Museums as the Cathedrals or Mausoleums of Post-Modernity?
(Above Left: St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome / Above Right: MoMA in NYC)
While visiting MoMA last Sunday to convene with a small group of friends, I mused upon a recurring inquisition: has the contemporary art museum usurped the church’s position as a surrogate “place of worship”, at least for certain culture-craving demographics?
Aside from the palpable communitarian ethos at a popular museum on any given weekend, such as the Metropolitan, MoMA, or Guggenheim (to name but a few), I am always struck by the flocks who congregate amidst the hallowed halls, quite possibly in search of transcendence, if not the sublime.
The formal and aesthetic parallels are myriad and obvious. To name a few, consider the architectural scale and layout of two iconic institutions, e.g.: the vastness of the nave, transepts, and dome structure in St. Peter’s Basilica with MoMA’s (NY) endless corridors, galleries, and colossal, luminous atrium. With a seemingly metaphysical combination of scale and ethereal illumination, both spaces conjure a strong sense of the spiritual, whether that is “spiritual” in the religious or non-religious sense. Aside from the fact that the architectural plan of each environment tightly governs the physical procession of the masses, it is worth noting how peoples’ otherwise more instinctual postures and perambulations become acutely affected, if not suddenly self-conscious upon encountering an object of veneration. Just envision visitors nimbly, yet reverently circumnavigating the Papal Alter and Baldacchino of St. Peter’s transposed with how one might negotiate a Torqued Ellipse by Richard Serra at MoMA.
In short, if we can agree on this analogy – that modern museums have become the “developed” world’s primary sites for a spiritual form of cultural-worship – then museums are replete with professional curators and trustees who consecrate “art objects” and offer wall didactics, just as priests have consecrated religious icons and reliquaries, while having provided sermons for congregations. And of course the style of delivery and presentation varies greatly, whether we are discussing a Pentecostal, Gospel, or Protestant ceremony, versus the Louvre, MoMA, or New Museum.
Ultimately, I have little interest in debating if one format is better than the other, for that seems a futile discussion. However, since many museum-goers seem to seek a sort of “spiritual fulfillment” afforded by ritual visitations (for instance, I have heard a young painter fervently describe his “weekly pilgrimages to Mattisse” at MoMA), how might we critically unpack the many layers of viewer worship, participation, and aptitude (or lack thereof)? For instance, do most viewers engage the museum experience with a critical approach — a methodology which not only allows one to deconstruct an art object within its own system of logic, but also a way with which to analyze the context (both physical and historic), and to therefore heighten one’s awareness of curatorial strategies, juxtapositions, or even exhibition design itself? Or are the majority of visitors equally, if not predominantly, drawn to the more fundamental experience, e.g, the: elevation of visiting an “ivory tower”; collective activity of spectatorship; communal “appreciation” of the aesthetic transcendence not theoretically attainable in daily life; and perhaps even a docile acceptance of curatorial judgement? Plus, this does not even address the fundamental issue of a museum, which necessitates the stripping of a work from its original context (no longer in situ). These are but a few questions that might allow us to better dissect the contemporary museum-goer’s range of experience in relation to its religiosity or spirituality. Why in essence do we visit museums? Interestingly, we might note the English etymology of “curator” derives from the late Middle English term for an ecclesiastical pastor. But I digress and wish to defer the debate surrounding the contemporary use of “curate” and “curator”.
That aside, if museums are places of cultural worship and validation, where does this leave the contemporary artist? The phenomenon of the living artist (often young) who aspires to “place” work in a museum collection – not only as a form of self-preservation, but as “cultural consecration” and/or validation (whether cultural, market-driven, or both) – is a relatively new phenomenon originating in the 20th Century. This trend presents an inevitable reversal of the old guard, Eurocentric stereotype where art museums are institutions premised upon “storing and exhibiting the work of dead people”. Or in the words of Robert Smithson, “The Museums…are graveyards above the ground – congealed memories of the past that act as a pretext for reality”. Point taken. So in today’s world, with a fair number of young artists finally exalted in museum exhibits and collections around the globe (as an ostensible antidote to what Smithson would have previously regarded as the “graveyard” mentality), is the “new” museum atmosphere truly reinvigorated for both audiences and the living artist? As a young artist, is it healthy (let alone realistic) to seek the “holy grail” of imprimaturs from the high priests of culture (museum curators), along with the implicit promise of artistic immortality in one’s own lifetime? Or on the contrary, if “contemporary museums” are more like glorified mausoleums, is it righteous for the living artist to literally and metaphorically burry themselves in the museum vaults – a “death-by-institution” per se? Apropos, we might recall Gertrude Stein’s response to former MoMA Director, Alfred H. Barr’s plea that she bequest her collection to the museum: “You can be a museum, or you can be modern, but you can’t be both.”