Issue #35, November 1997
After more than a decade of debate and discussion of disciplinary crisis, it is perfectly clear that art history knows what it does. And it frequently knows why it does what it does. What it knows less well, however, is what what it does does.
-- Donald Preziosi, Rethinking Art History
Because of the hubris born of convenient misconception, I came close to blowing a great opportunity on a recent trip to Europe. The hubris in question was a picture I had of myself as a scholar on a research trip to several museums and ancient cathedrals. The almost-missed opportunity was to see the reality of my relation to the art that I was looking at, the reality of its being a set of strategically positioned points on a tourist's parcourse rather than an array of objects presented for "edification." Both realities amount to paying obeisance to a series of sites via a predetermined set of rituals-of-appreciation. The former is clearly the one that today's museum must necessarily gear itself toward, at the inevitable expense of the latter. This is because, like everybody and everything else, public museums are in a race against the bottom line. In terms of presentational aesthetics as well as programmatic decision, that race goes to those who are swiftest when it comes to getting paying visitors in and out the door with the greatest efficiency after their self-inflicted fleecing at over-priced coffee and postcard boutiques. Thus, we now see multi-lingual signs in big museums, such as "Nightwatch this way" at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, or "Mona Lisa this way" at the Louvre. The Winged Victory? It now lives (and is displayed accordingly) as a grand backdrop for snapshots of smiling friends and spouses printed 'round the world, evidence of the perspicacity of tourist bureau employees, and of hotel and restaurant bills settled up with 18% credit card splurges.
I suppose that it is possible to shrug all of this off as yet another sign of our pan-capitalist, post-ideological times, just another entry in the new globalism's all-pervasive ledger of front money expended and profits gathered. In the past decade, we have seen unprecedented numbers of people flowing into new or newly renovated museum buildings such as Mario Botta's San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, or the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, the grand building that Gae Aulenti fashioned out of a defunct train station. These buildings and others like them are the new cathedrals of our seamless union of private and public capital, the palpable proofs of history's proper resting place in our post-historical nightmare. We have also seen prodigious collections of statistics routinely marshaled to point out how museum attendance is growing exponentially. These statistics are intended to convince us that the visual arts, despite their apparent elitism and recent political vilification, are indeed crowd pleasers, and should be supported accordingly (i.e., they should receive corporate funding).
This recent shift in museum priorities was illustrated by a recent talk given to the trustees of a Bay Area Art School by outgoing San Francisco Museum of Modern Art director John Lane. Lane compared the present financial status of the museum with its financial position ten years ago. Then, paid attendance made up less than a quarter of its eight million dollar operating budget. Now, it makes up half of a sixteen million dollar operating budget, a feat that has been accomplished for the time being thanks to the spectacular new building Botta designed for that institution. Contributions from government agencies are in a state of decline, as are those from corporations looking for tax-deductible charity advertising, and from private and semi-public philanthropic foundations and affluent individuals. Still, even though they are paying a smaller percentage of the bills, these sources are being courted ever more energetically, with a zeal and fealty that borders on the psychotic. The reason for this zeal is that there is one implication of this new financial climate that no one involved wants to have to face: that if the whole operation were entirely dependent on the revenues generated by paid attendance, those institutions would have to regularly and even exclusively think in terms of "putting on a show," with all the crude, vaudevillian connotations of populist pandering implied by the phrase. And yet, a new presentational vaudeville has suddenly become the de rigueur standard practiced by big budget institutions, appearing to issue from the financial unconscious of the museums that I visited on my European tour. It was particularly obvious during the summer months, when the largest crowds of tourists visit. Suddenly, it seems quite evident that for museums, times are indeed changing.
Twenty and even ten years ago, nothing could have been more anathema to the entrenched professional habits of the directors and curators ("art administrators") who were involved in the programming decisions of their institutions. The era in which those individuals came of age was one marked by a pervasive skepticism regarding the powers of corporate oligarchy and a concomitantly naive faith in the future of a (semi) public sector that could ostensibly "protect" the People from the evil influence of this oligarchy. The Vietnam-era position that there should be no more wars in which the blood of lower-class youth would be shed in order to protect the profits of corporate stockholders became a focus for more than just a retrenchment of Imperial America's foreign policy ambitions. It also signaled a collective willingness to practice coalition politics on a variety of domestic and/or social welfare fronts. The theoretical model for this position was the shared governance of a university community that had long sustained a self-protective anti-oligarchic grudge over the abuses of the McCarthy era. To a large but temporary extent, acting on this position created an environment in which the organizing power of ideas was able to challenge the atrophied mythmaking powers of long-standing vested interests. However, this moment was only sustainable when the organizing power of ideas was matched by the idea (and technique) of complex organization and organization-building modelled after both the participatory ideals and labyrinthine structures endemic to academic governance. In this environment, those who could sustain a mastery of the committee arts were the ones who could get things accomplished (pure populism without guiding principles always reverted into factionalized chaos), and this mastery bred a calculating, passive-aggressive personality that stood in sharp, ascendant contrast to the impatient short-sightedness of oligarchy's ego-maniacal self-made men.
