Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 6#2/3 Mark Madel 21 dec 1992

Museum: Friend or Foe?

Questions and Remarks concerning the Present and the Future

99% of all the art in all the art museums around the world should be immediately removed and burnt (in environmentally-safe power generators) to provide electrical power for the planet for an hour or two.
Well, allright, I'm not unfeeling. Instead, we'll have a massive lottery at each museum. Everyone is invited. All the art prior to 1900, or 1875, or 1850, what-ever (we'll take a vote), is up for grabs. Pass out the da Vinci's, the Rembrandts, the Monets; no one leaves empty-handed.
These proposals might amaze or anger some people. Destroy or disperse our cultural heritage, those beautiful artworks, those vessels of history? Never!

But what exactly is the purpose for us, the audience, of incredibly large buildings filled to the brim (including the basements and storage rooms) with old, reconstructed, often mediocre man-made objects? And, most importantly for me, do these objects continue to 'operate' in a way similar to that which various artists had originally desired?
Let's examine first the assumption that the museums act as a sort-of cultura/aesthetic bank.
There is a widely-held belief among the public, although less accepted in the artistic community, that art, at it's best, can embody something 'eternal'. This notion seems rather outdated, and susceptible to logical scrutiny.
Nothing in this universe is eternal. Objects aren't eternal; ideas aren't eternal; the earth isn't eternal; even the universe itself isn't eternal. Everything, including art, is subject to continual change, and has what we might call a 'viable life span'.
A piece of art is created, and then it begins to be transformed immediately. In a material sense, by natural atrophy and constant retouching and restoring. Conceptually, via interpretation and re-interpretation, and the passage of ideological time. Eventually the artwork is destroyed or it 'dies'; it changes so much that it becomes something else. In Duchamp's words: After (it dies), it's called the history of art.
If we imagine, as most of us do, that art is an expression or reflection of a particular moment in time by a particular person in a particular place (an attempt at a different type of communication, you might say), then it's feasible to consider it as functioning successfully if this 'message', or some part of it, is passed along to other people. Now, the possibility of this happening accurately, in other words, without a high level of misinterpretation, seems most likely the closer you are to the moment of creation. The greatest impact can occur during this 'viable life span' of the artwork. This explains why most artists I know, myself included, are inspired most by art of our own period and less by work from an other era.
The fact that some people prefer 'Old Masters' to modern art has more to do with the failure of modern artists to converse with anyone but themselves, than with
the ability of those people to experience the older work as actually intended.
For example, how do I appreciate a 300 year old painting I'm confronted with in a museum? On a physical level, how similar is it to how the artist wanted it to appear 300 years ago? The materials with which the painting was made have been subject to intense aging, and most likely, many cleanings and retouchings; it may even have been considerably altered by a restorer at some point in time. It may be hung behind glass, obscuring a real evaluation, or in the case of the most famous artworks such as the Mona Lisa, it may not be the actual object at all, but only a duplicate on display, while the genuine painting is tucked safely away in some vault.
In conceptual terms, how am I to interpret the 300 year old thoughts and purposes behind this piece of art? The ideas inherent in anything created are intrinsically linked to the place and point in time in which it's created. As time flows on, ideas are modified and revised; social and artistic perspectives and beliefs are altered; until a moment is reached where what is truly grasped is further away rather than closer to what was intended. I can understand what the artist's motives may have been and I can imagine the period in which the work was produced, but I can't 'experience' that object from that unique place.
I'm not arguing that older artworks can't be appreciated in some way. I'm saying that what we see and comprehend has little relation to what the piece looked like and meant when it was created. Instead, we perceive what it has become over time. I wonder how many artists would be pleased to see what their work has transformed into 200 or 300 years later? I know it scares the hell out of me.
Now, many people will already understand, and some might even agree with the premise, that what we encounter in art museums has less to do with the integrity or purpose of individual works and more to do with art history. But what exactly is the historical reasoning behind keeping virtually everything from as far back as possible jammed into these buildings?
Well, stripped of artistic motives, so to speak, some of these objects could conceivably be useful as straight historical records. But this role might be better exploited in a museum devoted specifically to human history.
As a possible chronicle of art from a certain time, these collections seem highly suspect. There's no reason to believe that the most interesting, the most innovative, or even the most beautiful works from any given period are what ends up in the museums. There is just too much chance and economic or personal motivation involved in the selection process. Basically, we can assume that what is accumulated in museums is not a catalogue of the diversity of art from a particular era, but more the random remains of human judgment and stupidity.
In terms of linear communication, art history can be perceived as a series of gestures and messages passed along and built-upon over time. Some with great influence and others with little or no consequence. Yet distinctions along these lines, especially in regard to ancient art, are seldom made in art museums. And the decisions of what is displayed, how and where it's displayed, can appear to bend art history in a direction different from the way it might actually have occurred. So, functioning as pure records of art history, there is again reason to doubt the accuracy of museums.
Perhaps, given all this, many of us can recognise that most art museums that deal in 'dead' artwork don't serve one purpose well, but many purposes only slightly. A bit of barely functioning art, a dash of human history, and a touch of art history, all mixed together with questionable motives for buying or supporting or displaying certain art.
This model of the art museum, developed in the 18th century (when 'visual' art was mostly just that: visual), seems out of step not only with current art practices and the conversion of the artist from craftsman to reflexive messenger, but also with the ever decreasing amount of space and money available, and the sky-rocketing prices of older work.
When I was young I was naive enough to believe that art museums operated outside of market pressures and critical prejudices and with the interests of artists and their audience in mind. Perhaps it's time to rebuild the role of how museums should function and to bring it closer to this unsophisticated ideal.
I have, surprisingly, a few suggestions along these lines. These proposals are based on the assumption that as an artist, I have at least a small inkling of the wishes and desires of other artists and perhaps even, God forbid, of the audience. On the other hand, I have absolutely no idea what goes through the minds of curators and museum directors.
I'm also working from the premise that art can be it's most exciting and most revealing when experienced within it's 'viable life span'. It's during that span that it might truly speak to us, from our own shared moment in time.
Okay, so what should museums do with all that 'old stuff?
Obviously, first it should be catalogued and documented using the best methods and the latest technology available. There is always room to electronically store information. Scholars of history and anyone else fascinated with the past can study these electronic records.
Now, what about the objects themselves?
Well, I personally prefer the lottery method of distribution, but I suppose it makes more economic sense for museums to sell what they can in order to generate income. Wealthy individuals and private institutions can take over the care of these antiques, instead of the other way around. With rapidly inflating art prices, this is happening anyway.

