Art Museums: Location! Location! Location!
A lecture presented by Leo Segedin on February 13, 2013, at the Firehouse Restaurant in Evanston, Illinois
Leo Segedin | February 13, 2013 | Print this essay
A painting is most often a stretched canvas covered with colored paint. Since canvas and paint — by themselves — have no intrinsic significance, the significance of a painting must be determined by the context in which it is seen. I will argue that location creates that context. On a most fundamental level, location – in anthropological, historical, ethnic, but especially in art museums — determines what gives paintings their public meaning. In fact — in that an exhibition in an art museum can transform functional objects — or anything else — into ‘fine art’, location actually determines whether a painting is a work of art. Also, it indirectly determines its market value. A painting is priceless in an art museum, but its location in an art museum raises its price in an art gallery.
Location in art museums may offer places for aesthetic contemplation and socialization, but – in that it can also create social status — glorify or degrade works of art — and be a site for propaganda – location can have political implications. Because of what art objects are believed to be in such locations, they can lead to controversies which are intense enough to result in censorship. In this sense — regardless of the intention of the artist — location establishes the painting’s reality.
When Nate and Kiyoko Lerner first discovered Henry Darger’s paintings in his filthy, overcrowded room, their first impulse was to discard them as garbage to make room for a photography studio for Nate. My wife, Jan, suggested that they might be of interest to a psychiatrist, but after Nate showed one of his paintings to an art dealer, they became gallery commodities in an 8 billion dollar art market. To the dealer, Darger’s paintings were outstanding and valuable examples of ‘outsider’ art. Kiyoko later sold much of Darger’s work to the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan where they are now exhibited and supported by a Henry Darger Study Room. The Intuit Museum of intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago has a Henry Darger Study Room which includes a cleaned up reconstruction of his room on Webster St. Although some writers have described Darger as a unique, psychiatric, case study, most books and articles about him praise him as one of the world’s greatest ‘outsider’ artists. The art critic, Arthur Danto, wrote in The Nation that “Henry Darger was a genius of stammering achievement”. His works are now included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and in many others. In the art market, those few of Darger’s paintings which can still be found in art galleries now sell for over $200,000.
Even though physically, these paintings are the same paint on paper, and visually, the same light is reflected from their surfaces to the retina of our eyes — for all practical purposes — in these different contexts — they are different objects. In the same way that music is not an interpretation of sounds, works of art are not interpretations of visual stimuli. We hear music, not sounds; we see works of art, not visual stimuli. It is an unconscious, perceptual process, but, since there is no adequate theory of perception which can explain or even describe such phenomena, it is not something a psychologist or physiologist might discover in a lab.
No matter what its original function, placing an object in an art museum transforms the way we see it, by turning it into a work of art. Until the beginning of the 20th century, Oriental, African and Oceanic art objects were not works of art. I remember that as a child, my folks took me to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. There, I saw man–made artifacts such as Egyptian mummy cases, African ancestor figures, Indians headdresses, even Chinese and Japanese scroll paintings, along with dinosaur bones, ants and cockroaches, European scythes, stalks of wheat and corn and Cambrian rocks. All of them were presented in crowded, glass cases with the purpose of satisfying curiosity rather than for artistic appreciation. As exhibited in the anthropology section of the museum, they represented the characteristics of different, non—western cultures. They were seen as functional objects, as illustrating the skills of whole groups of people, not the creativity or personal expression of individual artists. Although some art museums had previously owned small collections of Chinese art, it was not given serious consideration as fine art until 1923 when they were first seen in the newly opened Freer Gallery in Washington D.C.
This transformation into fine art gives paintings aesthetic and metaphoric qualities which they do not have in other locations; it also gives them a history, a style and its creator, an identity and a biography. We see Giotto’s, ‘Ognissanti Madonna’, in the Uffizi in Florence as a historical masterpiece — a famous art work by a famous artist of early 14th century, Gothic, Florentine art. It is no longer an anonymous, miracle producing icon in the church of the Ognisasanti as it was to Catholics in the 15th century. No one is likely to ask it for favors in the Ufizzi today.
Even everyday objects can be transformed into works of art by placing them in an art museum. In the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art is one of seventeen known versions of Duchamp’s Fountain. It was originally a urinal, but it is signed R. Mutt, dated 1917 and titled ‘Fountain’, all attributes of a work of art. You might say that it was still a urinal, but no one ever peed into it. You might say, ‘Of course — not in a museum!’ — but suppose it was placed in a men’s restroom next to a standard urinal. Knowing that it was a ‘work of art’, would you be likely to pee in it? If you did, would that act be seen as normal usage, a criminal act or perhaps an art critical statement? The same kind of response would occur to Warhol’s Brillo Boxes and Hirst’s sharks and cigarette butts. Knowing their history in such locations – knowing that someone made or selected such objects to be placed there — changes your perception no matter what your judgment. After all, a cigar butt — partially smoked by President Grant sometime between 1850 and 1880 — is on display in the Grant Room of the Ohio Statehouse.
