The function of the museum

Texto de artista
15 August, 2019

This statement is an extract from a text written in October, 1970. It was to be the third part—“Le Donne”— of the text “Position—Proposition” published by the Museum of Mónchen-Gladbach in January 1971, the two others being “Standpoints” and “Critical Limits.” This was first published by the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, England for Buren’s show, March 31—April 15, 1973. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Privileged place with a triple role:

  1. Aesthetic. The Museum is the frame and effective support upon which the work is inscribed/composed. It is at once the centre in which the action _ takes place and the single (topographical and cultural) viewpoint for the work.
  2. Economic. The Museum gives a sales value to what it exhibits, has privileged/selected. By preserving or extracting it from the commonplace, the Museum promotes the work socially, thereby assuring its exposure and consumption.
  3. Mystical. The Museum/Gallery instantly promotes to “Art” status what it exhibits with conviction, i.e. habit, thus diverting in advance any attempt to question the foundations of art without taking into consideration the place from which the question is put. The Museum (the Gallery) con- stitutes the mystical body of Art.

It is clear that the above three points are only there to give a general idea of the Museums role. It must be understood that these roles differ in intensity depending on the Museums (Galleries) considered, for socio- political reasons (relating to art or more generally to the system). [1]

II. Preservation

One of the initial (technical) functions of the Museum (or Gallery) is preservation. (Here a distinction can be made between the Museum and the Gallery although the distinction seems to be becoming less clear-cut: the former generally buys, preserves, collects, in order to exhibit; the latter does the same in view of resale.) This function of preservation perpetuates the idealistic nature of all art since it claims that art is (could be) eternal. This idea, among others, dominated the 19th century, when public mu- seums were created approximately as they are still known today.

Painted things are generally attitudes, gestures, memories, copies, im- itations, transpositions, dreams, symbols … sefixed on the canvas arbi- trarily for an indefinite period of time. To emphasize this illusion of eternity or timelessness, one has to preserve the work itself (physically fragile: can- vas, stretcher, pigments etc.) from wear. The Museum was designed to assume this task, and by appropriate artificial means to preserve the work, as much as possible, from the effects of time —work which would otherwise perish far more rapidly. It was/is a way—another—of obviating the tem- porality/fragility of a work of art by artificially keeping it “alive,” thereby granting it an appearance of immortality which serves remarkably well the discourse which the prevalent bourgeois ideology attaches to it. This takes place, it should be added, with the author’s, i.e., the artist’s delighted ap- proval.

Daniel Buren, Afichages (Afiches), 1968/2019; tinta sobre papel sobre distintas superficies (CDMX)

Moreover, this conservatory function of the Museum, which reached its highest point during the 19th century and with Romanticism, is still generally accepted today, adding yet another paralysing factor. In fact nothing is more readily preserved than a work of art. And this is why 20th century art is still so dependent on 19th century art since it has accepted, without a break, its system, its mechanisms and its function (including Cézanne and Duchamp) without revealing one of its main alibis, and fur- thermore accepting the exhibition framework as self-evident. We can once again declare that the Museum makes its “mark,” imposes its “frame” (phys- ical and moral) on everything that is exhibited in it, in a deep and indelible way. It does this all the more easily since everything that the Museum shows is only considered and produced in view of being set in it.

Every work of art already bears, implicitly or not, the trace of a gesture, an image, a portrait, a period, a history, an idea … and is subsequently preserved (as a souvenir) by the Museum.

II. Collection

The Museum not only preserves and therefore perpetuates, but also collects. The aesthetic role of the Museum is thus enhanced since it becomes the single viewpoint (cultural and visual) from which works can be consid- ered, an enclosure where art is born and buried, crushed by the very frame which presents and constitutes it. Indeed, collecting makes simplifications possible and guarantees historical and psychological weight which rein- forces the predominance of the support (Museum/Gallery) inasmuch as the latter is ignored. In fact, the Museum/Gallery has a history, a volume, a physical presence, a cultural weight quite as important as the support on which one paints, draws. (By extension, this naturally applies to any sculpted, transported object, or discourse inscribed in the Museum). On another level, let us say social, collecting services to display different works together, often very unalike, from different artists. This results in creating or Opposing different “schools”/“movements” thereby cancelling certain interesting questions lost in an exaggerated mass of answers. The collection can also be used to show a single artists work, thus producing a “flattening” effect to which the work aspired anyway, having been exclusively con- ceived —willingly or not—in view of the final collection.

In summary, the collection in a Museum Operates in two different but parallel ways, depending on whether one considers a group or a one-man show. [2]

A) In the case of a confrontation of works by different artists the Museum imposes an amalgam of unrelated things among which chosen works are emphasized. These chosen works are given an impact which is only due to their context—collection. Let it be clear that the collection we are speaking of and the selection it leads to are obviously economically motivated. The Museum collects the better to isolate. But this distinction is false as the collection forces into comparison things that are often in- comparable, consequently producing a discourse which is warped from the start, and to which no one pays attention (cf. “Beware!” Introduction).

B) In collecting and presenting the work of a single artist (one-man show) the Museum stresses differences within a single body of work and insists (economically) on (presumed) successful works and (presumed) fail- ures. As a result, such shows set off the “miraculous” aspect of “successful” works. And the latter therefore also give a better sales value to Juxtaposed weaker works. This is the “flattening” effect we mentioned above, the aim of which is both cultural and commercial.

III. Refuge

The above considerations quite naturally lead to the idea, close to the truth, that the Museum acts as a refuge. And that without this refuge, no work can “exist.” The Museum is an asylum. The work set in it is sheltered from the weather and all sorts of dangers, and most of all protected from any Kind of questioning. The Museum selects, collects and protects. All works of art are made in order to be selected, collected and protected (among other things from other works which are, for whatever reasons, excluded from the Museum). If the work takes shelter in the Museum-refuge, it is because it finds there its comfort and its frame; a frame which one considers as natural, while it is merely historical. That is to say, a frame necessary to the works set in it (necessary to their very existence). This frame does not seem to worry artists who exhibit continually without ever considering the problem of the place in which they exhibit.

Whether the place in which the work is shown imprints and marks this work, whatever it may be, or whether the work itself is directly —consciously or not—produced for the Museum, any work presented in that framework, if it does not explicitly examine the influence of the framework upon itself, falls into the illusion of self-sufficiency —or idealism. This idealism (which could be compared to Art for Art’s sake) shelters and prevents any kind of break. [3]

. . . In fact every work of art inevitably possesses one or several ex- tremely precise frames. The work is always limited in time as well as in space. By forgetting (purposefully) these essential facts one can pretend that there exists an immortal art, an eternal work. … And one can see how this concept and the mechanisms used to produce it—among other things the function of the Museum as we have very rapidly examined it— place the work of art once and for all above all classes and ideologies. The same idealism also points to the eternal and apolitical Man which the prev- alent bourgeois ideology would like us to believe in and preserve.

The non-visibility or (deliberate) non-indication/revelation of the var- lous supports of any work (the work’s stretcher, the work’s location, the work’s frame, the work’s stand, the work’s price, the work’s verso or back etc. …) are therefore neither fortuitous nor accidental as one would like us to think.

What we have here is a careful camouflage undertaken by the prevalent bourgeois ideology, assisted by the artists themselves. A camouflage which has until now made it possible to transform “the reality of the world into an image of the world, and History into Nature.”