MUSEUM AS METHODOLOGY
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.