The institutional interpretation of objects and collections – a subject that has haunted museums since their early modern European foundations – is widely acknowledged to be an increasingly conflicted phenomenon, despite having been argued by some, including myself on occasion, that it has seldom not been conflicted or problematic.1 Indeed, the problem of interpretation today is the problem it always has been – and not only for museums, but for all forms of cultural practice more generally. If perception itself has long been plausibly understood to be an interpretative activity of sentient beings, with significant doubt voiced about the passivity and neutrality of perceiving, then the critical analysis of museum interpretation inevitably raises questions about our most fundamental beliefs.
The remarks that follow focus upon actual encounters with artworks in museums: how encountering itself might be usefully theorised, more effectively staged, and by implication managed for diverse audiences. While encountering may be plausibly understood as a particular kind of interpretative activity, interpretation itself may assume diverse methods whose effectiveness is also largely a function of time, place, and circumstance.
If museums are in fact occasions for staging encounters with artefacts or phenomena using a wide variety of means, methods and materials, where both what is staged and the staging itself are productive of knowledge, then a case may also be made that there is little in a museum that is not potentially interpretative whether by design or appropriation. In this sense, art museums have increasingly distinguished themselves from other historical, scientific, and religious institutions by foregrounding and making available the knowledge of their own artifice.
This alone highlights the fundamentally ethical and political nature of museological practices that palpably affect the perceptions and beliefs of its audiences by fabricating and promoting historical and social realities, which may or may not resonate with individual beliefs. And there is an enduring conundrum, not easily or comfortably reckoned with, about the artifice of museology itself as an epistemological technology of and for interpreting: the fact that, as with any mode of artistry, once something is made available by whatever means, the intentions of the fabricator are not necessarily discernible, nor is the meaning of a fabrication entirely controllable.
There is a particular uncanniness about museums of art: their ways of staging and framing their contents are so closely related morphologically to the visual effects of works of art themselves as to seem at times virtually invisible, like the tain of a mirror, which is effaced by attending to the mirror’s image or apparent content. Yet as an object of interpretation – as a social, cultural, and historical phenomenon presumed to elicit or serve as a catalyst for such activity – artistry itself occupies an ambivalent position relative to what is conventionally distinguished from it. Art or artistry, in other words, is both the content of and the technology for framing and foregrounding what are framed as instances of artistry. Museology is caught up in this conundrum by an oscillating ambivalence about its aims and methods that echoes fundamental ambivalences within other discourses on the arts, and especially art history, about which I have written elsewhere.2
In short, one of the principal ethical and social effects of that form of artistry we call a museum is an uncanny power simultaneously to reveal and occlude awareness of the arbitrariness and historical contingency of all modes of artistry. Its fundamental nature as an institution is grounded on what it shares with what it ostensibly stages and contains: the properties of art or artifice itself. Understanding the common attributes of artistry and museology will enable a clearer appreciation of the paradoxical nature of art itself as simultaneously alluring and dangerous, empowering and disempowering, as both a kind of thing and a way of using things.
The destabilising and terror-inducing nature of art or artistry – a category in which museums and museology are included – lies in the capacity of all artifice to not only create the realities in which we live, but also to problematise them. Art is no ‘second world’ (materially or virtually) alongside the world in which we live; art is that world. Artistry both creates our realities and provides us with the means to imagine them. Unless, that is, such imaginings are foreclosed by the strictures of those modalities of social artifice we call law or religion. Because of the essential ambiguity of the relationship between production and reception, every representation, every sign, is potentially open to interpretation, open to being taken as a witness both to what may and to what may not have been intended.
None of this is new, of course, for awareness of this conundrum is directly and explicitly reflected in the most ancient recorded writings we possess about art in civic life. Two and a half thousand years ago the core problem of the text we know as Plato’s Republic (Politeia, or Concerning Civic Life) was precisely this phenomenon – the dangerous strangeness of artworks, and the social, political, and religious implications of the terrifying powers of artistry to render what is familiar unfamiliar, and unfamiliar familiar, thereby threatening whatever realities hegemonic social, political and religious powers might prefer to promote as natural or real. As a critic of the chaotically messy democracy of his own city-state of Athens, Plato would have banished the mimetic or representational arts from an ideal alternative city-state because of their potentially destabilising influence on the imaginations of its citizens, causing them to quite literally think otherwise – otherwise than what those in power would wish to promote as real, natural, or god-given.
The problem is simply and precisely this: if the state is recognised for what it is – a fabrication, a human artefact – then other kinds of states (and other modes of organising civic life, or even other modes of being human) might be imagined and given form, calling into question the ‘naturalness’ of the state, or even the uniqueness of one’s own subjectivity.