Museums could then concentrate on showing currently functioning work, and the 'true' art history discourse could be relegated to books and panel discussions.
But which artpieces should be kept, and which should be sold?
In digital technology there is an acronym known as FIFO; which stands for 'first in, first out'. Simply put, when you have a specific amount of space, and that space becomes filled, the first thing that entered, in other words, the oldest, is the first thing to exit.
So, if you apply this policy to a museum, there would be a constantly shifting collection, with newer pieces arriving, and older works 'leaving'. Museums should never own more work than can be displayed at any time. A basic cut-off point, 150 years, for example, could be set, by a committee of historians, artists, and the public, which would be the approximate limit for keeping and exhibiting works of art.
Of course, every piece of art has it's own individual life span; so exceptions to this cut-off point would have to be allowed for. But how do we determine these exceptions, or, more specifically, if an artwork is still alive for the majority of it's audience?
This brings me to my last and most passionate point: the desire to see museums
stop interfering physically and intellectually, with the functioning of works of art.
All retouching, restoring, reconstruction, protection, or any type of intervention in the normal, material life of a piece of art should be completely prohibited. These manipulations are, to me, equivalent to keeping a person alive on life-support
equipment months or years after its brain is dead. I would like to believe that most artists would prefer not to have their work altered or 'improved' by other people. Decay and death are natural and inseparable parts of creation. They can be fascinating in and of themselves.
Also, once the incentive of 'eternal' preservation is banished from museums, they won't need to rob some artworks of their most basic functions such as keeping people from touching an object that was made to be touched or placing a highly visual object like a painting behind glass; in effect, concealing it's visual appearance. These ridiculous symptoms of protection should be a thing of the past.
In a conceptual sense, museums should be as neutral as possible. Any attempts at explanation or education, about the motivations of an artist, or what a certain piece of art might mean, should be eliminated. If an artwork can't communicate without the need for addeq, external information, it's either dead or was never alive to begin with. Besides, what's most important is not the museum's opinion, but the public's. Let interpretations of influence, significance and viability be left to the audience.
In fact, I think museums should keep a data-base of audience reaction and interaction with the art. Members of the public should be enticed, with social or economic incentives (maybe that lottery idea...), to supply information, either by form or some electronic means, about their feelings and responses to specific work and to the collection in general. If enough of this knowledge were gathered, not only could it provide vital data about which works were still actively functioning and in what way; but it would also give statistics about (and this I find most fascinating from the standpoint of my own work) how the relationship between artwork and audience, in all it's subtle manifestations, changes over time.
So, this data-base, along with other accumulated opinions, could be used to help determine which works were still 'living', and which works might be sold, recycled or raffled off. The cycle of life, you knoW; the old must die and leave in order to make room for the new.
Consequently, I think if these few, modest proposals on my part were implemented, museums could be much more vibrant and stimulating places of artistic expression and audience participation. The functioning of the artwork, in as complete a way as possible, would be the prime concern of the museum, from the inception of a piece until it's death.