Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Swans and museums

I'm reading Nicholas Taleb's "The Black Swan" at the moment, and so ruminating on the ways in which our capacity to see the world objectively is limited by our tendency to imprint patterns and assume completeness, where none exists.

And this got me thinking about museums and how they define their scope. The V&A, for example, is the "national museum of art and design". But in fact it's only about SOME art and design. To the V&A the history of art and design is delineated by what it can illustrate through its collections. If it has artefacts, the narrative will expand to include them, if it doesn’t the story just doesn’t go there. So in effect, the V&A defines art and design solely by the works it holds. At the V&A the subject of/ history of art and design does not include Mayan or African work, to name but two. You will not (I believe) find a label in the V&A suggesting that there's some great stuff from other cultures that might complete your art and design perspective in the British Museum or Tate Modern; the V&A creates a self-defined landscape, wonderful but circumscribed entirely by what it collects. Which in turn is circumscribed by the collections it already holds...

Tate Modern, it seems to me, creates an even more self-nurturing paradigm, inasmuch as it lays claim to being the UK's national museum of modern art. And in collecting the works of living artists, it is defining the future history of today's art in an extremely powerful (and largely unaccountable) way. What is art, who is an artist, and what something is worth are all intrinsically bound up in the process by which the Tate selects works for acquisition and display. Tate Modern likes to suggest that a visit is an experience that opens eyes, enables people to see the world anew. I suggest that, conversely, visitors are encouraged to leave their critical faculties behind, desist from questioning and doubting, and accept that they are in The World According To Tate. What is available to them is not modern art (a representative picture of what is going on in the contemporary world) but Modern Art, in other words what the Tate says modern art should be. What "the experts" think you should see. And of course, there is an interestingly symbiotic relationship between judgements in this "non-commercial" world and values in the highly commercial art market.

It's worth reminding ourselves that London's National Gallery originally collected works which it judged "lesser art" to form an educational counterpoint to the works of the Old Masters. Due to the creeping effect that means anything in a museum is deemed of value, this interesting (if questionable) distinction has now been airbrushed away. Everything in the National Gallery is now "great art"; some of it is just held to be greater than the rest. Our capacity to apply critical judgement, to ask questions, to challenge received wisdom is neither fostered nor particularly encouraged by art museums. They create their own truths, their own terms of engagement, and we non-experts accept them, usually without question.


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