It should be evident that these conundrums constitute a nexus of issues with implications that are simultaneously political, religious, philosophical, and aesthetic. In addition, they problematise customary distinctions and differences between what we call art, religion, and politics. Which means, in effect, that for some the artistry or artifice of law, politics, or religion must be bent toward erasing the evidence of its fabricatedness; it must claim to be on the side of ‘fact’ rather than ‘fiction’. It must be on the side of History or of true undistorted Nature, or the reflection of independently pre-existing gods, spirits, or supernatural forces. Religion, perhaps, as an art of amnesia. Politics, to be effective, sustainable, and lasting, must be grounded, Plato argued, in permanent truths that are ‘above’ and ‘beyond’ the apparently ‘mutable’ shadow world of daily life. Plato’s dilemma was thus a powerfully real and intensely contemporary one: how does one instill a belief in one’s city, state, nation, or gods that is forgetful of its fabricatedness? How do you effectively build amnesia into the very fabric of your nation? How do you design amnesiac institutions, while (in Plato’s specific case in Republic) allowing those in power some fuller awareness of the artifice of civic life itself? Believe in a fiction because it is a fiction, there being nothing else. Plato was himself not assured of this, for while he called for the banishment of art, he admitted to an ambivalence about its charms, as the philosopher Giorgio Agamben has astutely observed.3
This is precisely the problem and the central conundrum of the museum and its possible futures as they may be projected or desired today, as well as the core problem of interpretative activity itself. To raise these questions is to evoke what is fundamental to both artistry and museology: the problem of the possibilities and impossibilities of representation as such. The problem of exactly what is simultaneously promised and foreclosed by art or by the artistry, stagecraft, and dramaturgy of the museum. But then the museum is not merely a thing but a way of using things. What might be the future of museological ways of using things? Of museologising, with or without museums?
A broader issue to address is: how does one craft the potential for fostering civic and civil space – a social domain of dialogue, negotiation, critique, interpretation, growth, and moderated change – in a museological mode of using things? How can one possibly design or foster such openness?
The answer is that one cannot, as long as the problem is conceived instrumentally, as a technical problem with neatly quantifiable resolutions – which is how the problem is framed in most contemporary museum discussions, as well as in recent Eurocentric art historical developments, such as visual culture studies or relational aesthetics. Or for that matter in recent academic marketing endeavours such as the oxymoronic globalised art historicism. The last part of this paper will deal directly with this problem with respect to current curatorial practices.
The title of this essay is from a poem by Archibald MacLeish, written in 1926, called Ars Poetica, which begins: ‘A poem should be palpable and mute as a globed fruit.’ It then sets out ways to imagine what a poem should be: ‘dumb as old medallions to the thumb; Wordless as the flight of birds; motionless in time as the moon climbs; equal to: not true’; ending with: ‘A poem should not mean /But be’ – the favourite, endlessly repeated and never satisfactorily explicated mantra of my primary school poetry teacher, and the subject of the kind of endless hilarious variations delighted in by the budding adolescents, male and female, at my New York City school, unaware of the exhortation’s Heideggerian undertones.
I should like to focus upon the question of the encounter with a quote from a book published in 1985 by David Finn, the celebrated British photographer who was associated for many years with the sculptor Henry Moore. Finn’s book was a popular handbook entitled How to Visit a Museum, and for some time it was one of the most widely read ‘how-to’ books in English on museum visiting; one could find it in museum bookshops from Peoria to Pretoria to Perth. It is engagingly written and deceptively straightforward text begins with the sentence: ‘There is no right or wrong way to visit a museum’.4 As might be expected, Finn then proceeds to tell the reader precisely what the right way to visit a museum is, stating: ‘The most important rule you should keep in mind as you go through the front door is to follow your own instincts’.5 He then goes on to advise how those alleged ‘instincts’ should be exercised: ‘do your best at all times to let the work of art speak directly to you with a minimum of interference or distraction’.6 In other words, forget the crowds, the wall texts, the audio guides, just look. And listen. To that Turner or Tiepolo in front of you, not to the seductively reasonable curatorial voice in your earphones, which may or may not be the dramatist Peter Ustinov, the Tate director Nicholas Serota or the pop star Lady Gaga (depending on the gallery).
