Thinking users, thoughtless institutions. A short prelude about the present

Author: Charles Esche

Charles Esche is director of Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, professor of contemporary art and curating at Central Saint Martins (UAL, London) and co-director of Afterall Journal and Books. One of the founders of the trans-institutional association of European museums and art archives L’Internationale, which includes the Van Abbemuseum. He teaches on the Exhibition Studies MRes course at CSM, and at Jan van Eyck Academie, Maastricht.

Despite the dark clouds hovering over Europe these last years, with the return of cultural nostalgia alongside defensive nationalism, it is still hard to imagine that the future publics for contemporary art will revert back to the audiences of the past. After all, those dark clouds are largely the result of living through the tensions associated with transitional times like today and do not bring with them a coherent vision of the next 30—50 years. As the world moves beyond its modern past, the notion of an audience for art built within a modern hierarchy in which specialism and division dominated no longer holds. The potential publics for art are diverse in a way modernity could not foresee. 


The transition away from this modern mindset is being experiencing in different ways today, but its general drift is clear. Europe, a continent that has long assumed its role as a primary agent of history, is no longer the center of attention, and while the idea that it must become one region amongst others is understandably disturbing, it does not have to be destructive in the way it is often portrayed. One of the roles of culture today is precisely to mitigate the disturbance and to embrace the transition from the modern, something that it is successfully doing at the margins of its activity and will hopefully increasingly address as its core contemporary responsibility. To do so, the cultural field and its different art worlds have to reform even more their old modernist ideologies and re-examine the relations between the institution of art and its users — artists, curators, critics and especially the idea of an unspecified public audience. They have to readmit terms and histories that have long been excluded and to examine the core beliefs about art, tradition, history, collection and museum.


The modern viewers of art were generally in thrall to a class of expert tastemakers. The latter asserted their power through institutional, academic and mainstream media and policed the borders of the discipline in the way of most disciples of modernity. Even the valuable recent attempts at inclusion within social democratic, public institutions still seem to hanker for a hierarchical relationship with a non-expert public, offering the formal appearance of influence without committing to real institutional change.

At the same time, the last 10 years have seen an explosion of private museums projects where, almost without exception, the displays are designed to affirm the superior taste and authority of a single oligarchic patron. No matter the content of the individual artworks, or the politics of the artists, such museums assert the power of a cultural elite to determine the future direction of art. Where they differ is that they no longer follow the social democratic model that was negotiated between communist revolution and liberalism in the mid-20th century. While the surviving remnants of social democratic ideology still inform most public art institutions, such as an idea of art as a civilizing influence on those it touches, the private museums do not seriously attempt to communicate any progressive interest in emancipation or to understand provocative artistic strategies as ways to raise political consciousness, as did the old avant-garde. They are simply marketing techniques and entertainment brands. 

In that sense, the new private museums are much more in tune with a part of today’s society, unfortunately, it is the part that has most abandoned any hope of political or social improvement and is focused on short-term gain within what can be called, for brevity’s sake, the oligarchic society. The oligarchs and their cheerleaders in culture, politics and economics embrace the dark clouds in many ways, while often disdaining them in public. Yet what both the old and new art institutions fail completely to take account of are, the kind of active, thinking and knowledgeable users that are the hallmark of post-internet generations. This is why the question of the role of publics, viewers or audiences becomes crucial to any more optimistic or progressive options for art.


While today there might still be general confidence in oligarchic society to prosper, given the growth of private museums and the dominance of exclusive art fairs, it is by no means certain that the new oligarchic cultural model has a sustainable future. It relies on too few, quite contrary and unreliable players, and on an economic system that is patently unjust and inadequate. The basic division between art, institution and public that still characterizes this system also takes little account of deep structural changes in art’s social position. Contemporary art today exists not as a single progressive aesthetic project but as a series of practices marked by conflict, entanglement and interference. 

In this, it mirrors the condition of the world around it. The harsh separations of the roles of artist, activist, theorist, curator, critic and more have already been dismantled in the act of making art itself today. It is now the identity and borders of institutions and publics that needs to be unpacked and reformed in the light of contemporaneity, as an ideology and a lived experience. The challenge to oligarchy can come by asking, questioning and including the non-expert publics at many different levels in the process of defining the new, democratic cultural institutions that are needed to shape the future in an emancipatory direction. It is through collective thinking, joining together the existing agents of art, who must now be more or less in listening mode, with the people who can make use of it, that concrete form can be given to popular demands and committed individuals can build on them to satisfy desires that do not yet have a name, or even exist.




Given this prelude, how could we imagine the role “audiences” might have in 35 years time? It is pointless to take a pessimistic view. The oligarchs may triumph and Europe may turn inwards again against itself. In any scenario like that, audiences will be passive attenders at ever more expensive and decadent spectacles. By 2050, we may have the return of public executions as the only form of collective entertainment that is fundamental enough to call people away from their personal technology and gather them in one place. But, as I say that’s the pessimistic forecast. It is also quite unlikely, given that access to information and popular oversight of the oligarchs is, already today, much greater than is often credited. The simple existence of Wikileaks or Edward Snowden must give us hope and optimism for a renewed democratic future.


