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Museums mediate not only artworks—through exhibiting them, with all that exhibition involves—but also Art itself. Buren describes the mystical role of a museum, which lifts works and artists to the status of Art; in doing so, the museum defines and reinforces the cultural understanding of what Art is (189). Putting certain pieces in the hallowed halls of a recognized institution defines them as Art, and in doing so defines everything not included in museums as not-Art. The museum, thus, is not only an interface to artworks but also to, as our prompt describes them, “the ideas, concepts, and values of the Art System.”
One of the values that seems to be most in flux is that of the museum as a place of respite or a place of engagement— should a museum take us away from everyday life, or, as Newark’s John Cotton Dana would insist, force us to contemplate it? Edward and Mary Alexander describe these two modes as the museum as a “temple” or as a “forum.” They write that the forum model now dominates, but McClellan seems to suggest otherwise, with vignettes spanning from outrage at the Metropolitan Museum’s “Harlem on My Mind” exhibit (53) to a surge in attendance at that same museum following 9/11 (59). He writes that “Politics compromise the quality of disengaged aesthetic contemplation that the public has come to value and that the museum’s sponsors are content to pay for” (61, emphasis added).
Yet isn’t being “apolitical” inherently a political choice? People of all backgrounds are certainly capable of enjoying the work of Vermeer or Pollack, but it takes a certain kind of privilege to say that it is inherently apolitical to show primarily works depicting white, upper-class men and women and/or created by a white male pool of artists—that is, the kind of works that still make up the vast majority of art in most museums.* Or to take a recent example, consider the two exhibitions that the National Gallery of Art recently cancelled after the artists involved were accused of sexual harassment by multiple women. Ignoring the allegations and exhibiting the work of the two men would have been “apolitical”; it would have kept Art separate from more worldly concerns. But it would have sent the message that women’s discomfort is less important than artistic achievement, which is itself a political statement.
Certainly some things are clear about the values and functions of the Art System. There is clarity from within the system: museums are meant to provide the public with access to Art and to educate both future artists and future art enthusiasts. There is clarity looking in at the system: Art is, in itself, defined by the Artworld; there is no inherent “Artness” that exists in some works but not others (Irvine). But the role of politics, or lack thereof, demonstrates that there are some values of the Art System that are less stable, for better or worse.
*Interestingly, the Harlem exhibit McClellan describes as being too political for its time was also protested, among many other reasons, for not being diverse enough—the exhibit included no art by Black photographers and no writing by Black art historians in the exhibit catalog.
Edward P. Alexander and Mary Alexander, Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums, Second Edition (Mountain Creek, CA; London, UK: Altamira Press, 2007).
Andrew McClellan, The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008.
Martin Irvine, “Introduction to the Institutional Theory of Art and the Artworld.”
Daniel Buren, “Function of the Museum.” In Theories of Contemporary Art, edited by Richard Hertz, 2nd ed., 189–92. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.