The Contradictions of the Contemporary Art Museum

Image by Toa Heftiba.

Art museums are important public institutions. They attract large audiences, they are much discussed in the press, and they are expensive to create and run. And when the covid virus forced the closure of museums in Winter, 2020, they suffered a novel, totally unexpected economic crisis. But the roots of the true problems were already present, because they are inherent in the way that these institutions function. My aim, then, is to identify the fundamental cultural contradictions inherent in contemporary museums, because the practice of these institutions doesn’t correspond to our present moral ideals; and then to ask what if any resolution may be possible.

Judging just as an art critic, one might think that (at least until the covid) art museums were booming. I saw many ambitious shows, ever increasing numbers of visitors and much ambitious new architecture. The problems looked to be those of a growth industry- overcrowding and financing. But on reflection, I realized that there were deeper structural problems, which have been accentuated (but were not created) by the virus.

The first contradiction: On one hand, museums were originally inherently elitist institutions, filled with grand objects, created by and for highly privileged white men. And they still retain many qualities from these origins. The older museums are palaces, while the newer buildings are by the most famous architects. The older works from China, Europe, the Islamic world, and Japan were created for elites, and the best known contemporary artworks are often former possessions or donations of the very privileged. On the other hand, present day public museums aspire to be populist institutions. Aiming to make everyone welcome, and to please all, they need as many visitors as possible. And so they seek to eliminate any barriers of class, gender or race.

The second contradiction: On one hand, art museums are public institutions. Under the old regime, collecting was done in a top-down manner. Public opinion didn’t need to be considered. But then modernist museums opened the princely art collections to the populace. That’s why they are called public art museums. On the other hand, nowadays museums are governed by self-appointed boards whose role is to provide financial oversight and to raise money. And because contemporary art and museum buildings are expensive, these trustees need to be wealthy. Public art museums thus still are run like top-down old regime institutions

The third contradiction: In a contemporary multicultural society, it’s expected that the composition of the various elected and corporate bodies will correspond to the racial mix (and the mix defined in terms of other identities) of the populace. We expect, that is, a reasonable proportion of Black, female, trans and gay mayors, Congresspeople and Senators, CEOs; and so on. And so we desire that the museums be run by administrators who satisfy these conditions, and that the art displayed reflects the composition of the community. On the other hand, the trustees and leadership of the major museums and the curators are predominantly white. A disproportionate number of the guards are Black. And most of the collection are artworks by white males.

These contradictions mark the distance between the reality of our museums and our moral ideals. Activists call attention to the distance between the reality and these ideals, and aim to abolish it by transforming the museum. But realists observe that administrators need to deal with the world as it is. And so, perhaps we need to modify our ideals. There is a moral tension: the world is not as we think that it should be. In practice, of course, we need to consider to what extent desired changes are practical. Many people desire, for example, that museum admission be free. People making the minimum wage are unlikely to bring their families to visit most museums. Still, administrators will legitimately ask whether free admission is financially possible. And if it isn’t, then some compromise is needed. Often, for example, admission to the museum is free for one evening a night.

When this match between institutions and ideals fails, then there are two ways to lesson the gap. We may modify our institutions, or we may change our ideals. If our institutions fail to match our ideals, then maybe the institutions require modification. Alternatively, however, we sometimes recognize that our ideals are impractical, and so need to be modified. If the conflicts are insoluble, then it might be impossible to change the public art museum into a just institution. But saying this is not necessarily to be overly dramatic. We regularly recognize that our ideals may not be realizable.

In an interview the Princeton philosopher Alexander Nehamas discusses an historical parallel that deserves consideration here:

What do we admire the Greeks for? For Plato, Aeschylus, Homer. Of course we also admire them for creating what we call “democracy.” But in Athenian democracy there were 30,000 citizens, thousands of non-citizens (including all women), and countless slaves. The average life of a slave in the Athenian silver mines was less than a year. You entered the mine and never stood up again; you lived the rest of your life crouching, and soon you died. We don’t admire the Greeks for their morality. We admire the Greeks mostly because of their art.

Without the slave labor, Athens couldn’t have functioned. Perhaps, then, the price of Greek art and philosophy was too high. Once people recognize that social institutions are based upon inequalities, at the cost of some to the benefit of others, then they will probably look at them more critically. American public museums depend heavily upon private funding. And so often controversy arises when some financial sources are publicly identified as morally dubious. Protests matter because art museums are vulnerable public spaces, places in which effective protests can be staged. Protestors cannot readily enter the lobby at Goldman Sachs, but they can (and have) entered Manhattans’ public art museums to leaflet. The goal of protesters is to remind visitors that art has a price.

Naturally I am immensely thankful for the ways that museums and some research institutions attached to museums have supported me personally. I greatly admire and enjoy museums, and so desire very strongly that they succeed.But that the institutions have been good to me doesn’t mean that they are just. When you greatly benefit from a social institution, it’s easy to be blind to its costs. But serious critical reflection demands that people who study the costs of our visual culture consider these issues. This is why Walter Benjamin’s statement, “there is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism,”struck such a resonance. He says what every reader of history knows. And you don’t have to accept his particular political worldview to find the implications of this claim important.

There is amazing public interest in Versailles and the other old regime homes of the highly privileged. Popular tv films like “the Crown” show a fascination with everyday life of posh people. So too does the popularity of Marcel Proust’s novels. And of course interest in old master art also sometimes trades on that concern. If you grew up middle class, then visiting or reading about the worlds of grand people can be fascinating. Are museums worth their price? To adequately answer that legitimate question is not easy. Many people don’t care much about visual art. Were they better informed, they might value it more. Perhaps, on the other hand, if people who today value it were to reflect upon its social cost, they would love it less.

This analysis was inspired by the essays found on Hyperallergic, an online journal that has generously supported my writing. My appeal to contradictions alludes to Hegelian-Marxist tradition.

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.