Brute cultural force

Is it any wonder that this sort of brute cultural force has sprung up in the guise of cloned museums? From Germany to Canada to Spain, similar museum collections and exhibition programs have proliferated. In Spain, we too, like “the West,” are dissatisfied with these museums, but for a different reason: the museums contain only the West’s accouterments. It is not that what is on exhibit has ceased to have meaning because it has been endlessly decoded, recoded, and drained of relevance, but because it has never really had more than a toehold on the other cultures it “supplanted” in the first place. The issue is not just that regional art place in comparison, and therefore it is not the happy solution to a growing dissatisfaction with “international” art, but that the dominant economic and cultural forces at work absorb any and all resistance (even from its own culture, the culture perhaps most equipped to combat it; as Andrew Ross, Director of NYU’s American Studies Program and specialist in popular culture, pointed out in his presentation, the Guerrilla Girls’ posters now hang in museums). So the catastrophe, if there is one, is not that museums in some areas of the world might seem to have arrived at a dead end. The catastrophe – not just for the museum, but for culture(s) – is the prospect of everything becoming the same.

There is a strong moral component inherent in the apocalyptical attitude about the museum’s end(s) in the West, a sort of shame that only a perennial victor could suffer. Panel speaker Gyan Prakash’s serene acceptance of the likelihood of failure as natural and inevitable offered a counterbalance to the sore losers. Prakash contends that the risk of failure has always been present in the museum because the history of the museum as a Western institution has never been a closed question. The recent heightening of this possibility of failure is caused by decolonialization, the changing complexion of the public, and porous geographic and cultural boundaries, according to Prakash, an historian of colonial and postcolonial India (who teaches at Princeton).

Failure (literally: to not achieve the desired end or ends) is, in the case of the museum, as Prakash indicates, the so-called “universal `humanity’ forced to face its own provinciality.” Or in the words of Andrew Ross, “the failure to represent.” In attempting to respond to multi-cultural demands, the museum of the West has tried more often than not to present everything on the same plane, yet as Prakash warns, “in the current context of globalism and market integration, an amnesia about contentious and contingent histories cannot but render objects of cultural difference into commodities for cosmopolitan consumption.” Prakash calls for museum to “devise strategies to make appropriated objects tell `inappropriate’ stories … to enable artifacts from other cultures to perform a critical function.” Indeed, the West’s inability to engage its own cultural artifacts in a broader critical function has been one of its most grievous errors. “The End(s) of the Museum” is a case in point: the history of the vital role which contemporary art has played in the museum’s “down-fall” was not explored in depth (such as Minimal Art’s impact, as Rosalind Krauss has so compellingly argued). Moreover, key works which directly contest the museum’s authority went unmentioned, including Chris Burden’s Samson (1985) and Exposing the Foundation of the Museum (1987), Dennis Oppenheim’s Protection (1971) (in which twelve trained attack dogs patrolled an area next to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts), and Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky et al. Manbattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 (1971), among others.

Within the exhibition’s context, the most successful works on view represented attempts to bypass postmodern tactics of scrambling references and confounding boundaries. Instead, thought-provoking links between seemingly unrelated times, places, situations and ideas were created. The rapid access to information and international travel experiences which inform these artists’ work does not preclude the comprehension of widely-varied audiences perhaps because of this effort to establish ties. This, of course, contrasts with artists working in a post-modern vein who celebrate fragmentation and opacity and eschew the notion of establishing hierarchies of value. However, the artists in question acknowledge their post-modern condition, and as such have also incorporated into their artworks a self-conscious acknowledgment of the production of art, its viewing context and its reception.