I love museums. I go to them a lot. They are living, breathing institutions, which happen to thrive in New England’s special habitat. We are lucky.
But from time to time, like anyone, I succumb to impatience and frustration. The German philosopher Theodor Adorno described the feeling exactly: One arrives at the museum, he wrote, and before long, “one does not know why one has come — in search of culture or enjoyment, in fulfillment of an obligation, in obedience to a convention. Fatigue and barbarism converge.”
Actual works of art, in such states of mind, have little chance. You see an etching by Rembrandt and respond with all the slow-blinking spiritual energy of an overfed lizard in a terrarium hopping with crickets. Even more ostensibly spectacular fare — a sculpture of a giant spider by Louise Bourgeois or a dead cow by Damien Hirst — has little impact: Check. Seen it. Meh.
In despair, you head for the cafe. But there, too, the smell is not quite real. You long for the bustle of the street, the traffic congestion, the bad lighting of life.
What is the problem exactly? Is it you? Or is it the museum?
Museums, of course, are terrified that they are the problem. It’s their deepest fear. They will do anything to stop it being so.
So they introduce iPads. They build transparent new wings designed by celebrity architects. They get active on social media. They collaborate with Google and Apple. They talk with biotech companies about experimenting with haptic gloves and augmented reality, and about measuring your heart rate and the hormones in your sweat as you stand before different paintings. (In this way, presumably, they will establish your aesthetic proclivities, which they will feed into algorithms that sweetly suggest, “You may also like this . . .”)
In short, museums will do all they can to reassure you that you are not actually going back in time — or worse, into a mausoleum — when you walk through their doors. They want to convince you that Adorno was wrong when he wrote, “Museums are like the family sepulchers of works of art. . . . Dead visions are entombed there.”
But perhaps he was right?
The statement startles, but we can at least guess at what Adorno meant. Statues from ancient Egypt, carvings from sub-Saharan Africa, altarpieces from 14th-century Siena, even drip paintings from the floor of Jackson Pollock’s studio: All these works once had a vital and urgent relationship both to their makers and their original viewers.
Seen by flickering candlelight, the holy figures in a Sienese altarpiece, for example, must once have appeared to offer up the very real possibility of intercession on behalf of the mortal souls who prayed before it. The image’s power in this sacred context was palpable, replete with meaning. And the same is surely true, in different ways, of the African carving, the Egyptian statue, and the painting by Pollock. (Visit Pollock’s Long Island studio and you sense it immediately: It was his sacred place.)
What happens to this immediacy, this deep and spontaneous connection between maker and object (or viewer and object), when the artwork is installed in a modern museum? Can it survive?
There’s no question it changes. And yet it remains the case, as Adorno quickly conceded, that if we enjoy looking at great art, we all of us depend on museums.
The museum’s place
How, then, do we keep museums vital? How do we do justice to the power of the works they house?
This is the question that every museum must grapple with. And it is the question Adorno addresses in his 1953 essay “Valery Proust Museum,” where he compares two very different attitudes to museums: one expressed by Marcel Proust, the other by Paul Valery.
Proust was very comfortable in museums. He understood that artworks, even if they have been cut off from their original context, take on a second life there. They become part of the life of the observer.
That observer may take in a ravishing painting by Vermeer one moment, and then respond with comparable emotional intensity to the perfume of the woman beside him. She may swoon in the presence of a sketch by Titian, then take in a second-rate landscape on the opposite wall, which, like the famous madeleine at the beginning of “Swann’s Way,” somehow triggers an outpouring of recollection and aesthetic bliss.
Proust was so good at gathering and transforming arbitrary experience that he turned it into one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. In doing so, he provided a model for the rest of us. We are all, today, Proustians when we go to museums.
But Adorno plays Proust’s approach off against Valery’s. Where, in Adorno’s essay, Proust is the amateur enthusiast, the happy harvester of experience, the dilettante who delights in the cacophony of competing visions in great museums, Valery is the unhappy elitist. Where Proust celebrates subjectivity, Valery cherishes the aloof and objective quality of great art.
