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The Museum in the Age of Mass Media   Post comment Printer friendly versionMore notes

The Museum in the Age of Mass Media
by Boris Groys (translation: Matthew Partridge)
art, museum, media
Wednesday, May 05, 2004 21:50 GMT

It's true: there is still a large audience that enjoys visiting museums these days. But in general, as an institution the museum is increasingly being viewed with scepticism and mistrust by the selfsame audience. On all sides one repeatedly hears that the institutional boundaries of the museum ought to be transgressed, deconstructed or simply removed to give contemporary art full freedom to assert itself in real life. At first glance these attacks on the museum in the name of some or other contemporary, living art have a very familiar ring about them - they sound rather like a sequel to the demands voiced by the various avant-garde movements of the twentieth century that called for the art system and, in particular, the museum to be demolished, transcended and disbanded to make way for new art. Such appeals and demands have meanwhile become quite commonplace, even to the extent of now being regarded as a cardinal feature of contemporary art. But as we all know, these avant-garde demands in fact led merely to the emergence of new art forms that in the course of time also found their rightful place in the museum. So, as an institution the museum has adopted a relaxed, if not blatantly benevolent attitude towards these appeals and demands that once threatened its very existence - in the expectant hope that new and interesting art might be directly fostered by such attacks. Present-day calls for the abolition of the museum appear to take up on these earlier avant-garde strategies and so continue, virtually unchallenged, to be whole-heartedly embraced by the museum. But appearances are deceiving. The context, meaning and function of the calls to abolish the museum system have undergone fundamental change since the days of the avant-garde, even if at first sight the style and diction of their formulation seems so familiar.

Prevailing tastes in the nineteenth and the first part of the twentieth centuries were defined and embodied by the museum. The criteria on which the museum based its choice of 'good' art were generally accepted as the social norm. So in these circumstances any protest directed at the museum was simultaneously a protest against the prevailing norms of art-making - and by the same token also the basis from which new, groundbreaking art could evolve. But in its present context the museum has indisputably been stripped of its normative role. In our own era it is the mass media that dictate aesthetic norms, having long since dethroned the museum from its crucial social role. The general public now draws its notion of art from advertising, MTV, videos, video games and Hollywood blockbusters. Whether this notion of art is good or bad is a mute question: it is what it is. All that matters is that in the context of contemporary, media-generated tastes this call to abandon and dismantle the museum as an institution has taken on an entirely different meaning than when it was voiced during the avant-garde era. Nowadays this protest is no longer part of the struggle waged against prevailing normative tastes in the name of innovation but is, inversely, aimed at stabilizing and entrenching currently prevailing tastes. When people today speak of 'real life', what they generally mean is the global media market. This is why art that enters life under such conditions can never really be 'new' art, because the demands and criteria practised by the media market have always been broadly familiar. Anyone calling for the museum to be transcended is no longer remonstrating against prevailing norms or the dominance and censorship institutionally practised by the museum. Instead, such an outcry represents populist repudiation of a minority, of any deviation from the norm and of aesthetic positions that differ from those currently propagated by the media. In order to properly assess the predicament of the museum as an institution one must first acknowledge the fact that, rather than representing the majority of those interested in art and culture as it did in the past, the museum now only speaks for a minority.

Art institutions, however, are still typically displayed in the media as places of selection, where specialists, insiders and the initiated few pass preliminary judgment on what is permitted to rate as art in general, and what in particular as ‘good’ art. This selection process is based on criteria that to a wider audience seem unfathomable, incomprehensible and, in the final count, also irrelevant. Accordingly, one wonders just why anyone at all is needed to decide what art is and what is not. Why can't we just choose for ourselves what we wish to acknowledge or appreciate as art without recourse to an intermediary, without patronizing advice curators and art critics? Why does art refuse to seek legitimation on the open media market just like any other product? From a media perspective the traditional aspirations of the museum seem historically obsolete, out-of-touch, insincere and somewhat bizarre. And contemporary art itself time and again displays an eagerness to follow the enticements of the mass media age, voluntarily abandoning the museum in the quest to be disseminated through media channels. Of course, this readiness on the part of art to become involved in the media, in broader public communication and politics, in other words to engage in life beyond the boundaries of the museum, is quite understandable. This approach allows it to address and seduce a much larger audience; it is a decent way of earning money - which the artist previously had to beg for from the state or private sponsors. It gives the artist a new sense of power, social relevance and public presence within his or her own time - preferable to eking out a meagre existence as the poor relation of the media. So the call to break loose from the museum also amounts de facto to a call to medialize and commercialize art by accommodating it to the aesthetic norms generated by today's media. But given that the museum has been divested of its function as the arbiter of taste, one is nonetheless left wondering why it still continues to hold such strong attraction for the general public, including the media.

