Why art museums are changing


Traditionally, great European visual art was meant to be immutable. And there was a canon consisting of such timeless masterpieces. Certainly, this canon has gradually expanded to include works by hitherto little-known Western artists and, more recently, also art from other cultures. But these canon expansions were meant to identify other time-tested masterpieces. Thus European modernist art and Tibetan paintings, Persian miniatures, and sculpture from the New Americas complement but do not supplant the Western canon of works from Greco-Roman antiquity, the Christian Middle Ages, and the High Renaissance.

Why do we need these guns? The human condition (1959) by German-born political philosopher Hannah Arendt provides a thought-provoking answer to this question.

The man-made world of things. . . becomes a home for mortal men, whose stability will support and survive the ever-changing movement of their lives and actions, only insofar as it transcends both the pure functionalism of things produced for consumption and the pure utility of objects produced for use.

Distinguishing art from the products of labor, which are consumed while living, and from utilitarian objects produced by labor, she argues that our lives are stabilized by these artifacts, created before we were born and intended, we hope, to outlive us. in our museums. . Morality has evolved and Western culture has become secularized. But canonical art remains valuable. This may seem like an odd view, as Arendt does not discuss the aesthetic pleasures or moral lessons that art can provide. Rather, she says, we find in art “a premonition of immortality. . . of something immortal made by mortal hands. . .” Marx and also Heidegger enter into his thought. Despite their extreme political differences, they too believed in cannon.

In a world of rapidly changing technology, this ancient art stabilizes thinking about values. But of course, his argument surely overestimates the current importance of traditional elite culture which has no obvious importance not only for the poor, but even for many privileged people. She speaks on behalf of elite culture. What would happen if a society did not preserve these stabilizing artifacts? Here, to answer the question, we don’t need to speculate, because we are currently entering into this situation. Arendt lived long enough to see works that, incorporating consumer-saving materials, the products of labor, into art undermine traditional ways of thinking about art. But she did not respond to Pop Art. And now more radical developments are coming, often championed with reference to Walter Benjamin. His pioneering collection of his essays includes his much-quoted statement, “There is no document of civilization that is not also a document of barbarism.” This claim speaks to critics of the art museum in a way that Arendt herself has not discussed. It implies that stabilizing the world of life is inevitably a good thing. But you might not think that way if your ancestors were enslaved or the poor brutalized. The creation of our traditional visual culture depended on the injustices of the old regime. And the current survival of masterpieces requires elaborate art museums, which need public validation. But once we now consider the social costs of this gun, it’s easy to wonder about its current value.

Many supporters of the art museum, while acknowledging these costs of traditional culture, insist that we do all we can to make these Old Master works accessible. My teacher, the philosopher Richard Wollheim, who was a leftist with patrician tastes, argued that great canonical art, although paid for by great patrons, was really made for this larger audience. His favorite artist was Nicolas Poussin. I can hardly dismiss this way of thinking which (to be honest) has enriched my life and supported my own research. I admire that art museums have worked very hard to transform themselves from temples reserved for the elite into institutions accessible to the public. And I recognize the importance of academic arts education. But it is impossible to understand the roots of the current crisis of our museums without grasping the problems inherent in this process. The difficulty, quite simply, is that this intense populist activity does not – and cannot – change the inherent nature of ancient art, which was made for an elite audience. Can we oppose the beauty of Poussin’s history paintings to the awareness that their subjects and their aesthetic values ​​are intimately linked to the culture of the old regime? I am not sure. Once we know the human price of old canon images, they might just seem too expensive to be worth. And so it is simply not clear that the traditional art museum can escape its past, at least without radically changing the identity of its core collections.

These questions are, of course, familiar, but thanks to the current economic and social crisis, they have a new resonance. In a brief, elegant discussion, architectural historian Sanda Iliescu offers an important example revealing the problems. After describing the beautiful lawn of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where she teaches, she discusses the recent controversy over the location of a memorial commemorating the hundreds of slaves employed in the construction of this site in the early 19th century. . Once you know this story, she asks, is it still possible to find this beautiful lawn? She doesn’t answer that question in so many words, but she suggests that your answer depends, at least in part, on who your ancestors were. And also, I think, to know that it took a lot of slave labor to build this wonderful site. Doesn’t a similar analysis also apply to the collections of ancient canonical works housed in our public art museums? Beauty is often expensive. And often its human costs were extremely inequitably distributed.


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