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The “Museum” is Dead. Get Over It.

 

The writer Rob Horning recently published an insightful essay in the summer issue of the magazine Even, about the implications of the selfie-driven museum experience, and the transformation of museums that is occurring in our time.

Horning’s observations about what social media is doing to museums (or more accurately, what museums are doing in response to social media) can be summarized in his line “Museums are no longer spaces in which to experience art, but rather spaces in which to perform the self having art experiences” (emphasis his). His essay echoes countless panel discussions at recent art fairs and CAA conventions about what is happening to museums — the bewildered hand-wringing among academics, curators, museum directors and trustees has become so ubiquitous as to practically be a Saturday Night Live parody of itself.

Museums, Horning writes, “no longer serve as a respite from commercialism but as its wellspring, replenishing its pool of symbols of aspirational prestige.” They “latch onto social media to boost their metrics,” becoming “an appendage of the phone and its platforms” and functioning solely to lend “an aspirational glamour to the digital documentation of one’s free time.”

He concludes damningly: “We can dispense with the idea that visitors come to museums to experience transcendence, or to cultivate their eye, or to participate in a novel social configuration. Instead, visitors are presumed to be ‘brand ambassadors,’ affiliate marketers who will eagerly promote an experience in exchange for perceiving themselves to be influential.”

Horning is right. Museums have become consumer playgrounds with something that was once understood as “art” filling in as the backdrop. But so what? Museums had been (still want to be) the new churches, and now, ironically, museums and churches have both become the new vaudeville halls, exhorting us to feel good with happy-clappy, immersive experiences that involve video projections and interactive performances. They provide the context in which we shop, abetted by our devices, for a concocted idea of ourselves. The thing that hath been, is that which shall be.

I share Horning’s dismay about what museums are turning into, but I don’t view the situation as bleakly as I imagine he does. What surprised me about his long, interesting, knowledgeable essay is that he never once mentioned artists. This is not uncommon in the art world: while you would never design an operating room without consulting a surgeon, or enter a complicated legal agreement without consulting a lawyer, major decisions regarding the selection, placement, and experience of art — decisions that sometimes involve many millions of dollars — are routinely made without ever consulting people who actually make the stuff.

Horning never introduces the question of what artists themselves intend, or how they understand this new smartphone paradigm, or what they think is interesting. He only tangentially brings up the question of how art itself is changing in this new social media world — a question that is far more interesting than “what is the purpose of museums.” Does he mean to say (by letting it go without saying) that artists will obviously just bend themselves to do whatever museums and art mobs demand of them? Some will of course, and already do, engage in the earnest influence-foraging and crowd-pleasing that denotes success in the attention economy. (I can’t wait until an artist makes a work in which the audience stands in line for nothing.) I’m not talking about the kind of so-called “selling out” that P.G. Wodehouse referred to when, after having reluctantly permitted TV and movie versions to be made of his Jeeves books, remarked, “today I should not object very strongly if somebody wanted to do Jeeves on Ice.” Wodehouse had already created something solid, whereas so much of the hash that museums are slinging today only looks good on a cell phone. (“But… the engagement we’re getting!”)

As for audience members, Horning does suggest that they might not buy into museums-as-vacuous-selfie-backdrops forever, when he comments that knockoffs like the Museum of Ice Cream and Rabbit Town in Sri Lanka “are too self-evidently contrived to have much lasting appeal.” But surely the same goes for any museum experience, even one by a “real” artist, that involves a long line followed by less than a minute in some tarted-up groove-closet. And if I, a lifelong and avid museum-goer, would prefer to find my pleasures elsewhere than this new direction of museums (specifically in the back galleries with the old stuff), then obviously there are artists who are already way ahead of me.

All of which is to say: I care far less about the plight of museums than about what artists themselves are up to. I don’t want to know about the artists who want in; I want to know about the artists who want out. Let’s even drop the term ‘artist’ to make it easier to distinguish the shit from the shineola: there are people out there looking at and interpreting the world, making stuff out of thin air, who are not engaging much with the art world. What are they doing? What does their work look like? How are they distributing it? Would we even be able to recognize what they are doing as art?

I realize I’m summoning a romanticized, La Bohème version of artist outsiderdom; but isn’t it always true, as Honoré Daumier (whose acidic cartoons are used to illustrate Horning’s article) might suggest? Away from the crowds and inanity of those 19th century salons, as Daumier well knew, were the Refusés, the artists we were all weaned to revere for their rejection of the status quo. What seems inevitable in retrospect can have been anything but easy or comfortable at the time. And the contemporary so-called art that we’re all photographing ourselves in front of in museums will, much like those academy painters in Daumier’s cartoons, be forgotten, and in a hurry.

