "The Museum as Muse" is an important show, brilliantly conceived, for it gives us a good "museum experience" -- if also an imaginative experience of the museum -- which, after all, is what determines "museum quality." So long as the museum affords such experiences it will not become the mausoleum many thinkers and artists preconceive it to be -- no doubt out of fear of their own deaths -- but remain a vital, growing, enduring organism, benefiting the world, or rather the individuals able to rise to the special occasion it embodies.
"The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect" travels to the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, Sept. 18, 1999-Jan. 2, 2000.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.
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