For Museums, a New Twist on Instrumental Benefits

right-way-wrong-way1For years the debates have raged about how to argue for the arts, and never more so than now, when public money for museums is everywhere drying up. As I wrote not long ago in the Art Newspaper, a thorny problem for arts advocates is that they have boxed themselves into a corner by developing instrumental arguments for the arts. According to the now widely-used reasoning, investments in the arts are supposed to yield tangible returns — tourism dollars, construction jobs, white collar citizens, booming maths scores, etc. — which, in turn, advance cities and their inhabitants in the global economy.

The trouble is that in the meantime the art community has lost sight of what in the first instance is important and intrinsically valuable about the arts. And as far as policy arguments go, funding cultural institutions to obtain the aforementioned outputs is a rather inefficient way of going about the business of improving education, competitiveness, and neighborhood health.

Now philosopher Alain de Botton has waded into this fertile rhetorical swamp by proposing a new twist on instrumentalism. Let museums be a means to and end, he argues in a polemic published on BBC’s website. But let those ends be moral. Did anyone say moral?

Invoking the old chestnut about museums being our secular churches, de Botton argues: “I try to imagine what would happen if modern secular museums took the example of churches more seriously. What if they too decided that art had a specific purpose – to make us good and wise and kind – and tried to use the art in their collections to prompt us to be so?” He goes on to ask, “Why couldn’t art be – as it was in religious eras – more explicitly for something?”

The philosopher has pointed out a valid contradiction. While arts advocates have willingly instrumentalized their cause when arguing for subsidies, they insist on a neutral, open, cause free definition of the contributions of artists and cultural institutions. But what would museums look like in the scenario suggested by de Botton?

2 thoughts on “For Museums, a New Twist on Instrumental Benefits”

  1. Museums can certainly use criticism, but the problem with pop philosophers like De Botton is that they take any random subject and speak from it in the abstract with an authoritative tone to non-specialized audiences, propagating stereotypes and hurting more than helping. He may benefit from catching up with the last six decades of art history and starting to visit a few art museums today, and perhaps learn a bit about the history of what he calls “indexing” — I mean, curating.

    Setting aside the cliché claim about museums being churches ( which is as old as modernism up to and including Bourdieu’s writings in the 60s), it is his naive conclusions that can’t even be taken seriously. Practically every artist after the 1950s has moved toward the desacralization of the art object, and the main problem with museums is how, in the effort to preserve history, inevitably re-sacralize them. So to tell museums to instrumentalize art by erasing its autonomy and instead turning artworks as illustration of benign ideas would certainly make museums move in the direction not of churches but of the authoritarian church state, making museums even more obstructive and oppressive than what they could possibly ever be. In any case, it is a mistake to think that museums determine the experience that audiences want: it is a push and pull determined by museum visitorship, funding, critical reception, public support, and attendance.

    Next, the problem with determining what audiences should like or learn about one work is that no one could ever agree on a single thing. Current museum visitor studies produced by sociologists, educators and other scholars, while varying in their conclusions, agree that the typology of the museum visitor is determined by a whole range of needs and interests – from wanting to be stimulated and challenged to, yes, the right to lose oneself in contemplation- and a museum is successful only inasmuch as it helps facilitate these various interests. De Botton’s logic fits closer to the instrumentalization mentality that has affected British museums, who find themselves under pressure to meet pre-established, bureaucratic standards. This mentality not only proves limiting to arts institutions but also insulting to individuals, as it often leads to infantilizing the public, telling them what they should think, feel, and like. Just imagine, next time you walk into a library, if there is someone there following you everywhere, telling you what to read and what you should think about what you are reading.
    Same goes with art: we need to allow the multiple possibilities of practices to coexist within art, ranging from the art-for-art-sake works to the directly confrontational and politically engaged. Each artwork requires a different approach to presentation and discussion, and museums should certainly strive for effectively stimulating, facilitating discussion and reflection within the galleries, but this is not done through moralistic or theocratic means. It instead is done through intelligent debate and discussion, and providing information whenever the visitor is ready to receive it. Last but not least, the great thing about museums is that, for all their imperfections and tendency to sacralize art, art in the end is not religion: no one is afraid of going to hell by not liking, say, a Jeff Koons.

  2. I enjoy the idea represented by this post—what if museums did make you leave satisfied, mystified and above all feeling good?

    It’s mind-blowing to see shows of dynamic work and mentally dismantling to burn off the numbness you feel from work and vision that has flatlined—for example the recent Mika Rottenberg show (Squeeze) at Mary Boone (dynamic) compared to both the George Condo and Lynda Bengalis shows at the New Museum (flatlined).

    How can a middle ground be reached? Museums are forced to respect mass appeal, economics and marketing, and as a result of the inflated Art Market, most couldn’t afford contemporary works, so their left to reach out to collectors to exhibit their own collections, which, as we all know with what happened at the New Museum’s Dakis Janou collection show, gets the Art community buzzing and slinging insults. I thought it was great to see inside a collection—the Chris Offili paintings were stunning—but the curation was painful.

    It’s a strange idea to connect museums to the identity of the Church. Art is directed ( for the most part) at truth telling, revealing narratives, an inspiring dialogues, and the Church focuses on masking reality and instilling fear. I’d rather steer clear of those numbing conditions and closed conversations.

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