I suspect that great artists will run, are running, from the art world mess so fast that nobody knows what they are doing or where. Meanwhile nobody really knows what “art” will be in the post-camera, post-Internet, post-smartphone, post-Twitter world, but they sense it won’t be — it no longer is — what we have understood it to be for millennia. And so they’re making do and filling space with whatever is easy, because the only currency that matters (other than actual currency, which always matters) is virtual bums in seats.

I have faith in the artists. They always find a way.

 

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22 Responses

  1. Nice piece, Rainey. And timely for me. I was in Cowtown last Friday on a shoot and stopped by the Modern to see the Takashi Murakami show. I’m a member, but it also turned out to be “free day” which may have changed the crowd. It was very crowded, with many in their 20’s to 30’s.

    As a working artist, amateur art historian (I quit my Ph.D. to open up a commercial photo studio in Columbus, Ohio) and capitalist investor, I try observe everything. I will not review the exhibit here, but it really did hit home.

    Art does indeed have to be selfie-bait!

    I have never seen so much cell phone camera action. Outstretched arms with people dancing in circles, kids posed with the art, group shots of friends and more. All shot vertically, of course. Something I’ve never understood either.

    Much of my work is whimsical and fun. Not to mention loud. But I have never really valued the social media aspect. I missed the impact. Even though Facebook posts have gotten me a show or two.

    Sorry to be long winded. The museum may be dead. The gallery may be dead. Although I dread it — Long Live Fakebook (or whatever social media is hip next).

  2. Art galleries and museums are dinosaurs and many will go the same way as Tower Records and Blockbuster Video. The BIG Museums are financial write offs such as the Menil, Dia and such. If an artist is not “in” well, they will be never “in”. Twenty-five years ago I gave up that path and decided to make art and make art happen outside the walls. I call it Art Everywhere. My longest ongong project is Sculpture for New Orleans. According to some it has change the fabric of the city and it now a city of Food, Music and Art, The City of Art and Magic. The trick is to keep the sticky fingered dinosaurs out and keep it for the artists or it will die. Michael Manjarris

  3. H

    Zing!

    Do you *really* want nothing to do with artists that want in? Often time getting into THE museum or THE show means as an artist you get THE funding.

    What are we to do, those who want to fund their practice without eating up our income that is apportioned for, say, medical costs, etc?

    1. H

      But, I’ll quote my philosophy professor “if it’s money you want, get into porn.”

      There are days I take into serious consideration whether or not I could sit on cake in front of a webcam to “fund my practice”.

  4. Wrote this a few weeks ago but it seems pertinent:

    Cognitive Dissonance: “In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values.” Tomorrow is the first day of summer in the United States. It also marks a time for museums to launch their summer spectacle of blockbuster shows. Crowd pleasers that bring numbers and bank through the doors. At a time when children are being removed from their parents at the US border, the US pulls out of the UN Human Rights Council, and the various other social and ecological issues that face us all, are we in a cognitive dissonant phase? Don’t give me, “I need art to escape”. Art is escape sure. But art is also about Truths and speaking about the times in which we live. Maybe the one thing we all need right now, is not to “escape” into our own social media narcissism of selfies but face reality as it is. Escape is something that we have all been doing for far too long. This is not about the merits of the works in any blockbuster show… it’s about questioning us as an artistic and societal collective in the context of our contemporary political and social times… Are there other types of shows all these museums could put together for their summer audience? Are we all Nero(s)? It’s leaving me with a bad taste in my mouth.

  5. I tend to go to museums mid-week early opening times and can say I see few if any of the “aspirational” selfie wanderers. Also at galleries there are plenty of serious art viewers. What I do see is a lot of weekend 1st timers, school age kids, and a few that seem to be attendance because of a social gathering events like a musical performance, performance works, or film. Yes there are too damn many selfies in the mix and 10x, yes museums are suffering from the graying effect. Patrons are thinning out, new ones are being recruited and museums are working overtime to stop the bleeding. But in the big picture museums are likely to weather out hard times while our cultureally deprived President is doing everything he can to ignore culture all together.

    PS Years ago I lived 12 blocks from the Met in NYC and saw a parallel phenomenon of museum goers who seemed to have “other” reasons to visit art museums. Mainly it was to flirt, hookup or impress a business associate. I asked a guard that worked there what she observed when she watch museums visitors during the day. She paused, and spoke “… it seems like a lot of people like to saddle up close to an art object, look around, and cut a big fart”. Like they got away with something”

    Something never change art museums.

