Monday, June 21, 2010

The Museum Revisited

Ines Doujak, Sin título, 2002, color photograph. From “How Do We Want to Be Governed?”

IT IS BY PUTTING THE MUSEUM in the context of radical democratic politics that I wish to address the question of its role today, considering in particular ways in which art institutions could foment new subjectivities critical of neoliberal consensus. More generally, I want to take issue with the negative way public institutions are perceived by the mode of radical critique fashionable today: Celebrating “desertion” and “exodus,” to use the terminology of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri—whose writing recently appeared in these pages—such critique asserts that political action should withdraw from existing institutions so that we might free ourselves from all forms of belonging. Institutional attachments are presented here as obstacles to new, nonrepresentative forms of “absolute democracy” suitable for the self-organization of the multitude. Yet such an approach forecloses any immanent critique of institutions—critique with the objective of transforming institutions into a terrain of contestation of the hegemonic order. Instead, all institutions are perceived as monolithic representatives of forces to be destroyed, every attempt to transform them dismissed as reformist illusion. The very possibility of disarticulating their constitutive elements, with the aim of establishing a different power configuration, is precisely what is rejected by the exodus approach.

In the artistic and cultural domain, this perspective suggests that critical artistic practices can have efficacy only if they take place outside cultural institutions. To imagine that museums, for instance, could provide sites for critical political intervention today is, according to such a view, to be blind to the manifold of forces—economic and political—that make their very existence possible. The strategy, here again, is to ignore them and occupy other spaces, outside the institutional field. But endorsing this course of action is, in my view, profoundly mistaken and clearly disempowering, because it impedes us from recognizing the multiplicity of avenues that would otherwise be open for political engagement. Indeed, it is to ignore the tensions that always exist within a given configuration of forces and the possibility of subverting their form of articulation. By contrast, I am convinced that fostering a strategy of “engagement with institutions” is absolutely crucial for envisioning democratic politics today. We must acknowledge that what is called “the social” is the realm of sedimented political practices—practices that conceal the originary acts of their contingent political institution—but recognize as well that such moments of political institution can always be reactivated. Every order is predicated on the exclusion of other possibilities, but as the temporary and precarious articulation of contingent practices, each order is always the expression of a particular structure of power relations. Things could have been otherwise. And so every hegemonic order is susceptible to being challenged.

The success of counterhegemonic practices depends on an adequate understanding of the relations of forces structuring the key institutions in which the political antagonist is going to intervene. With respect to artistic and cultural practices, then, counterhegemonic interventions must first and foremost recognize the role of the culture industry in capitalism’s transition to post-Fordism. To mention just a few familiar yet central features of the current dispensation: the blurring of the lines between art and advertising, the exponential development of “creative industries” dominated by the media and entertainment corporations, and the reduction of cultural institutions into entertainment centers—all these can only be understood in the context of the post-Fordist stage of capitalism. Today’s capitalism relies increasingly on semiotic techniques to create the modes of subjectification necessary for its reproduction, and cultural production plays a central role in the process of valorizing capital. The old forms of exploitation, characteristic of the times when manual labor was dominant, have been replaced by new ones that call for the incessant creation of needs and insatiable desires for the acquisition of goods. They rely on the joint forces of advertising and the “creative industries” for producing fantasy worlds through which the identity of the consumer is constructed. To buy something today is to gain entrance into a specific world, to identify with a certain culture, to become part of an imagined community. To maintain its hegemony, the neoliberal system needs to permanently mobilize people’s desires and shape their identities, and the cultural terrain, with its various institutions, occupies a strategic place in this absolutely vital process of commodification and subjectification. To challenge this system, a counterhegemonic politics must engage this terrain and target the forms of identification that are the conditions for the reproduction of post-Fordist capitalism. Thus, the museum—far from being an institution to be deserted posthaste—becomes a crucial site of political contestation.

How to visualize the future of the museum within such a framework? Could the institution contribute to undermining the imaginary environment of the consumer society? To be sure, the history of the museum has been linked since its beginning to the construction of bourgeois hegemony, but in my view this function can be altered. As Wittgenstein has taught us, signification is always dependent on context, and use determines meaning. This is also true for institutions, and we should discard the essentialist idea that some institutions are destined to fulfill one immutable function. In fact, we have already witnessed how, following the neoliberal trend, many museums have abandoned their original purpose of educating citizens into the dominant culture and have instead transformed themselves into sites of entertainment for a public of consumers. The main objective of those “postmodern” museums is to make money through blockbuster exhibitions and the sale of merchandise to tourists. The type of “participation” they promote is based on consumerism, and they actively contribute to the commercialization and depoliticization of the cultural field.

However, this neoliberal turn is not the only possible form of evolution open to the museum; another path can be envisaged, leading in a progressive direction. There may have been a time when it would have made sense to abandon the museum in order to nurture the development of novel artistic practices. But under present conditions, with the art world almost totally colonized by the market, the museum could become—indeed is uniquely positioned to become—a sanctuary from commercial interests. As several theorists have pointed out, the museum, which has been stripped of its normative role, might now be seen as a privileged place for artworks to be presented in a context that allows them to be distinguished from commodities. Visualized in such a way, the museum would offer spaces for resisting the effects of the growing commercialization of art.¹

To rethink the function of the museum along those lines would be a first step toward envisaging the institution as a possible site for countering the dictatorship of the global media market. It is interesting to note that such a move dovetails with other attempts to reclaim public institutions targeted by neoliberalism in recent years. Think, for instance, of the change of attitude of a part of the European Left with respect to the institutions of the welfare state, whose bureaucratic nature they used to criticize. This was no doubt a justified critique, but in the wake of the dismantling of these institutions by neoliberal governments, many people have begun to realize that they also constituted important forms of protection against market forces, and that their privatization has not represented a democratic advance. Similar considerations could be made with respect to the role of the state, which, after years of being demonized, has recently been reevaluated. The conclusion to draw from this new perception of the nature of public institutions is that, instead of celebrating the destruction of all institutions as a move toward liberation, the task for radical politics is to engage with them, developing their progressive potential and converting them into sites of opposition to the neoliberal market hegemony.

