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Museums as spiritual successors to the church?

Pierre d’Alancaisez, The cathedral and the museum, The Critic, November 2023

With declining attendances and a neglect of their core mission, churches and art galleries have much in common.

Marcel Duchamp, “Fountain” at the newly completed San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

When Tate Modern opened in London in 2000, it seemed the ideal Sunday pilgrimage destination for London’s otherwise-idle middle classes. The contemporary art gallery would help quell the anxiety of modern life and fill the void left by the decline in organised religion. How art gained the authority to guide the liberal individual’s relationship with a secular society and what aesthetics and social forms this new cathedral of art would promote were the centre of debate.

The museum is the spiritual successor of the church.

The museum is the spiritual successor of the church. After the Reformation freed art from its sacral obligations, it also turned aesthetics into a civil matter. Early public museums such as the Victoria & Albert and the Smithsonian were founded in the nineteenth century and their core aim was the moral edification of the masses through art. 

In the time it has so far taken to build Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Família Basilica in Barcelona, hundreds of just-as-grand museums have opened across the world, proving the unceasing demand for secular spiritual experiences. Fittingly, Tate Modern’s earliest blockbuster was The Weather Project, Olafur Eliasson’s yellow sun installation which had audiences gazing in awe at a replica of a celestial entity.

But now the museum’s role and fate risks replicating that of the church it seemed set to replace. The museum faces fundamental challenges. It is haunted by a crisis of purpose that is manifest in the heated debates over restitution of artefacts. A crisis of confidence has seen many institutions turn against art itself. Ultimately, this is a crisis of meaning that pushes audiences away. 

These problems are taking museums in Britain by surprise, and most are in denial. But institutions such as the Church of England have faced the same dilemmas themselves — not always successfully — and their struggles are the subject of constant debate. Even if one believes that the museum and the cathedral compete as suppliers of enlightenment, many of the existential threats they face are partly of their own making.

The revelation of thefts from the British Museum and the escalation in the diplomatic argument about the future of the Parthenon marbles are only the most visible manifestations of a deeper problem. If the museum’s mission was once to preserve and educate, in recent years it has expanded to encompass questions of social equity and diversity which, in turn, have forced the institutions to rethink their approach to the canon which they guard. 

That is no terrible thing because diversity in collecting would mean that we all have more culture to enrich us. Perversely, this same omnivore logic built museum collections from the spoils of empire. Today’s cultural expansionism is supposedly gentler (although artists who often complain of being exploited may disagree).

But art institutions are also desperately keen to “decolonise” their work, ensuring that they must declare themselves morally incompetent to deal with some parts of their collections and jettison others as immoral. This marks a contradiction between the universalist tenets that would value all culture and the essentialism that shouts foul at cultural appropriation.

There are consequences. For example, there is a principled case for the return of some Benin bronzes from European museums to their Edo origins. But in reality, that a tranche of these artefacts resituated by German museums has already gone missing in private hands in Nigeria rather than being put on public display is an insult to that culture and its diaspora. Such problems are not merely matters for diligent administrative practice but are rooted in the confusion about the museum’s status in a changing world.

Christian churches have grappled with versions of the same paradox. The ordination of female priests and the blessing of gay partnerships are only two examples in which a compromise requires rewriting the fundamental doctrines that govern their practice. 

Given that until recently the unchangeability of the church was regarded as one of its strengths, it is little wonder that a Church of England which today promotes a “third way” is in a bind. For the museum, which evolved alongside liberalism itself, such contradictions are not yet apparent. But its impractical “fudge” could be just as damaging.

The greatest problem is that many museums are losing their interest in art

The greatest problem is that many museums are losing their interest in art. It would be easy to blame artists for this crisis of faith: many museum-goers today are baffled by anything made after Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain. But not all the art which has filled museums and galleries since circa 1960 deserves such scorn. 

Conceptual artists, including the English group Art & Language and the pioneer of auto-destruction Gustav Metzger, did unleash a revolution against the image, but their work was not anti-aesthetic per se and their critiques specifically targeted the institutions. Even the sometimes shocking, sometimes hollow work of the Young British Artists, such as Tracey Emin, who were making their mark just as Tate Modern opened its doors, revelled in art’s ability to share the human experience.

