Close this search box.
Discontent with museums is productive

Caravaggio, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, 1602, oil on canvas, 9′ 8 1/2″ x 6′ 2 1/2″.

Alex Kitnick, Point of no return, Art Forum, February 2021

Alex Kitnick on the discontent with museums.

Caravaggio, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, 1602, oil on canvas, 9′ 8 1/2″ x 6′ 2 1/2″.

“WHEN DISCONTENT WITH MUSEUMS is strong enough to provoke the attempt to exhibit paintings in their original surroundings or in ones similar, in baroque or rococo castles, for instance, the result is even more distressing than when the works are wrenched from their original surroundings and then brought together.” This is Theodor Adorno in his great essay “Valéry Proust Museum,” first published in German in 1955, a moment of reckoning and reconstruction. Though Adorno doesn’t specify why the attempt to return and repatriate is more upsetting than the original rift and reassembling of modernity, it is clear that we are in a similar moment of discontent again today—and that we, too, must consider our desires and the effects they might produce.

In May this past year, the director of Florence’s Uffizi, Eike Schmidt, announced a proposal to return a number of the museum’s religious paintings to churches (if not to the exact ones the paintings came from, then at least to similarly Christian places of worship). At first glance, this seemed like a not-terrible idea; after all, I have seen Caravaggio’s Inspiration of Saint Matthew, 1602, tucked into its nook in San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome and felt that awed feeling of witnessing a thing where it was meant to be seen, in situ. Schmidt had apparently absorbed all the postmodern lessons of site-specificity, about what is lost when something is picked, pried, or stolen from its original context. (“To remove the work is to destroy the work,” I could almost hear Richard Serra say.) But as I thought more about his proposal, the deep anti-modernism of the gesture struck me: The idea, after all, is not simply to relocate the paintings but to change their natures, transforming them from secular things worthy of contemplation into devotional images deserving of worship. Even if Schmidt is somehow historically right—in other words, even if he is being faithful to how artists intended their work to be seen—he is nevertheless revoking the experience of modernity that has descended upon these paintings.

When a painting was taken off the wall of the church and brought into the gallery of the museum, we were asked to look at it differently than the artist intended. Broken out of its original lifeworld and turned into a fragment (this is the original crime Adorno speaks of), the artwork became secular, a relic of another time and place, patched together with relics from other times and places. (“It would be an act of madness to enter a museum, kneel down before a painting of the virgin to pray for a soldier missing in battle, lighting a candle and leaving an offering on the floor near the picture before leaving,” Philip Fisher noted in 1975.) It is lost and adrift, yes, but it is also transformed, and here we find the other edge of the sword: One begins to draw connections the artist never imagined. That is the quixotic, heady power of the museum, the birth of which, one might go so far as to say, demands the death of the author. No works made before 1860 were meant to be contemplated in quite the same way—as Foucault reminds us, Manet was the first painter to imagine his paintings in the museum—but nothing that goes into it can resist its power. In this sense the museum is akin to the commodity system, another modern invention: Artworks confront all other artworks within its space. Inside, they change orientation, speak differently, take on new lives, assume new values. The viewer is charged with wondering about their potential, purchase, and power.

To describe the Uffizi plan as anti-secular and anti-modern is not to say that every repatriation shares these characteristics. In general, stolen things should be given back, and the past few years have seen many struggles for restitution that are undeniably just. In 2018, scholars Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy of the Collège de France released a brilliant report, commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron, urging the return of plundered African objects to their native lands: “African cultural heritage can no longer remain a prisoner of European Museums,” Macron’s Twitter account proclaimed. It is hard to argue against this move even if the proposed return is to some extent symbolic, and one might ask if European museums are not also attempting to divest themselves of a troubling colonial history: While France is much less likely to give back all the resources it plundered over the longue durée of colonialism, the return of objects might still pave the way for other forms of remuneration and justice; in their report, Sarr and Savoy note that restitution opens the “question of building bridges for future equitable relations.” Importantly, they are just as invested in the experience of confronting the objects themselves. As Sarr and Savoy put it, “To fall under the spell of an object, to be touched by it, moved emotionally by a piece of art in a museum, brought to tears of joy, to admire its forms of ingenuity, to like the artworks’ colors, to take a photo of it, to let oneself be transformed by it: All these experiences—which are also forms of access to knowledge—cannot simply be reserved to the inheritors of an asymmetrical history, to the benefactors of an excess of privilege and mobility.” If repatriated objects are unlikely to return to their original contexts, Sarr and Savoy insist, they must be displayed in necessarily “unoriginal” ways—in other words, in a museum.

