Monday, March 14, 2022

Museums in Crisis

One job that people really are quitting at a higher rate is "museum director." There are dozens of openings across the US, should you want such a position. But why would you? It is almost inevitable that within your first year you will be accused of racism, harassment, elitism, and insufficient support for Black/Trans/Asian/Immigrant/Some-other-category artists, besides having to struggle with declining visitation and revenue, plus increased moral scrutiny of the rich people who might bail you out, plus an overhanging cloud of worry that art museums are irrelevant anyway.

The "museum crisis" that has been going on for decades is only getting worse. As art critic Barry Schwabsky explains in The Nation, the root of the crisis is a decline in the importance of the aesthetic as an independent value. Art these days is less and less about form, and more and more about morality and politics. Not that there is anything new about art being political or ethical; there was a time when most elite art was made for churches and kings. But the art museum is a creation of the aesthetic era, and therefore is bound to decline as the rest of the world turns away from aesthetics. I was struck by this theory of the art museum's origins:

It’s noticeable that young people, including artists, bring different questions, different demands, to artworks than do many of their elders. The change is deeper than it may seem—perhaps a tectonic shift in art itself, which will mean rethinking the very idea of the museum. Jacques Rancière, in his 2011 book Aisthesis, speaks of how an “aesthetic regime of art” began to dominate in Europe in the late 18th century, succeeding earlier representational and ethical regimes of art and leading to the emergence of museums such as the Louvre. This aestheticization of art, he argued, was the result of the French Revolution: The king had been overthrown, and his works of art now belonged to the people by way of the state. But many of these works were essentially visual paeans to royalty, and more still were devotional works, testaments to the power of the church, which the revolutionaries were determined to suppress. How could these royalist and clerical images be considered glories of a free and secular nation?

The solution was radical: These objects made to honor king and church were recast, simply, as examples of sublime art—that is, of beautiful form and transcendent skill. Precisely for political reasons, an essentially aesthetic vision had to prevail. “Only one solution was available,” Rancière insisted, “to nullify the content of the paintings by installing them in art’s own space,” thereby “training a gaze detached from the meaning of the works.” In other words, through what later came to be known as formalism, any subject, even when the content of the work was one that could no longer be supported, could be admired for the sake of art. And therefore art comes from art: “Painters, from this point onward, imitate painting.”

I would add that class plays a big role here. Art museums were creations of the new upper class, where the rich bourgeoisie mingled with the remains of the aristocracy. Understanding art as aesthetics was one of the upper class's defining traits; art museums and concert halls were the temples where they worshipped their own aesthetic superiority. The collapse of these class assumptions is hitting art museums hard.

There are still millions of people, like me, who just really like art, and the social category of “artist” seems to be as fashionable as ever. Art museums will survive. But they will have to change, and it seems unlikely to me that they will retain their cultural importance.

1 comment:

Kpgoog said...

I for one have always loved and sought out museums of all kinds. Because they fall in to the top ten things I enjoy about being alive I cannot comment on why museums have fallen out of favor with the general public, but for me it has been the stripping away of actual objects for fear of offending and replacing of objects with digital screens, casts, or even lengthy text on boards/posters. The experience of gazing in wonder at Tutankamun's gold mask or the like from a couple of feet away can't be replaced by those other things.