Thus was born the art of bureaucratic self-servitude using ideological righteousness as a cover, earmarked by a conveniently hypocritical faith in the idea that one could somehow sustain a progressive politics without any appeal to populist politics. In the hands of a newly professionalized class of non-profit administrators, links to grassroots communities of support were quietly severed, and replaced by the rhetoric of strategic compromise, complex tradeoffs, and spin control. Underneath this suave hypocrisy resided an even uglier truth -- the truth of a rarefied discourse of progressive thought secretly serving elite agendas by ignoring the actual facts of people's daily lives favoring instead the advance of useless speculations about how those lives are supposedly structured. This valorized the efforts of the person doing the structuring (i.e. the administrator) instead of identifying with the struggle of the people being structured.
It was from this socio-political ferment that the currently entrenched generation of art administrators gained their sentimental education as well as their ideological justifications and professional contours. All of these quickly coalesced into an orthodoxy of art-administrative practice that still exerts great (albeit declining) influence in determining the goals of institutional behavior, thus inaugurating what art critic Dave Hickey has called "the therapeutic institution," -- a quasi-religious domain of unquestionable authority, where "peer review" euphemistically masks a collective self-appointment to the position of determining what is good for everybody else. On a practical level, this meant that those involved viewed themselves as being professionally charged with the duty of making censorious decisions on a day-to-day basis, while viewing these decisions as articles of protected speech whenever external political mechanisms sought to question their merit or viability. Hal Foster provides the polemical gloss on this vexing contradiction by writing "there is a fundamental stake in art and academy: the preservation, in an administered, affirmative culture, of spaces for critical debate and alternative vision," eliding the fact that when one takes the king's shilling, one does indeed become the king's man. Put another way, we see how the idea of an "institutional avant garde" carried the seed of its own collapse into contradiction. What is still standing after this collapse is simply institution.
When viewed in this light, we can see that, despite its baptism in the radical moment of the late 1960s, the world of 1970s art administration was in many ways not so different from the historical sources of our concept of the museum going back to the Renaissance nobleman's private sanctuary of art, treasure and objects of wonder. The objects contained in these sanctuaries and the rationalizations for their presentation may have changed, but the idea of sanctuary has remained a crucial component of a widespread culture of entitlement and birthright, even though this sanctuary was often used as a platform to decry the entitlements and birthrights of others. Add to this the encouragements stemming from a then-burgeoning federal arts bureaucracy and the critical establishment of the 1970s' enthusiasm for artistic projects that challenged the exchange-commodity status of works of art, and you see the makings of a brave new world of fervent experimentation. Buffered by a solid set of administrative firewalls protecting institutional practices from any and all external demands for accountability, including that form of popular accountability called democracy, art did not have to court public appeal. By unrealistically clinging to a refusal of all forms of instrumental reason, the world of 1970's art administration, in its mouthing of grand rhetorical flourishes and its secret, albeit omnipresent chronicle of Byzantine palace intrigues, resembled nothing so much as a decentralized panoramic portrait of the court of Louis XIV at Versailles. While artists who sought institutional visibility in this environment seemed more and more like applicants for an 18th-century position as an assistant wig powderer, the administrative players operating in this world engaged in elaborate strategies for positioning themselves near the fluctuating paths of political influence. The semi-secret bartering of such positions and influences became the hallmark of successful climbs up the art administrative career ladder. Bureaucratic ambition created its own marketplace, not a marketplace for the exchange of works of art-as-commodities, but a marketplace for the exchange of art administrative career profiles. In this setting, speculation about whose art administrative stock might be rising or falling thrived, even as the notion of "investing" in actual works of art became hopelessly unfashionable.
Granted, all of this happened behind the scenes of a show that, by design, had limited appeal. The magic worked as long as there was a widespread belief in the desirability of supporting a generic idea of "creativity." It didn't matter whether much thought had been given to what this creativity was supposed to accomplish: the demonstration of blind faith in a hopelessly over-generalized idea of progress was sufficient. In actuality, the ascendancy of the 1970s culture of art administration was exactly what put the brakes on the progress of art as well as the use of art for progressive purposes. When Paul Valèry bemoaned the authority and constraint of the bourgeois museum in the 1920s, he could have just as easily been writing about the museum practices of the 1970s: "Did I come for instruction, for my own beguilement? or simply as a duty and out of convention?"