Firstly, seen from a media perspective, the criteria for the evaluation of art as practised in museums appear, as mentioned above, to be totally obscure, incomprehensible and even somewhat mysterious. Curiously, though, this does not mean that the media automatically denigrate museums since they are equally fascinated by all that is hidden, dark, obscure and marginal. The museum-trained eye itself is fascinated by life outside the museum, by reality and the media. By contrast, the media is intrigued by the idea of casting light on the hidden and closed-off recesses of the museum, of enlightening the public about its dark secrets and rendering the museum's isolated and private inner precincts accessible to media-based communication. On the whole, the strategies behind museum collections and exhibitions are treated in the media as the workings of a shadowy conspiracy, as an intrigue masterminded by insiders, as a display of the hidden power of curators and museum directors far removed from any form of democratic legitimation - in other words, as an impenetrable swindle. But at the same time this dark secret exerts a magnetic attraction on the media: they suspect it might hold an interesting source of information in store. This aspect, incidentally, is corroborated by the introduction of film and video installations into the museum, which is accompanied by the darkening of museum space. This development has extinguished the museum's traditional light, casting the museum space in darkness and transposing the viewer into a nervous trance. Here the museum is directly manifesting itself as what it has come to represent in the age of mass media, as a tenebrous location of secrecy, conspiracy and half-visibility. Thus, in its new role the museum has maintained its appeal for the media and the broad public precisely as site of strangeness, deviation and inexplicability - as a 'kunstkammer' of the contemporary world which has lost its licence to define prevailing aesthetic norms.

By the same token, however, there is also something about the museum that clearly irritates the media, namely everything that has to do with theoretical discourse addressed at art in general or the museum in particular. Almost every time a museum exhibition is suspected of voicing a theoretical, critical claim the media react with unveiled animosity, The sole excuse that can save an exhibition in such circumstances is if 'in spite of its theoretical pretensions' it can be said to be sensual and attractive - and hence ultimately irrelevant. At first glance this reaction by the media might seem rather odd. After all, being theoretical surely means being open to communication, and the media is in fact supposed to welcome all communicative endeavours. But in reality, the only artistic and curatorial decisions truly celebrated the media are those that appear to be purely subjective, ungrounded and intuitive. Nowadays the media have ceased to celebrate the individual artist as a genius. Instead, we now witness how the entire museum system per se is hailed as a genius, as a place where arbitrary, incomprehensible decisions are made about what constitutes art and what does not, about what is rated good art and what is not. This is nothing less than a bizarre continuation of the cult of the genius in the wake of the 'ready-made' principle. Whereas on the one hand post-Duchamp art is criticized and ironized for its allegedly random display of artistic and curatorial power on the other the media are mesmerized by this same power, ready to salute anyone who seems capable of achieving success by pulling off such purportedly arbitrary and gratuitous decisions. The ready-made procedure is now considered to be the last enigma of our age, a last possible act of pure subjective choice - and even more so if people are not ready to comply with the arbitrariness of this choice. In the media we are now witnessing a strange aestheticization of the museum as a place of enigma, mystery and quasi-religiosity.