Despite its popularity, Finn’s exhortation was by no means unique; one could cite many echoes of it from the entire modern history of art criticism and interpretation, but one particular example is worth mentioning: this by the American art critic Michael Brenson, who in a 1995 paper ‘Resisting the Dangerous Journey: The Crisis in Journalistic Criticism’, originally published by the Andy Warhol Foundation, writes that ‘A good wordsmith […] can paint a vivid picture of what it’s like to be present when the work of a[n Old or modern] master […] begins to speak’.7
Virtually universal in the literature on museums and museology is the exhortation to attend closely to an artwork or cultural artefact so that it will make itself evident and thereby ‘speak’ of its import and significance. The assumption is that a proper confrontation would elicit speech from a mute object; an incantatory desire, even a synaesthesiac longing. Although Finn does mention museum wall texts and labels in passing, he is more concerned that the beholder situates him or herself receptively, and as effectively as possible, in relation to the museum object, whatever it may be. He or she must try to screen out interference so that this staged encounter between viewing subject and viewed object will succeed.
But would an artwork be mute or illegible without a certain kind of staging? Reponses to this and similar questions have been mooted and documented at length in Europe since well before the eighteenth century. As have questions about its obverse, namely: is an artwork never not framed, whether materially or virtually? Does it not swim or sit or hang suspended in an ocean of verbiage which may at times be palpably embodied in a visible gloss of words on a wall or pedestal or in one’s ear?
Museums are occasions for staging encounters between what are rhetorically distinguished as subjects and objects: occasions for circulating subjects among objects in ways that elicit more than mere looking. A certain rapport – prefabricated or accidental and circumstantial – has always been presumed to take place between the viewer and the viewed such that a transmission will take place; something more than a mere conveying of historical or art historical information. Is there a presumption of a certain inherent semiotic density about artworks that, even in this day and age, makes us imagine that if one stares long and hard enough, and with the right frame of mind, the staged confrontation between a subject and an object will generate a greater understanding or deeper appreciation of what has been wrought by the object’s maker and, by extension, their mentality or skill?
The notion of transmission brings to mind a pantograph, a term that commonly refers to an instrument for copying a drawing or a plan at a different (usually larger) scale by a system of linked and jointed rods, but also describes a jointed metal framework for conveying a current to a train, tram, or other electrical vehicle from overhead wires. An image made with a pantograph enlarges or magnifies the original. And a pantograph is a conveyer of power to mobile machinery when the juxtaposition or confrontation between power source and what is to be (em)powered is in appropriate alignment. How would encountering an artwork be pantographic?
The most celebrated instance of pantography may be familiar: on the occasion of visiting her cousin Elizabeth, a pregnant young woman named Mary described her feelings ‘pantographically’, as follows:
My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my saviour.
For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me and holy is his Name.
(Luke I, 46–55, author’s italics.)
This is a remarkable declaration, for (as with one’s encounter with museum images and objects) what is being reported to Elizabeth by Mary was not a simple one-way encounter between the material and immaterial (or spiritual), but rather a literal claim of mutual magnification. The text says that Mary’s soul (psyche; anima) enlarges (megalunei; magnificat) a divine spirit that in turn magnifies her. She becomes a vessel for that divine spirit so that, in conveying that spirit, channelling it, it in turn enlarges her own spirit. By becoming a divine conveyance, she is no longer a mere ‘handmaiden’ to that spirit, for she will give birth to its announced embodiment, a corporeal manifestation of that immateriality. From being herself the issue of mere mortals, her own issue, she announces to her cousin, shall be an embodied divinity; an (im)mortal. She is in fact magnifying divinity itself by giving birth to its embodiment.
Consider the amazing subtleties of this pantographic claim, which are simultaneously biological, topological, semiological, epistemological, rhetorical and psychoanalytic – indeed, the tale could have been written by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, for it is a veritable Borromean knot of distributed agencies and personas, which become embodied or reified by being named. And indeed it is the naming itself that cuts the knot: in the beginning was the Word in deed.
But to avoid stepping into even deeper and muddier theological waters, it is necessary to return to the point of the citation. An encounter with an object, image, or artefact in the museum is not a simple (one might even say not securely ‘secular’) confrontation between a biological being and allegedly mute, dumb stuff, but the mooting of a possible conveyance in which the subject is enriched and transformed, and, following the analogy, the ‘spirit,’ idea, or character of the image, object, or artifact is itself magnified as a result of the pantographic transaction. Is the ‘spirit’ or ‘idea’ of J.M.W. Turner enlivened, magnified, recuperated, or even redeemed (as the philosopher Walter Benjamin might have voiced it) in an encounter between his paintings and their beholders? I am reminded here of an old midrash that defines prayer as a ‘turning toward the wall’ – not so as to imagine that the god is there behind it, but precisely to imagine that it is not. Is looking at a painting equivalent to praying to it?