As the Reagan-Thatcherite 1980s began to roll out its agenda for the privatization of civil society, the culture of the museum was already undergoing remarkable changes. Corporations such as R.J. Reynolds Tobacco saw in the arts a rich intersection of opportunities for image enhancement, tax exemption and market management. Perhaps the most noticeable change was the advent of the traveling "blockbuster" exhibition, such as the Treasures of Tutankhamun. These costly exhibitions required huge attendance figures just to break even. An inevitable by-product of these blockbuster shows was the setting aside of additional museum space for auxiliary, event-specific bookshops and headphone rentals, all of which produced additional, expense-defraying revenues, demonstrating that there was an untapped relationship between museum visiting and disposable income. And then there was the 1985 opening of the new Museum of Modern Art building in New York, with its ostentatious condominium towers sold to patrician urbanites. This was an undeniable architectural symbol of the soon-to-be pervasive shift of emphasis from the idea of the art museum as site for monkish study to the art museum as an urban country club, consecrated to the social enrichment of corporate pharaohs who needed a worthy backdrop for the complex rituals of networking that constituted their trade. Suddenly, bigger was better, and even the entrenched echelons of art administration were lulled into a sleep that eventually proved self-destructive. This time, the narcotic was the claim that hugely popular exhibitions were needed so that they might defray the costs of those exhibitions that were deemed of special interest to the agendas of art administration. Never in the history of art has such large writing on the wall been met with such blindness.
From the standpoint of programming, this shift is only now playing itself out, due to the intersection of a complex chain of factors. The most obvious of these are the direct and indirect effects of the 1995 attempt (still only partially accomplished) of the US Congress to privatize the National Endowment for the Arts. For museums, this was bad enough financial news in its own right. But it is made worse when one considers the ripple effect that this initiative has had in relation to state and local arts funding. Without the NEA imprimatur, state and local agencies have proven themselves incapable of sustaining any conceptual distinction between fundable and unfundable institutions or projects. The same leadership vacuum also seems to have affected the efforts of private foundations to mount a meaningful arts-funding policy, although these agencies are showing signs of at least recognizing the new ball game in which they are playing. But the largest indication of shifting art administrative priorities is the sudden proliferation of grand cathedral-like museum buildings, implying the sudden availability of funds for such construction in the spare economic climate of the 1990s (a decade that will no doubt be remembered as the one where "the art market fell flat"). Again, history provides a precedent of sorts: remember that both the New York and San Francisco Museums of Modern Art were originally founded in the mid 1930s at the height of the Depression. Then as now, the average artist would have been grateful to sell a work for what one of these institutions has spent on burnished aluminum door knobs or marble veneer. But these projects are carried out without much thought for the welfare of the average artist. Rather, the buildings themselves are what is attracting the visitors, with the collections that they house staged as little more than visual incidents to be apprehended during a quick circumnavigation of the new symbolic architecture. At least the 700-year-old cathedrals of Europe don't charge $7.00 for admission. Once inside, worshipful tourists are spared any presentation that might represent a professional's view of quality, significance or just plain interest. Instead, they are routinely greeted with a succession of exhibitions honoring the collections of private collectors who might someday donate a portion of their holdings to the museum in recognition of the recognition that the museum has bestowed on their collecting prowess. Gone are the obscurantist days of the art administrative priesthood, and gone are the days of the international blockbuster, the respective victims of funding cuts, political inconvenience and displacement by new fancy buildings that already are starting to age.
One of the curious truisms that dogs the practice of contemporary art criticism is a widespread denial regarding the relationship between patronage and art, an odd fact if you consider how important patronage studies are to the study of the art of the past. And maybe we can agree with Valèry when he wrote:
Painting and Sculpture, says my Demon of Analysis, are both foundlings. Their mother, Architecture is dead. So long as she lived, she gave them their place, their function and their discipline. They had no freedom to stray. They had their exact allotted space and given light, their subjects and their relationship...While Architecture was alive, they knew their function.
Now that art is once again given place by the resurrected Frankenstein's monster of the new spectacular museum, my own role of art historian looms strangely clear. I am meant to provide a tour-guide's panegyric for the display oligarchy makes of its own visionary wealth parading as wisdom, and a eulogy for the once-living hope that art itself could legislate a shared future.
Mark Van Proyen is an artist, critic, and bon vivant who lives in Bolinas, California. He can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.