A Modest Proposal for Curators of Survey Art Exhibitions

Occasionally in large pictures old master European artists will include a self-portrait, reminding viewers that they produced these artifacts. Thus in The School of Athens (1509-11), which is in the Vatican, along with its prominent portraits of Plato, Aristotle and Ptolemy at the extreme right hand margin a younger man looks out at us. This is Raphael. And in the background of Caravaggio’s The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (1599-1600), in a Roman church, we see the swarthy face of a back turned man who looks directly at the saint. This is a self-portrait of the artist. Thanks to the fame of Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things, everyone thinks that Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656), which is in the Prado, with its self-portrait a the center, shows the making of the very picture that we are viewing. Under the old regime, even supremely gifted artists like Velázquez generally were treated as mere artisans, because they were men (they almost all were males) who worked with their hands. And in some paintings and drawings of the 1920s and 30s, in a modernist extension of this tradition, we see Henri Matisse at work in his studio. In my favorite, a 1935 drawing, in a miraculous infinite regress, we see in the bottom right hand corner an image in which is depicted the studio which contains the image of the studio with an image. . . .

Where are the boundaries of the artwork? A great deal of recent art – and many museum shows – ask that question. And so often visitors need to ask whether what they view is part of the museum structure (including its employees) or an artwork or performance that is exhibited. In the 1970s, driving across country, I stopped for a break at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, and, obviously in need of coffee, was momentarily puzzled by the presence one guard, who was motionless. In fact, this was Duane Hanson’s Museum Guard (1975), a very realistic sculpture. More recently, at one of the Whitney’s Biennales held when that museum was on Madison Avenue, in the men’s room was wallpaper by one of the artists on display. Was this presentation part of the show? Some years ago a Carnegie International included sites outside of the museum, demanding that critics travel around Pittsburgh. In This Progress (2010) at the Manhattan Guggenheim Tino Sehgal emptied out the ramp, replacing the artworks with interpreters, children, teen-agers, and, finally, adults, progressively older as you ascended who engaged visitors in conversation. And in 2013 at MoMA in a project conceived with the collaboration of Cornelia Parker, The Maybe (1995/2013), which included pillow, linen, and mattress on some days, unannounced in advance, Tilda Swinton slept in a glass box. In these cases, and many more could be cited, the modernist museum and artistic traditions which make a clearcut distinction between the artwork and its context were uncut. Now the life of the streets intrusively enters the hallowed museum space. And of course many political artists desire to extend the reach of their exhibitions outside of the museum building proper.

Right now there is a great deal of unrest in our art museum world. In a number of institutions there are strikes or threats of strikes demanding increases in wages and benefits. That these collections of posh artifacts run by well paid directors and governed by wealthy trustees are mostly guarded and organized by poorly paid workers almost guarantees that these aggressive economic tensions, are not likely to go away. I thought about these tensions when, after I came to review the recent, 58th Carnegie International, I learned that on one day of the openings there had been an action by striking workers. Organizing a protest at the events when the trustees and also the more prosperous museum supporters come to celebrate was obvious good timing. No doubt the union hoped that liberal guilt (or embarrassment) will cause these art lovers to be more generous to their employees. But it wasn’t until the philosopher in me reflected that I realized the implications of this practical activity for art theory. Such survey exhibitions are accompanied by a lavish catalogue, a permanent record for critics and donors to take home. And sometimes, because organizing these shows is obviously difficult, there are artworks on display that are not in the catalogue. But since so much we are familiar with the need to identify untraditional artworks, especially political artworks, it’s easy to see how to deal with this situation. The Pittsburgh union protest, is it not obvious?, is an additional work of art hors catalogue, as the French say.

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.