No, the museum’s anti-art stance is the curator’s professional choice. In this, it uncannily trails the church’s faltering relationship with God. In the past 30 years, museums and contemporary art galleries shifted their focus from looking after artefacts to the care of the audience. Today, funding for art institutions hinges on cultural experiences engendering wellbeing and artistic projects promoting social cohesion. But rather than resist instrumentalisation, museums relish being seen as vital replacements for the declining community infrastructure which once included the parish church as a vital component. 

Again, this is a good idea until these caring responsibilities lead to aesthetic conflict. In June, Tate Britain hosted Queer and Now, a festival of performances, film screenings and talks held under the auspices of LGBTQ+ Pride. There were market stalls where queer creatives sold their trinkets, a pop-up rave stage, and a protest banner-making workshop. 

One could legitimately ask if this ideological cross between a village fête and a school disco deserved a place in the nation’s premier art institution. But the real art crime was that the event’s participants had no interest at all in the exhibition of the iconic queer filmmaker Isaac Julien (film still, left), which was Tate’s main offering at the time. Rather than frame the festival around Julien’s oeuvre, the museum threw art under the bus to appear legitimate to the queer community.

In his essay “Cura, the Curatorial and Paradoxes of Care”, the scholar Ed McKeon highlights that the institutionalisation of pastoral care overlapped with the waning of the moral authority through which the pastor once guided the flock. This lack created the impression that the hierarchical difference between the institution and its subjects had disappeared, too. 

But institutions never give up their power willingly and where they lack authority, they turn to authoritarianism. Guidance turns into governance, and thus into the corruption of the institution’s purpose. 

This may or may not have been the story of the church for centuries. But at Tate Britain, the festival was vigilantly watched over by a team of lanyard-wearing “Vibe Checkers”, staff members who would ensure the museum was “a welcoming environment for everyone”. In the eyes of art, we are all equal until somebody displays the wrong type of “queer joy”.

Where are all the museum-goers and, indeed, parishioners who don’t pass the vibe check? Contemporary life offers them an infinite choice of spiritual fulfilment. There is a museum in the virtual-world game Fortnite and a church in the Metaverse. But these are institutions in name only, and their authority stems from an algorithm. Yet many of us settle for this and scroll through our TikTok feeds until the machine understands our moral outlook. As McKeon observes: “Curation is now ubiquitous as the absence of both foundations and destiny — for the human, for art, for truth itself — has become palpable.”

For all this, museums carry on with unflinching confidence, constantly producing new narratives of their “relevance”. They claim to hold the solution to the climate crisis or that they are uniquely placed to resolve racial tensions. They are so good at this that some churches even believe that art can solve the crisis of faith.

And perhaps it can. 2019’s helter-skelter installation in Norwich Cathedral did get the punters in and at least some paused in awe at the religious art that has adorned the building’s walls for centuries. 

But the foundations of this coalition may not be sound. Richard Parry, the creative director at St James’s church in London’s Piccadilly recently described the institution as “a space of community, of compassion, and wisdom”. That’s some praise from a curator who once directed high-profile contemporary art events. But Parry, under whose tenure St James’s hosts drag nights alongside music recitals, went on to say that his institution “understands that [it] is an irrelevance in contemporary life”. With friends like this, who needs competitors?

If the cathedral and the museum can teach each other anything, it’s that the institutions which treat the image seriously stand the greatest chance of survival. Many more people visited Yayoi Kusama’s exhibition Infinity Rooms at Tate than will ever come together in an anti-aesthetic wellbeing event at any museum. 

Kusama’s experiential installations are more helter-skelters than good art, but their success does tell us something about the aesthetic needs of the population. Some museums still make serving these a priority. Christian denominations which continue to invest in the spectacle of worship, likewise, are faring better than those which try to accommodate conflicting ideas. There may be a theological explanation for this. But the aesthetic one is, perhaps, more compelling.