Art in American and British art museums originally consisted of the bequests of the collections of wealthy patrons of the arts. Until recently, such collections were housed in buildings which had had the aura of temples and chapels. In fact, some of them were once actually called ‘Temples of Art’. The Art Institute of Chicago, with its lions — broad staircases and high arches of its façade — the scale of its interior spaces — the hushed ambiance and the gestures of the guides before the paintings — gave visitors the sense that they were in the presence of "sacred" objects. This spiritual aura was intended to be evidence that the donors of paintings, sculptures and antiquities to such institutions were cultivated and benevolent and that — as generous benefactors — deserved their high, social and cultural status. To emphasize this, the collections and the halls where they were displayed were named after their donors.
These exhibitions established the city’s cultural prestige and, as a result, attracted tourists to the city. Thus, they also had an economic function. One reason why Chicago was considered the ‘second city’ was that the larger and better endowed Metropolitan Museum in New York attracted more visitors than the Art Institute.
Such museums — supported by large endowments from their benefactors — were ostensibly public and free — intended to raise the cultural level of an uncultivated public, but during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were essentially the private domain of their benefactors and an occasional scholar. At one time, an entrance fee was actually charged to keep the riffraff out.
Like religious experience in Medieval cathedrals, exposure to these objects in these locations was supposed to be spiritually uplifting, but the success of art museums is now determined, not by spiritual conversions, but rather by the number of visitors they attract, as well as the number of prints, postcards, books, shopping bags, T—shirts, scarves and other art souvenirs they sell in recently expanded gift shops. Under pressure from unrepresented groups as well as to meet escalating expenses, raising attendance has become an art museum’s primary goal. To accomplish this, the museum’s education departments replaced their more academically inclined, specialist curators in presenting and promoting the artwork. Museums have become more ‘democratic’ and accessible. The intimidating atmosphere has been dispelled and informative displays, lectures and audio aids attract the general public. Paintings became attractions, more than they are objects for contemplation. Although, like churches, some art museums, such as The Art Institute, pay no Federal entertainment tax — as do Symphony Hall and the Civic Opera House — they have become very popular institutions.
Along with this popular appeal, however, art museums still do retain the old, but now attractive, elitist aura by offering memberships to those who can afford them. Such memberships confer social status in that they offer participatory benefits not available to non—members. In fact, because of this new social context, art museums have become places to meet and socialize with other people interested in the arts rather than to look at art.
British collections were started in the 18th century for purely self—serving reasons. During this time, Italy was a major part of the Grand Tour for upper class, British young men. These wealthy dilettantes visited Italy for many cultural and pleasurable reasons, including exposure to the highly regarded art of classical antiquity and the Renaissance. Since owning such objects bestowed prestige on their possessors, they were desirable collectibles. Lucky for them, by the 18th century, the Medicis and other major Italian families were going broke, needed income and were willing to sell their fabulous, art collections. Astute, newly established art dealers took advantage of this opportunity to sell pieces from the Italian collections to these British travelers. Most of these works ultimately ended up in the British Museum, where they became signs of British national status. In the same way, Nuevo riche American collectors, such as the Morgans, Freers and Rockefellers, ravaged Europe at the end of the 19th century for newly available works of art and later, they either donated their collections to existing art museums or built their own, sometimes turning their own mansions into art museums.
Art Museums have always reflected the values of some class or some social or political faction in society. They display what that group values. As such, national museums reflect national values. Museums can glorify a nation by showing its greatest products. Like the British Museum and the Louvre, they can proclaim their nation’s political power and benevolent intentions by presenting the loot of the nations they have conquered as great works of art. In this context, they can also be attacked by those who believe that such values are corrupt. The Italian Futurists in 1909 and the Russian Constructivists in 1921 clamored for the destruction of all national art museums for such reasons. Even the location of a museum can have political implications. A major international battle is now raging between Britain and Greece as to where the Elgin marbles should be exhibited. While the Elgin marbles are exhibited in the British Museum — where they are now — they are to be seen as the universal, cultural property of mankind, but — if displayed in the special, now empty, museum spaces built for them in Athens, they would be symbols of the great artistic accomplishments of Greek civilization. To the Turkish pashas who sold the marbles to Lord Elgin, they were the valueless relics of a long—dead, heathen society. Of course, in their original context in 432 BC, they were seen on the Parthenon — a temple dedicated to Athena, goddess of Athens — as part of a monument marking the Greek victory over the barbarian Persians in 480 BC. As such, they manifested Athenian political power. The same issues arise in the museum displays of original African, Aborigine and Indian art objects. Are they to be seen as belated presentations of previously neglected, works of art or as ‘imperialist plunder’?