  6. The whole Duchamp> Warhol> Koons trajectory depends on the widespread acceptance of the idea that popular culture is the same as art. So what did we expect would be the result?

    Great article Rainey.

  7. Wow! This is good! I don’t know where to start commenting. “Happy clappy immersive” is a good place.
    So where are the artists? In the best place to be, at home, with their lives, making art, peeping through every once in a while. Selling? Money? that’s another issue. We’ve sensitize people, not about art, but about the fashion of “modern” art, the look for their place, the cool part of it all, not art. And so there it is and lots to choose from but, good? Yet another issue. Here the galleries are the culprits. But the talk was about the museums, wasn’t it? The holders of the faith, docents telling sellable stories, making stories, a show but content? Prefab. Sounds familiar? Makes me think about a certain Singapur meeting and fast food? Perhaps good enough I guess better than starving.
    Thanks for thanking the artists Rainey.

  8. Mark Richard Babcock

    My first encounter with art world intelligentsia was in connection to the Voertman’s annual art show at University of North Texas, a cattle call that was judged by an out of town art historian. It was a minor big deal, as anyone who got in the show was encouraged that their art was something other than a hobby. I worked for the art studio in the GAB and was a computer science major who hung out with actors and artists and musicians instead of my own kind in the computer department.

    I had to check in the art competitors and move all the art into a huge room. There was a lot of it. The art historian showed up. I had made a little list of the art that I thought should be in the show. I didn’t show it to the art historian. He seemed nice enough and picked things out somewhat quickly. After it was all over I compared my list to what he had chosen. It was an 80% match. If I had known he had a thing for dinosaurs I would have gotten in the high 90th percentile. He asked me a strange question as we finished up. Did I miss anybody? I was like, what? He said, did I miss anybody’s work that’s important in the art school. I said, I don’t know!

    I got two things from this. I knew what art was “good” and there was “politics” in the art world.

    Many years later I left my perfectly good job as a banker and moved to New York City to take writing classes at the New School and try to figure out why I felt so different from people around me. I found the flagship store of Barnes & Nobel and started to read poetry. I found the poet John Ashbery and it was like a thunderbolt had struck me. Later, because you’ve got to have a job, I took the analysts position at Banco de Bogota in the Seagrams Building, two blocks from MOMA. I still didn’t have any close friends, so I would go to the museum and sit and look at paintings for a long time. Single works. Sometimes I would sit in the Pollack room for hours, really noticing everything about those paintings. I became familiar with the New York School of poetry, which was heavily mixed up with painters. The poet Frank O’Hara wrote one of the first essays about Pollack. Why do we not have that now? Why are there no salons run by strange wealthy women where there is cross pollination of actors, artists, poets, writers? I’ve often thought of writing a piece called Salon Culture and Growing Sophistication. But every time I talk to artists, poets, musicians and actors, they all seem like spiders in their own little webs that they are so afraid to leave. We are in a time of weak and brittle souls.

  9. BDW

    If artists always find a way, then the only thing this article accomplishes is a case for devaluing museums, all because we’re a little annoyed with crowds and technology. It’s a little like making a case to shut down libraries because we’re frustrated that the History Channel isn’t reporting on anything new.

  10. mel hombre

    I would speculate that vast majority of names of the artists for all of the artworks that have ever been produced by homo sapiens are unknown. Moreover, they are dead. So, I guess art museums ought to learn how to channel anonymous dead artists to gauge their individual positions on various forms of digital and social “mediazation”. H.D. might just want to jump into the blitz; let’s ask him. Get your crystal ball out.

  11. L.S.

    I feel the same way about op-ed pieces and art criticism on social media. In your last paragraph, replace “art” with “art writers” and you’ll see the position you so cavalierly put visual artists. This op-ed is making do and filling space with something easy. I suppose it’s filling virtual bums in seats. There’s probably a lot more on the line for institutions who employ millions of people across the world and keep our cultural hertiage safe, while allowing a library for artists to study and exposure to art for school children who otherwise may never have exposure outside of a religious settting.

    Strange this came out the same week that Molly Gletzner wrote her article on how useless art galleries are in Houston. There seems to be a theme.

    Even more bizarre in timing, this was published two weeks after Beyonce and JayZ release a video about how POC finally “made it” into museums. I’m not such a fan of that video, but wonder if they helped put the final nail in the coffin for your story?

  12. Gene Fowler

    Perhaps it’s the evil machinations of that Alex Jones guy, but I’m convinced there is a conspiracy in the land to keep me from finding all the cool stuff that’s on the Internet. I didn’t know about the magazine Even, and now I do. ….Enjoyed your father’s appearance on the top five, Rainey.