The museum reveals the artwork’s potential precisely by negating it.

A LOT HAS CHANGED in the past forty or so years. If the postmodernism of the 1980s considered the museum to be in crisis and contemplated its “ruins,” today many see these same institutions as frustratingly intact, as bulwarks against change, citadels to be stormed. (Even ten years ago, the Left’s critique of museums was simply that they had transformed from civic sites to experiential fun houses. “The late-capitalist museum” was understood to be a space of spectacle, not BlackRock lucre.) Where an earlier generation of artists associated with institutional critique pointed to the museum’s genetic incoherence, as well as to the incursion of corporate interests, today the museum itself stands as a purveyor of systemic and symbolic violence. “The very foundation of the museum is carceral and colonial, and thus ableist,” artist Carolyn Lazard claimed in a recent interview. “Once we abandon the solidity of the museums’ justifications for existing, we might be able to invent new forms and new models of making.” Lazard is not alone in their thinking, but plans of attack have taken different approaches. In a recent exhibition detailing the role of slavery in the British empire and its afterlife in institutions of contemporary art, artist Cameron Rowland mortgaged the mahogany doors and handrails at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, installed by the extravagant George IV—thus making a strike against the host institution, while at the same time acknowledging, by staging the exhibition, that the artist is bound to it. (Even as the institution’s hardware remains intact, its value is drained—the site becomes indebted.) And many others, artists and art workers alike, have occupied the museum in similar ways, sometimes to drain it but just as often to reenergize it. One of the most affirming aspects of the protests against Warren Kanders’s trusteeship of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, which sprang up around the 2019 Biennial, was how many people claimed the institution as their own and insisted that their voices be heard there too. While the ultimately successful campaign to oust Kanders from the board neither erased his tear gas from the world nor purified the institution, it did mark an ethical position that had potentially political effects: For who, more people might ask, would want to break bread with a person like this?

Needless to say, we cannot undo the history of the museum, but neither should we invest blindly in its current state of affairs; we have to recognize it for what it has done, what it is capable of, and what it might do. Contra Adorno, the museum is no longer a mausoleum: His claim that the museum only exists out of “historical respect” has ceased to be the case. Indeed, the museum today is expected to be a center of attention and an active agent in culture to satisfy the “needs of the present,” but as much as it tries to stay up-to-date, it cannot help but deploy its age-old techniques—and this is not wholly a bad thing. After all, the museum is one of the few devices that can make the royal democratic, the private public, the sacred profane. It can switch contexts and create distance. It can bring things to light.

I am trying to argue here for the possibility of a productive alienation, a salutary anti-immediacy. In a sense, the museum reveals the artwork’s potential precisely by negating it: “Works of art,” Adorno insists, “can fully embody the promesse du bonheur only when they have been uprooted from their native soil and have set out along the path to their own destruction.” This is not quite as perverse as it sounds. Art is different than reality; it is one way of thinking about it and contemplating it. In his 1917 essay “Art as Device,” Viktor Shklovsky noted art’s strange-making powers, its ostranenie, its ability to defamiliarize. The device of art, however, resides not only in its objects but in its institutions—in other words, the artmaking, strange-making device par excellence may be the museum itself. And this strangeness, my substitute word for autonomy, is what grants the museum its privileged position not outside, but adjacent to, life—a place where life might be seen, queried, and discussed.

But must modern museums sit on endlessly growing piles of capital in order to do this work? Each expansion the museum makes not only creates room for more art but also builds a structure ever more costly to maintain—indeed, its incessant territorial expansionism might be one of its most colonial traits, apart, of course, from the encyclopedic museum’s mission to universalize (and centralize) by plunder. Hito Steyerl has written powerfully of what she calls the “poor image”—a digital file that is circulated, amended, shared, and cared for by many. What it loses in quality, in resolution, she claims, it gains in history. Now might be the time to imagine a “poor institution,” a place infiltrated by many that values community over control. What would a “poor” Whitney look like? A “poor” Guggenheim? A “poor” MoMA? Might they keep exhibitions up longer and dig more deeply into their permanent collections, enfranchise educators and dock executive pay? In other words, change structurally instead of signify differently? This is not a plea for populism, to pander to the people, but rather a call to recognize the many invested in, and identified with, institutions. Discontent with museums is productive. Unless we reimagine them radically, they may well become the baroque and rococo castles in which much art was first housed.

Alex Kitnick teaches Art History at Bard College in Annandale-On-Hudson, NY.