Recently, art museums have developed new purposes and agendas. Since art products are considered to be a sign of high, cultural achievement, the exhibition of the work of neglected ethnic and other groups in such locations can publicly establish their unique identity and cultural contributions to society. In the 1970s, Blacks, Hispanics, women and gays used this approach to gain recognition. More often, they also establish their own museums. There are now over 50 different ethnic museums in Chicago. In that ethnicity is given less status than national identity and that the quality of artwork in such museums is often subordinate to its ethnic identity, ethnic artwork receives less recognition than what is seen in national art institutions.
Exhibitions can have a political agenda and be propaganda for political causes; they can interpret history in terms of such causes. In this context, they can raise controversial issues which often lead to censorship. For example, what was the proper interpretation of the 1995 50th anniversary exhibit in the Smithsonian of the Enola Gay in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in WW II? Was the display intended to be critical of the attack? Was the bombing a militarily necessity or a political act?
Should museum curators display work with which they might disagree? In 2008, the Spertus Museum in Chicago, Illinois presented the work of eight, well—known Palestinian and Israeli women artists in an exhibition called ‘’Imaginary Coordinates’. The show was intended to question the ‘notion of boundaries’ and the ‘rights to sorrow’, but was interpreted by some critics as being anti—Israel. Both of these exhibitions were closed because their curators succumbed to the pressure of those who disagreed with their assumed premises.
Sometime in the early 1960s, Jan and I visited the Toledo Museum of Art. At the time, Toledo was a ghost town and, although attendance was free, the museum itself was almost entirely empty. The museum had the feel of a mausoleum – a repository for art objects. The collection was mediocre, but, as a privately endowed museum, it served to proclaim that Toledo had a sophisticated, cultural elite. In this context, paintings were status rather than aesthetic objects to be contemplated. In fact, the impressive building itself rather than its collection could be seen as their civic monument.
Contrast that experience with the ‘blockbuster’ 1995 exhibition of Claude Monet’s work at the Art Institute of Chicago. This is a PR description of that show:
“The Art Institute of Chicago recently closed the curtain on one of the most successful art exhibits of all time, "Claude Monet: 1840—1926" was the largest and most comprehensive exhibition ever devoted to the paintings of the leader of the Impressionists. One hundred fifty—nine works from around the world were brought together for this once—in—a—lifetime show. The attendance was unparalleled. During its run from July 22 to November 26, 1995, advance admissions were completely sold out, leading to the surreal spectacle of tickets for an art exhibit being scalped as if it were the Super Bowl. The show was an aesthetic as well as a popular success, with the selection of paintings offering the finest examples of Monet's work from every period of his career.”But what can you possibly see in this environment? Try to imagine all these people being exposed to 159 paintings in one visit… the number of paintings — the milling crowds — the concentrations of people in front of each painting — the limited time and lack of a fixed place to stand still and look — the print and auditory distractions — created an environment in which the unique qualities of individual paintings were lost. It certainly was no place in which to contemplate great works of art. As an art teacher, I spent much time discussing the form and content of individual paintings. I used print diagrams, slides projected on a screen and overlapping transparencies to analyze their formal structure. Sometimes, I spent several hours talking about a single painting. Yet, rather obviously, the opportunity that anyone would have to use this knowledge was very limited. Granted that an art museum cannot survive without adequate funds to pay expenses and that the exhibition was a great popular, commercial success. In its efforts to attract visitors, the museum created an environment that made it almost impossible to really see the paintings. On the other hand, art museums can turn a work of art from an aesthetic object to be appreciated for its own sake into a component of art history. In 1973, Harry White and I took a group of students to the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris. At the time, the museum contained major works by Manet, Cezanne and Monet. Each painting was a masterpiece — a gem. I spent at least 15 minutes discussing a single work by Manet, simply spontaneously responding to what I saw in the painting and I could have continued talking about it. It was an intoxicating experience for me.
A few years later, I was back in Paris. The exhibition I had seen at the Jeu de Paume had been dismantled and most of those paintings — now ‘historically significant’ — were displayed along with many mediocre, but also ‘historically significant’ works at the D’orsay Museum. They were now part of a historical, period style sequence of French painting from 1848 to 1914. We were now made aware of the ideology underlying the works, the biographies of the artists and the influences they had on each other. While all this knowledge contributes to our response to the paintings, this focus on their general, literal aspects interfered with the experience of seeing the unique qualities of the individual works. By the time I was half way through the exhibition and before I reached some of the major works I enjoyed at the Jeu de Paume, I was almost too exhausted to continue.