Of course, access to information is only half the battle. It is how this information is put together, how it is narrated and made sense of, that will determine if it is indeed the liberating force that is needed. Here, the question of what kind of narration (and narrators) is crucial. In a world beyond the modern, it is unreasonable to expect a single theory or a new manifesto composed by a few scientific or political analysts to provide solutions. Recent experiences in both contemporary science and politics point firmly to the impossibility that these knowledge fields can be reformed or even energized from within. Also, in contemporaneity, the things that modernity generally refused to admit — faith, magic, emotion, irrationality — have a much stronger role. Over the next 35 years, it is how society feels and believes that is likely to determine which way it will go, certainly more so than what its experts — the old economists and politicians — will try to proclaim as good for it. The conditions are such that these previously leading actors will seem increasingly irrelevant, none of them able to address the needs and desires of a world population, enough of whom are becoming alienated from the principle of leadership and are tempted to withdraw from public life where possible, for lack of possibility within it. In these circumstances, my best guess is that struggles over the symbolic value of culture in the broad sense, its modes, protocols and forms of address, will play an increasingly vital role in shaping events and gathering people. The protagonists that used to be identified as an audience will, slowly or suddenly, become active agents in crowd-sourced forms of thinking. Collaborative uses for network technologies will close distances and be a means to contribute to discussions in places far from home.


People will combine, not around flags or ideologies, but around cultural choices. In these ways, the network society that we have become with transform into a collective society of the future and create the conditions under which oligarchy can be dissolved or overthrown. This collective society will be full of the conflict, entanglements and interferences that mark contemporary art today. As such, the best artists are showing the way forward by rejecting the limitations of the present.

Shaping such an ideal collectivity is what the cultural field and its redesignated publics can rally around. It will require forms of interaction and connection that still need to be developed and are impossible to predict. Yet, the goal is clear: to promote empathy between different positions. It has traditionally been the task of culture to build such empathy, to put us in the shoes of another and to permit us to imagine the imagination of someone else. In a world of conflict and entanglement, where differences will collide, it can make a more vital contribution than ever before.


The question is, how will the existing cultural institutions respond over the next generation? The opportunity exists for them to become forums of empathy, places for understanding the difficulties that social transitions generate and be a place where non-violent conflict can be fought out and antagonistic positions can struggle with each other over the right to determine the shape of a shared symbolic field.

This would naturally require a very different kind of cultural leadership, one that is ideologically aware, idealistic but aesthetically completely open. Its ambition would be to create the conditions where empathic relations could be developed and where differences could be played out in real time. What we now term the audience would probably become closer to the idea of users of art, as well as a key subject and the main focus of the art institution. This is a vision of a “former audience” whose role will no longer be one of attendance, as measured by visitor figures, but of acting as collaborators in the making of meaning and providing the core motivation for art to be produced in the first place.


Artistic agendas and programs will be determined by being attentive to social and economic conditions. Sensitive devices that monitor collective discussions will register what is going on around them. The museums and other art institutions will play host to social movements and invent public forums that will provide the raw material on which programs can be built. 

The role and expectations of artists would necessarily change in these circumstances. They will become instigators or initiators, using their unique skills to create environments in which people would feel ready to participate and think together. They would be required to take the temperature of the time and respond to it in the ways they know how. In general, there would be less demand for the solipsistic activity of the artist as a figure obsessed by self-expression, though their contribution would still be highly personal as this would create the kind of intimate exchanges on which empathy relies. 


It is fair to say that there are dangers of instrumentalization in this approach. To counteract it would rely on the contrariness of artists to provoke and undermine the aspirations of the institutions. Acting in the name of the users, artists could still undermine the new power structures that would accrue to certain people and places. They would simply be responding in their traditional manner. Indeed, the struggle to extract degrees of autonomy for themselves might reinvigorate the value of artists in being themselves, rather than being privileged as the discordant, out of control figures they are today. While that current strategy may amuse oligarch society and bring riches to a few individuals, successful artists of today generally fail to find ways to use their existing autonomy to cause much in the way of disruption to the smooth running of the system.


Ultimately contemporary art, to be meaningful, needs to be ahead of its time, as much in any speculative new collective society as in oligarchic society now. Artists should be relied upon to react to any given conditions by working against them or anticipating their demise. The expectation of artists in the new situation will then be to look for what is unrecognized or denied, which is impossible to predict before we have arrived there. Just as the most compelling contemporary art is already operating within the social conditions of a collective society, so it can be anticipated that artists in the future would be looking for what comes next and acting as though it was already here.


For the rest of those engaged in art, from curators to the “former audience”, these developments are not without their challenges. Museums and other institutions would require a substantial reformation. There would be a need to extend the knowledge of their users in multiple dimensions. Existing attempts at people’s panels and youth organizations would have to be formalized and given decision-making power. Old questions of taste and quality, while not being abandoned, would need to be rethought. The basic mission of each organization would have to be reframed and assessment criteria targeted at empathic, collective relations and antagonistic encounters. Art institutions would be places of contrast and disagreement, rather than of entertainment, which would be mostly provided on screen. The disciplines of art history, social theory and cultural studies would become entangled and undefined, led by those with the capacity to analyze the ways that art made encounters possible and how its effects on human understanding might be described and measured. New management and interpersonal skills will be asked for and the definitions of artist, curator, critic, conservator and educator will change permanently. These are exciting challenges that can mark out the new responsibilities of the art field and give it an urgency within the context of a gradually resolving settlement of contemporaneity that will have been achieved by 2050. The pain of change, and its uncertain outcome, will nevertheless be worthwhile because it offers the chance to create a field of art that would be attuned to the world as it is (or will be) and give it the opportunity to anticipate again what might be yet to come.


Original source: Museerna och besökarna 2050: en framtidsantologi från Riksutställningar, red. Karin Henriksson, Evelina Wahlqvist. Volante, 2016 (Swedish).

Source of the English version: https://www.academia.edu/10150943/Thinking_Users_Thoughtless_Institution