Accordingly, every instance of theoretical or critical reasoning is treated like an objectionable act of secularization aimed at robbing the museum of its enigmatic aura and thereby, so it would seem, definitively draining it of appeal. Most significantly, however, theoretical discourse calls into question the fundamental ideological premise underlying the way today's media operate. For, as those running the media ceaselessly claim, far from promoting their own norms or propagating tastes of their own making (let alone even having 'their own' tastes), the media simply provide what their audience 'wants to see' - in the proverbial manner of: bait is meant to attract fish, not fishermen. It is precisely this notion that leads people in the media to believe they have the upper hand, to feel they are historically more progressive than the classical museum they denounce as normative, didactic and authoritarian. Thus the key perceived difference between the traditional museum and contemporary media lies in the assumption that museums try to imposetheir aesthetic agenda on people, while the media merely wish to lend expression to existing mass-democratic tastes. But on closer inspection there is something highly problematic about the view the media have of themselves. Anyone familiar with the workings of the media today knows that they are constantly promoting their latest array of products by claiming them to be different, new, up-to-date or even pioneering. Novelty, or rather topicality, is presented in the media as a value in its own right to which the consumer is expected to subordinate his personal tastes. So on the one hand the media profess they are simply satisfying existing tastes, while on the other they are directly and indirectly canvassing for these tastes to be revised and adjusted to the zeitgeist. Consequently, it can hardly be claimed that the media market provides the consumer only with what he 'really' wants to see and hear - without any form of patronizing control. On the contrary, at every turn he is being lectured and instructed about what supposedly constitutes the current zeitgeist - and what does not.

The question is, however, can one really learn from the media what is specifically contemporary about the present? In my view the answer is no - and for one simple reason: the global media market lacks the historical memory which would enable it to compare the past with the present and thereby determine what is really new and genuinely contemporary about the present. The old product range in the media market is constantly being replaced by new merchandise, barring any possibility of comparing what is on offer today with what used to be available. As a result, media commentary has no choice but to turn to fashion. But fashionability itself is by no means self-evident or indisputable. While it is perhaps easy for us to admit that in the age of mass media our lives are dictated predominantly by fashion, how confused we suddenly become when asked to say precisely what is en vogue just now. So who can actually say what is fashionable at any given moment? Passing any kind of judgement in this is highly problematic, particularly in these times of globalization. For instance, if something appears to have become fashionable in Berlin, one could quickly point out that this trend has long since gone out of fashion measured against what is currently fashionable in, say, Tokyo or Los Angeles. Yet who can guarantee that the same Berlin fashion won't at some later date also hit the streets of Los Angeles or Tokyo? So, when it comes to assessing the market, we are de facto at the blind mercy of advice dispensed by marketing and fashion gurus, the purported specialists of international fashion. Yet such advice cannot be verified by the individual since, as everyone knows, the global market is too vast for him alone to fathom. Hence, where the media market is concerned one has the simultaneous impression of being bombarded relentlessly with something new and also of permanently witnessing the return of the same over and over again. The familiar complaint that there is nothing new in art has the same root as the opposite charge that art is constantly striving only to appear new. As long as the observer has nothing but the media as a point of reference he simply lacks any comparative context which would afford him means of effectively distinguishing between old and new, between what is the same and what is different.

It is the museum that gives the observer this opportunity to differentiate between old and new, and to critically challenge with his own eyes what the media insist is novel, up-to-date and ground breaking, For museums are repositories of historical memory where everything is kept and shown that has gone out of fashion, that has become old and out-dated. In this respect only the museums can serve as sites of systematic historical comparison that enable us to ascertain what really is different, new and contemporary - and to discover what is making false claims to be so, something that, although produced in the present, might in fact merely be repeating long-established patterns. The same, incidentally, applies to the assertions of cultural difference or cultural identity that persistently bombard us in the media. In order to critically challenge these claims we again require some form of comparative framework. Where no such comparison is possible all claims of difference and identity remain unfounded and hollow. Indeed, every important art exhibition in a museum offers such a comparison, even if this is not explicitly enacted, for each museum exhibition inscribes itself into an entire history of exhibitions that is documented within the art system. Naturally, the strategies of comparison pursued by individual curators and critics can in turn also be criticized, but such a critique is possible only because these too can be measured against various other curatorial strategies in evidence within the art system. In other words, the very idea of abandoning or even abolishing the museum would remove the possibility of holding a critical inquiry into the claims of innovation and difference with which we are constantly confronted in today's media. This also explains why the assessments and selection criteria in museum art shows so frequently differ from those that prevail in the mass media. The issue here is not that curators and art initiates have exclusive and elitist tastes quite distinct from those of the broad public, but that the museum offers a means of comparing the present with the past that repeatedly arrives at other conclusions than those implied by the media. An individual observer would not necessarily be in a position to undertake such a comparison if the media were all he had to rely on. So it is hardly surprising that the media also end up adopting the museum's diagnosis of what exactly is contemporary about the present, simply because they themselves are unable to perform a diagnosis of their own.