It is doubtful that the contemporary idea of a painting being identified as a ‘masterpiece’ would have happened without it being displayed in an art museum. Originally, the term masterpiece referred to a piece of work produced by an apprentice aspiring to become a master craftsman in the old European guild system. Today, it can mean not only the best piece of work by a particular artist, but also a work which is assumed to be better than the work of other artists. In fact, it has become a work produced by an artist who is considered by art historians and museum curators to be better than other artists. As a result — in the art market as well as the art museum world — such status has come to reflect the artist’s almost iconic reputation, regardless of the quality of any particular work.
A great painting is no longer a great work of art by a great artist. It is great because it is assumed to be by a great artist. It is no longer a painting of a nude by Renoir; it is a ‘Renoir’. Because Renoir is assumed to be a great artist, you would never guess that most ‘Renoirs’ are pretty bad. All this, as we might guess, has greatly affected the monetary value of such works.
Thus, seeing paintings is not simply a matter of learning to see. Since what we see is affected by what we know or think we know, the belief that a painting is from the hand of a great artist will affect our perception. And since what we know is often determined by how they are identified and displayed, an exhibition of an artist’s work in an art museum will shape the way we see and judge his work. An exhibition tells us what the curators think we should see that makes the artist great.
For example, we are likely to see qualities in a Rembrandt which are better than those in a De Hooch, but if we are told that a Rembrandt is by De Hooch — which is what happened when De Hooch was more famous than Rembrandt — even though De Hooch looks more like Vermeer than Rembrandt — Rembrandt will take on the characteristics of De Hooch and de Hooch will look more like Rembrandt. If we think that a painting by second rate, Van Meegeren is by the great Vermeer, Vermeer‘s painting will start looking like van Meegeren’s, whose inferior qualities will then be seen as positive aspects of Vermeer’s paintings. This is what actually happened. Van Meegeren’s imitations were exhibited as Vermeers until the fraud was detected and they were removed from the museums. Thus, we sometimes see qualities in paintings we think are there even if they are not. The following is from a popular art textbook, Art and Civilization, by Bernard Meyers, about a painting called The Man in a Golden Helmet, formerly attributed to Rembrandt:
“Rembrandt’s ability to evoke spiritual contemplation, to fathom the depths of the soul and its identification with the universe is felt in such a work as the celebrated Man in a Golden Helmet.
Unfortunately for Professor Meyers, the painting wasn’t by Rembrandt. Even though some people continue to believe that the painting is beautiful and profound, when it was de–attributed in 1985, its value fell from $8 million to $377,000. Also, since the number of paintings attributed to Rembrandt has ranged from 48 to 988, it is obvious that the issue of ‘identity’ is of more than academic interest. Thus, museums not only create masterpieces; they also destroy them.
Consider an extreme, but most common example of how context unconsciously determines and distorts perception of works of art. Most of us have learned about and know paintings by looking at reproductions rather than originals. If we know them as pictures in books or as slide or digital projections on screens, they are presented as isolated from any environment.
In such contexts, we might be able to identify the artist, know their subject matter and analyze their composition, but we will not be able to respond to them as they were intended to be seen — in terms of their actual scale, color or texture, let alone how they would appear in their original location. A self—portrait by Rembrandt will appear as the same size as the head of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. What we will know of the work’s actual, perceptual characteristics will come from what we read or are told. Such visual ‘qualities’ would be secondary, irrelevant or taken for granted, an aspect of knowledge rather than perception. The difference of small computer and even smaller iPad images from their sources is even more extreme. Even though we often discuss them as if we are looking at actual paintings, such images bear little resemblance to the actual works of art. The idea that we might ‘see’ the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel on a tiny iPhone image is, on the face of it, ridiculous. Even in museums, the perceptual aspects of a painting are affected by lighting, distance from the observer and physical environment (wall color, surrounding paintings, noisy people, limited time in front of paintings, etc.). The museum may establish its meaning and determine how we see it, but at least we are seeing an actual object.
We generally do not think of paintings as existing in any specific context. In our minds, they are flat, rectangular objects, perhaps having form, subject matter, a history and so on, but we do not think of them as being in any particular place. Significance is seen as an aspect of the painting, as intrinsic to the object, rather than having to do with the circumstance surrounding its perception. But without some context, it has no significance. Although a painting can be appreciated no matter what its context, it needs some context to be seen as anything other than a thing, let alone as a work of art.