As far as museums are concerned, already one can point to several successful examples of this strategy of “engagement with” that I am proposing. One of the best known is the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, which, under the direction of Manuel Borja-Villel (who now heads the Reina Sofía in Madrid), succeeded in creating a new model of museum.² Between 2000 and 2008, MACBA launched various projects informed by critical pedagogy to recover the educational role of the museum and to reestablish the institution as a constituent part of the public sphere. With the aim of proposing an alternative reading of modern art, MACBA began developing a collection and organizing exhibitions privileging artists and art scenes typically neglected by the dominant discourse on artistic modernity. Among the many notable shows the museum mounted during this period were “Philippe Thomas: Readymades Belong to Everyone” (2000); “Art and Utopia: Restricted Action” (2004); “A Theatre Without Theatre” (2007); and “Be-Bomb: The Transatlantic War of Images and All That Jazz. 1946–1956” (2007–2008). Another of MACBA’s objectives was to establish a vibrant relationship between the museum and the city and to provide a space for debate and conflict. Looking for ways in which art could make a significant contribution to the multiplication of public spheres, MACBA encouraged contact between different social movements. For example, “Of Direct Action Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” a series of workshops organized in 2000 (and coordinated by Jordi Claramonte), brought together artists’ collectives and social movements to explore possibilities for connecting local political struggles with artistic practices. Workshops were organized around topics such as precarious labor, borders and migrations, gentrification, new media, and emancipatory strategies. A further example of collaboration with the new social movements was the “How Do We Want to Be Governed?” project, which was conceived as a countermodel to the Universal Forum of Cultures launched by the city council of Barcelona in 2004. While taking culture as an alibi, the real objective of the government forum, critics argued, was to promote a major urban renewal project planned for the city’s seafront—to pave the way, in other words, for a massive real estate deal. Organized by Roger M. Buergel (then a curator at MACBA), “How Do We Want to Be Governed?” presented a series of exhibitions and public programs—talks, colloquia, screenings, performances, and debates—in venues within the industrial zones and working-class neighborhoods scheduled for demolition or radical reconfiguration. It was an exhibition in process, combining artistic work and social dynamics and providing a platform for various neighborhood movements.

The program at MACBA since the turn of the millennium represents a radical alternative to both the modern and the postmodern museum, but many other types of initiatives are worth mentioning. Of particular interest in this regard is the recently established consortium L’Internationale, a long-term collaboration among five progressive European art institutions—the Moderna Galerija in Ljubljana, Slovenia; the Július Koller Society in Bratislava, Slovakia; MACBA; the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands; and the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen (MUHKA) in Belgium—seeking to collectively use their collections and archives to challenge art-historical master narratives and to construct multiple alternative, transnational narratives. L’Internationale’s proposed network is only now in its first stages, and needs to be enriched by partners outside Europe, but it suggests a promising way for art institutions to join together in the ongoing struggle against the hegemonic discourse.

What is really at stake in this debate about ways to deal with institutions such as the museum is the political and its relation with artistic practices. The modernist view, which postulates a structural affinity between the political and the artistic avant-garde, needs to be relinquished. Its claim that the radical move consists in destruction and radical negation of tradition and that it requires exit from all institutions, political as well as artistic, is not suitable for the task facing radical politics today. As Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello persuasively demonstrated in The New Spirit of Capitalism (1999/2005), the managerial class successfully co-opted the various demands for autonomy of social movements that arose in the 1960s, harnessing them only to secure the conditions required by the new, postindustrial mode of capitalist regulation. Capital was able, they showed, to neutralize the subversive potential of the aesthetic strategies and ethos of the counterculture—the search for authenticity, the ideal of self-management, and the antihierarchical imperative—transforming them from instruments of liberation into new forms of control that would ultimately replace the disciplinary framework of the Fordist period. To this hegemonic move by capital, it is urgent to oppose a counterhegemonic one, which opposes the program of total social mobilization of capitalism. Instead of deserting public institutions, we must find ways to use them to foster political forms of identification and make existing conflicts productive. By staging a confrontation between conflicting positions, museums and art institutions could make a decisive contribution to the proliferation of new public spaces open to agonistic forms of participation where radical democratic alternatives to neoliberalism could, once again, be imagined and cultivated.

Text by Chantal Mouffe
Professor of Political Theory, University of Westminster


1. See, e.g., Boris Groys, “The Logic of Equal Aesthetic Rights” in his Art Power (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), pp. 13–22.

2. An excellent overview of the activities of MACBA during those years is found in Jorge Ribalta, “Experiments in a New Institutionality,” in Relational Objects, MACBA Collections 2002–2007 (Barcelona: MACBA Publications, 2010).

Source: Art Forum Magazine, Summer 2010