One is confronted here with the problematic nature of museological aims and functions in relation to the expectations and desires for sensorial resolution and fixity on the part of the visitor. Does the stagecraft establish a field of expectations: the anticipation of interpretation, the palpable sense of fixing in place a measured or measurable relationship, however transitory, between subjects and objects? This is a very tense domain of mutual confrontation, solicitation, and seduction; a catalyst, perhaps, and an arousal in more than one sense of the term. Even an idolatry. Does this not make idolatrous the individual’s relationship to museological (or other artefactual) material?
In viewing a museological artefact, does the viewing subject attribute agency to the object, or attribute some simulacrum of agency? Is agency an artefact, then, of the encounter itself? Are we dealing here, then, with a certain subtle simulacrum of idolatry; an artistry of idolatry and fetishism? Does one simultaneously believe and disbelieve that the work of art is alive? And what, if anything, would be different if one were to imagine artworks not only being able to speak, but also able to think and even desire?
It would seem that the problems of accounting for encountering, and of understanding interpreting, are bound up in an epistemological conundrum that appears to require the simultaneous belief in diametrically opposed notions of agency. Put bluntly, one is placed in the uncanny position of simultaneously believing and disbelieving in the mute palpability of artworks. Yet some commentators, notably the French philosopher Jacques Rancière, claim that the supposedly mute palpability of artworks not only renders them ‘democratically available’ to audiences, but also available as models or simulacra of empowerment.8 The crux of the problem, however, is that the opposite is equally probable, and that such an antithesis is palpably problematic. What is just as questionable, as has been outlined, is the muteness itself.
An encounter with artefacts or phenomena staged or framed as artistic in and by museological space always takes place in a psychological or epistemological dimension where the agency and non-agency of what subjects are encountering is essentially problematic and fundamentally indeterminate. The two are co-implicative and inextricably co-constructed: agency and muteness are relational terms, each existing only insofar as it evokes its opposite. Artworks can do whatever one may imagine they may do, which really should come as no surprise, given the essential gap between intention and construal outlined above. The point is that the encounter with objects is always ambivalently ‘aesthetic’ or ‘religious’, the modern distinction between the two being less a question of content and more a matter of how agency is framed relative to what is being experienced or sensed.
Which is to say that agency (or power, or force, or voice, or intelligence, or desire) is framed, staged or situated relative to a position taken explicitly or implicitly on the fabricatedness of its own artifice. What are conventionally distinguished as art and religion are reifications of positions taken for or against this recognition. I prefer the terms artistry (or artifice) and religiosity so as to foreground each as a process and, indeed, as technologies of interpretation, which is their essential function. Thus, all modes of religiosity may be understood as being either ambivalent, amnesiac, or duplicitous with respect to the fabricatedness of their own artifice or artistry. Whereas by contrast, artistry is less ambivalent about the artifice of its fabrications.9
Who interprets? For whom is it done and under what conditions? In whom or in what is vested the power to manage how the visual is made legible, and the legible visible? How might the putative ‘desires’ of an artwork be attended to? What does a painting or any artifact in and out of institutional space really want of its beholder? The tense membrane inserted in the pre-modern domains of the sensible that resulted in sundering apart whilst simultaneously reifying what thenceforth would serve as either art or religion, performed the inherently elusive dream of modernity – the dream of being in a measured relationship to, while being palpably distinct from, the past. The museum was a key instrument of that process.
But what remains today for curatorial and interpretative practice, not to mention the practices of viewing and using museological material by and on behalf of individuals and communities? In light of what has already been said regarding the indeterminacies and the uncannily vociferous quiddity or palpable muteness of artistry, and the fact that such phenomena today are themselves the products of a two and a half thousand year-old history of intensely conflicted attempts to manage interpretation and stage-manage museological encounters within the heterogenous and dynamically evolving cultural domains of the Western tradition, it comes as no surprise that the consequences of and potentials for curatorship are so fraught. They are so, by and large, because, as instrumentally adept as we may have been in stage-managing encounters in particular instances and for targeted purposes, the effective and now long-standing divorce between professional interests, activities, and forms of expertise in contemporary museology that should in theory have functioned in tandem has been an enduring impasse for a very long time. Our most pressing task today, and a job that is simultaneously pragmatic and theoretical, and indeed a task of artisanal epistemology, is to sew together what modernity has rent asunder. Including the gap between the pragmatic and the theoretical.