A poet himself, Valery believed that paintings and sculptures, like poems, had their own mysterious autonomy, which could only ever be corrupted by the chaos of the museum. “The more beautiful a picture is,” wrote Adorno, paraphrasing Valery, “the more it is distinct from all the others. This picture, one sometimes says, kills the ones around it.”
So for Valery, the museum is not just a mausoleum; it is a kind of killing field, an abattoir. It sounds like, and is, an extreme position.
But consider it from the artist’s point of view.
Ask successful artists about art fairs, for instance, and they describe them as meat markets. They see their works hanging there with price tags attached, resembling dismembered carcasses on hooks. The vulgarity of it all appalls them. But do these commercial fairs treat works of art so very differently from museums?
Artists might tell you that the difference is only one of degree. Museums entrust artworks to curators, who usually hang them in the company of works that happen to have been made in the same era, or in the same medium, but which in many cases violently collide with the spirit of their own work. Conservators, meanwhile, routinely over-clean them, put clumsy frames on them, and light them inappropriately.
All that is a best-case scenario. Assuming a work is even pulled out of storage, where about 95 percent of many great museums’ works are consigned, it often is conscripted into illustrating some far-fetched theme, an idea so discordant with the work’s original raison d'etre that it all but negates it.
I exaggerate, but only slightly. Museums can be very unfriendly to art. That is part of why Valery opposes them so strenuously. But his stance is also a radical version of the much-discredited 19th-century idea of “art for art’s sake.”
Art for art’s sake — a slogan, and stupid to the extent that all slogans are stupid — is characterized today as a naive attempt to pretend art existed in isolation from society. But it actually arose as an expression of resistance to spiritual control — and in particular, to the control exercised by churches, governments, and political movements, which in the 19th century permeated the creation and reception of art at every level.
Art for art’s sake developed, in other words, as a way of protecting not just art but our inner lives from instrumentalism. At its core was the conviction that, as Adorno puts it, “Only what exists for its own sake, without regard for those it is supposed to please, can fulfill its human end.”
None of this equates to saying that art has no purpose. Instead, espousing the ideal of art for art’s sake is a way of insisting that it is better not to strain too hard to define that purpose. The ideal honors and trusts our ability to find those purposes for ourselves.
This is more important — and more political — than it sounds. Where every attempt throughout history to “safeguard” our spiritual lives has ended in control and domination, art, when it has dared to remain aloof from instrumentalism, has protected our right to let our imaginations run free, to let our souls bask in beauty, to express our need to laugh and be perverse, or to meet horror with horror, or hatred with love, without having to check this against someone else’s idea of what we should think and feel.
Where does this leave us when it comes to museums?
As they fight to stay “relevant” — to attract new audiences and new philanthropy — many museums find themselves following models of growth familiar from the corporate sphere. They seek to become all things to all people, or as many things as possible to the greatest possible number. Not content with being “secular cathedrals,” as many have dubbed them, they operate also as day care centers, afterschool programs, classrooms, and artists’ studios — not to mention shopping malls, cafes, and restaurants.
There is nothing inherently wrong with any of this. In this day and age, museums really have no choice but to incline toward Proust’s view, even to the point of thinking of themselves as places to gather and gossip and shop and learn and flirt and smell one another’s perfume.
But they should also, at the very least, keep Valery’s position in mind. What he feared was the increasing superficiality of the museum. He lamented the museum’s tendency to transform art into “a matter of education and information,” whereby “Venus becomes a document” and “education defeats art.”
Too often today, in pursuit of their mission to “engage audiences,” museums alight all too cheerfully on new ways of exercising control over the inner lives of museumgoers.
As they compete for our attention, they need to refrain, I believe, from holding our hands at every turn, muttering incessantly in our ears, drowning out whatever the work itself has to say. They should offer people many points of access, but in trying to keep up with the times, they should not force the babble and cant of the present into experiences that were otherwise wide-open and inviolate.
Great art is powerful. You can say it is empowering, and indeed it can be. But it can also be destabilizing, alarming, confronting, confusing — just like life. It should be offered for contemplation as an end in itself.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.