Museum Mausoleum / by Chris Hall

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo, 1658.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo, 1658.

The German word “museal” [museumlike] has unpleasant overtones.  It describes objects to which the observer no longer has a vital relationship and which are in the process of dying.  They owe their preservation more to historical respect than to the needs of the present.  Museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association.  Museums are like the family sepulchres of works of art. - Theodor Adorno, "Valery Proust Museum" 

Art Museum:  (noun) Where good art goes to die, having served its purpose.  

Art museums are a kind of Valhalla for art, where the dead and dying warriors of art, those works deemed worthy of remembrance, hope to find a kind of immortality.  We display these works, cordoned off by velvet ropes in solemn chambers, like one would display a corpse at a funeral party.  And if you think the metaphor a bit ridiculous, I point you toward the tourist attraction that is Lenin's corpse.  And this is if the art is lucky.  Many a good work will find itself buried in the back, like the artifacts in the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  

Museums, as an institution of power, lends to the work it displays a kind of legitimacy, seriousness, authority, and finality, making the art, in a way, beyond reproach, beyond critique.  A living, breathing art, however, provokes and challenges; it fosters dialogue and invites critique.  A museum, with its death pallor, can be suffocating to this dialog and the power of the art becomes neutralized.  And who views the art at the museum?  The cultural and intellectual elite – coming to pick over the relic bones of the saints.  And can the dead speak?   If the art is displayed in a museum, does it still have the power to convert?  If the art is historic, perhaps the art's message is no longer relevant.  If the art is contemporary, there is a good chance the dialogue will stop, as the art is essentially preaching to the choir.  The conversation may also stop because people may not be willing to challenge the legitimizing air of the museum.   Don't misunderstand me, I love museums, particularly when I am in a reverent mood and feel like I want to worship at the alter of my fore-bearers.  When I am in that mood, a trip to the museum can be a refreshing, even holy experience.    But if I want see art interact with real society, the dirty, democratic, open to debate over a beer society, I have to go elsewhere.

Yes, a museum show signifies to the world that you have arrived, but it also comes with a cost.  There is something to be said about the living, breathing, street scrapping art, fighting it out in galleries and on city walls.  Art is for the living and it must invite dialogue and critique, from those within the art world, but also those outside of it.  It is necessary for art to escape the narrow corridors of the art institutions, and to breathe the fresh air of the real world, if the art is to live free.  Sure, it is a dangerous world for art, outside the legitimizing protection of the museum, but as Dave Hickey writes in The Invisible Dragon, “Art is either a democratic political instrument, or it is not.”