Why What’s Happening in Art Museums Matters Right Now

Image by Eric Park.

Right now many Americans are very anger- and most of us feel deeply insecure. Why so much anger and uncertainty at this time? Of course there are very real problems. Anyone who has a functioning internet connection can see that. But if you think historically, then it’s natural to wonder why this particular time, in what is, for all of its dreadful problems, a still a very prosperous country, with deep creative opportunities, that people are so aggressively angry. And so deeply insecure. Our problems are great, but so are our resources. Doubtlessly the sources of our present malaise are highly overdetermined.

As an art critic, I am accustomed to looking to the art world to understand my society. And something important can be learnt right now, I believe, from the state of our art museums. For a long time, the canons of Western visual art have been changing. And so great institutions like our Metropolitan Museum of Art have constantly expanded. Early Renaissance art and Gothic work have been added to the old master canon, as has modernism and photography. And the Met looked outside of Europe, to add visual artifacts from all art-making cultures to the collections. Thus African sculptures, Islamic decorations, Persian miniatures, Japanese Buddhist paintings and Oceanic art also have their canons. And now the museum devotes a great deal of attention to contemporary art, which also has a canon.

This addition of novel art to the world art history museum has been a process of accretion. New forms of art are added to the body of already accepted canonical artifacts. Raphael was canonical in the late nineteenth century. And in the late twentieth century it added Caravaggio, and in the early twenty-first century Artemisia Gentileschi. But in thus enlarging the canon, museums did not subtract the works which were most admired by our great grand parents. Adding Chinese art has not required the expulsion of early Renaissance European painting. The canon expands, but as we add new canonical works we still preserve the older canonical art.

These canons stabilize our thinking about the arts. Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (1955) argues that canonical artworks matter to the larger culture because in a world where almost everything changes, they are essentially unchanging. We are born and die, while the canonical art survives. The canon, on this account, is akin to our language, our religions and our political culture. It is a stabilizing institution that gives our personal identity meaning because it pre and post exists us. Canonical art has permanent value. The canon is a stabilizing device, a way of establishing cultural continuity. Political leaders will be replaced, social institutions will change- and we all will die. But something permanent remains, the canonical artworks. Of course, there are other such permanent cultural institutions. Religions and political systems are also important. What is original in Arendt was her focus on the role of birth in relation to this cultural continuity.

Arendt, who was the product of a German university education, is thinking of the great products of Greek culture. Speaking in completely Euro-centric terms, she doesn’t consider works from other cultures. But there, too, the same general claim could be made in a more inclusive way. The canon marks works of permanent value. That’s why we devote so much attention and expense to preserving visual artworks. Our culture needs that unchanging canon. Of course, that the canonical works are meant to be unchanging does not mean that they will survive forever! Most of the canonical ancient Greek painting and much of the canonical Chinese art was destroyed.

What immediately inspired my thinking about the canon right now was the important recent revision of the permanent European collection at the Met. As I noted earlier, for a very long time that institution has expanded, adding galleries to present a world art history. Still, at the core of the original building, on the second floor, presented the permanent old master European collection. Now, however, those galleries have been rehung, in ways that respond to recent historical research. Quoting from my review in The Brooklyn Rail: “Instead of thinking of Europe as a self-sufficient place, you are asked see that continent as a porous site, often open to cultural exchanges with other artistic cultures.” Incorporated now alongside the Spanish old masters are works from the colonies of Spain in the New World. And we see that Black people were shown in some important European artworks. Precisely because this permanent collection was relatively permanent, generally with mostly small, incremental additions, this change was dramatic.

Change can be disconcerting. At least that’s my experience. Obviously the past cannot change. What is past is over and finished. But the changing ways that you understand the past can very much affect you in the present. When at John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration, Robert Frost famously declared, “The land was ours before we were the land’s,” he offered a very different view of the United States from the recent commentators who identify us as a settler state. Americans used to think that we emigrated to an essentially empty continent. But that of course was a fantasy. If we are a settler culture, like the French in Algeria, since this land was well populated before Columbus, then that surely changes how we understand our history and present policies. How you understand yourself now depends upon that past. Imagine discovering that you are descendant of Black slave owners, and that your house, and your prosperity depends upon that history. Or, alternatively, imagine discovering that you are a descendant of slaves. Your past matters here and now.

The example I’ve given is the reinstallation of the Met permanent display of European art. But the same conceptual point could be made looking at MoMA’s changing presentations of modernism. The canons of modernism and whatever comes after have for decades been in radical flux. When I started writing criticism, in 1980, it seemed as if a basically Euro-centric canon, French modernism and then the American Abstract Expressionists and their successors in New York might be the key figures. But since then, the museum has repeatedly radically reworked its thinking, rebuilding its galleries to accommodate these revision of the canon.

As should be clear, in observing that this change in the canons is dramatic, I am not arguing that it is a bad thing. The past isn’t what it used to be. Stepping through a door into an unfamiliar pitch black room can feel uncomfortable. You put your feet down slowly, and feel around, trying to orient yourself. Uncertainty about the canon can have an analogous effect, at least upon people who take an interest in the visual arts. If you are an experienced critic, it’s disconcerting to find unexpected canonical art. And so it’s unsurprising that many of us, myself amongst them, are bewildered, and more than a little frightened. But embracing of radical change is the only honest policy. Recently many commentators, myself amongst them, have criticized the Met and MoMA. Fair enough, but the leadership, curators and staff also deserve massive praise for working so hard at a difficult time to rethink the canon in these basic, essential ways.

My analysis is inspired in part by Susan Neiman, Learning from the Germans. Race and the Memory of Evil. (2019). On canons see Francis Haskell, Rediscoveries in Art: Some Aspects of Taste, Fashion, and Collecting in England and France (1976). My earlier account: https://cpdev1dev.wpengine.com/2022/04/27/the-contradictions-of-the-contemporary-art-museum/.

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.