It is primarily the museum of contemporary art that offers a framework for this diagnosis. Although the concept of the 'museum of contemporary art' is now broadly familiar, it nonetheless still represents a fundamentally new angle in our way of seeing the museum as an institution. Traditionally, the museum used to function as a place where evidence of the past was stored and assembled into an overall picture that was then held to be a socially binding representation of history. From this perspective, though, the museum of contemporary art would appear to be a paradox. However close to the present moment new art is being collected, this practice of collecting will always seem to arrive just a little too late - and will inevitably remain at least one step behind the present. Accordingly, 'real’ contemporary developments in art seem never to be caught up by the collecting process or by museographical re-presentation. It is often said that the museum might perhaps be capable of collecting yesterday, but never today. This, by the way is precisely the point where media claims appear most plausible. For, as is frequently claimed, new art first has to establish itself in life - in the global media market, to be precise - before it can then be enshrined in the museum, in other words, only once it has achieved success and endorsement in the market and therewith also social legitimacy.

Yet the historical relevance of any art is clearly not identical with its propagation in the media. As mentioned above, the 'now-ness' of art only becomes apparent in historical comparison, not by being circulated in the media. It is still pertinent to talk about the age of enlightenment or the era of the artistic avant-garde in spite of the glaring fact that both the enlightenment or the artistic avant-garde were only of concern to imperceptibly marginal minorities and by no means reflected the mentality of the absolute majority of the population at the time. This means that today's museums are in fact machines designed not merely to collect, but also to generate the present through their comparison between old and new, between identical and different. There is no basis to the notion that the process of creating art occurs first in the media before it is subsequently represented in the museum. Instead, we only recognize something as being up-to-date, truly contemporary and thus 'real' art once we realize that this art has yet to be collected by or represented in the museum. Rather than reality coming first, with its museum re-presentation following on in second place, it is the museum collection that tells us what in the here and now may be considered real. In other words, the museum of contemporary art is ultimately a producer of contemporary art by the way it establishes what has not yet been collected and thus what, by implication, must be 'contemporary'. By contrast, in the context of mass media art is condemned to constantly reiterating certain external features in an attempt to make art publicly identifiable as art. Thus the media promote a kind of art that is often erroneously called 'museum art', in other words, the kind that strives to be demonstrably artistic, spectacular and extraordinary - which is why such art never manages to cut itself free from traditional genres. Admittedly, among all the media-tailored appropriations of traditional artistic prototypes there are also examples of shifts, modifications and reinventions that do indeed have aesthetic appeal. Yet, here too, all such shifts and deviations can only be recognized as such once they have been held up for comparison in the museum with their historical precursors. When shown in the media, these appropriations merely spawn a sense of malaise since there is no aesthetic framework at hand to properly assess them by. But even when the media with their plethora of reality shows endeavour to present unspectacular, everyday life, all they are doing is quoting the 'ready-made' procedure that was embraced by the museum long before, thereby revealing their debt to museum tradition.

In the age of mass media the museum seems likely to perform the following task. It has lost its traditional role of setting aesthetic norms and defining public taste, a function that is now been assumed by the media. But for their part, the media have proved incapable of reflecting upon their own role. For a start, they lack any historical memory that might enable them to lend precise definition to the current norm as such - and, most importantly, the media are trapped in a state of permanent self-denial. They might prescribe aesthetic norms by invoking the zeitgeist, but in the same breath they would rather not admit to this accomplishment being their own, pretending instead that they are merely following audience tastes. Hence, for all their loquaciousness the media in fact cultivate a strange zone of muteness that manifests a deep-set incapacity to discuss their own role as active norm-setters - let alone to critically examine these norms in the light of their own claims that they embody the zeitgeist. It would be a disastrous mistake if the museum were also to emulate this strategy of self-denial and likewise strive to fulfil the claim that it is only showing people 'what they want to see'. For in stark contrast to the mass media, museums possess the means and possibilities to be sites of critical discourse. Furthermore, given our current cultural climate the museum is practically the only place where we can actually step back from our own present and compare it with other eras. In these terms, the museum is irreplaceable because it is particularly well suited to critically analyze and challenge the claims of the media-driven zeitgeist.