    1. Rainey Knudson

      Gene, I would never know about cool stuff on the Internet without some very good aggregators, namely The Browser, Longreads and Arts and Letters Daily. They tend to overlap a bit but they are all excellent sources. I discovered Rob Horning’s article on the site Even (it’s actually titled , Even — with a comma in front) through a private arts aggregator out of Los Angeles.

  13. i hope you are right about museums, rich lazy selfish assholes built giant glass towers around art so they could benefit from lying about the art’s value, art was never meant to be exalted in that way, ever, rich selfish people gain so so much from saying art is something that it is not; extremely valuable to the point of vulgarity, just look at where museums get their money, and how they get it, we are better off without them, imo , i hope you are right

  14. Mark Alexander

    You can take the art out of the museum……..but you cant take the cult out of culture………art is a business become religion…….fueled by egotism and profit…….enjoy it while you can……….

  15. Barbara Armstrong

    I do think there are good points made here. Not a popular idea among art teachers (like me).
    However, I am also an artist. The artist me understands and actually agrees that the museum is not the only place to see and experience art.
    Also that art today – now – IS an experience. There is little to no requirement that the artworks last. In fact, doesn’t that play right into the selfie experience of seeing art?
    You can only see this artwork for a short time, then it is gone, possibly never to return. Your selfie, or other recording of that artwork, with you IN the picture, shows how experienced you are. There is a bit of a play on the word experience there. Remember seeing art is an experience too. And some art is also interactive. Some art is in your space/environment and is a passive experience while other pieces require active interaction.
    Artists are an ignored, almost shamed, lot. We make the art but we “know not what we do” according to various critics, reviewers, and historians. They often have a yes you made it but only I can understand what it means. They also deem themselves the arbiters of value, importance, relevance and ultimately meaning. Add the audience, who can only bring their own thoughts to the experience and experiencing of art. The audience may or may not care about the so-called experts. Often they disount those experts as much as the experts discount the artist-maker. The audience wants the artwork to relate to them in some way, or at least to have some wow-factor.
    This is frustrating, but it is also energizing. Artists would often like to fit-in somewhere in the mainstream art world. We all want a bit of recognition. But when you strive to “fit in” you are often shunned by your fellow artists as some kind of sell-out or as trite. Great art accepted by the experts can often be called “museum art”. What does that mean? It means that your art is well done, even masterful, and has depth and perhaps meaning, and furthers the world of art. But, like so many other parts of culture, it is recognized by the experts and rarely seen and often forgotton.
    I haven’t even touched on meaning, something that can make a pile of trash a “masterpiece” and make a masterpiece a pile of trash.
    Sound like a catch-22? It is. But no matter where you fall on the spectrum of “artist”, that catch-22 is often part of your drive to make art. Also Warhol had it right, in the eyes of both groups you are only as good as your next piece. Many artists today make art because it makes them feel whole. Wait! That might be the best reason of all.

  16. I think Horning’s assessment is a little extreme. While I enjoy taking my time in the museum and being able to quietly contemplate a work, I realize this type of engagement is really only possible when museum attendance is low — which we’ve grown comfortable with, over the years; however the goal is the museum and likely the artists exhibiting is to increase attendance and awareness if the work on view.

    I think that just because we have the phenomenon of the Blockbuster exhibition and the thing with people taking selfies, the museum experience isn’t lost. Museums don’t die because different groups of people engage differently with art. People who come for the Blockbusters and selfie opps are perhaps not parts of the demographic museums have typically catered to, but they’re representing the increased attendance museums have been trying to achieve for a long time. The more people from different backgrounds are able to get to connect with works in a museum, the better.

    I’ve been reading a lot about textile like reactions to Beyonce and jay-Z find a filming a recent video at z the Louvre. Personally, I like that Beyonce and Jay-Z seemed to lay claim to the Louvre in their new video. I’ve read plenty of opinions about this and that their occupation of the museum only speaks to the elites, that they’re just reenforcing the idea that you need money to enjoy the museum. The two performers walked through the doors that Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald recently opened, and shot a smart, stylish video that will make kids think it’s cool to want to hang out at museums, where some will become involved in programs that might change their lives.

    I don’t get super bothered by the Instagramers. I think they’re missing out on some of the quiet contemplation you can have when approaching a work, but who knows what they’ll learn about the artists and their work and what amount of thought will be given to the work during it’s life on Instagram? Different ways of looking at things.

  17. Michael Morris

    Museums will be churches when they hire and pay artists to be clergy. That’s a spiritual model I would stand by.

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