Essay in the book On Understanding Art Museums. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1975. First printed for the forty-sixth American Assembly, October, 1974.
The Nature and Function of Art, Artists, and Museums
A work of art is a coherent physical entity put before a special apperception called taste. An object becomes art when it is declared and accepted as art and exposed for apprehension of its properties instead of its usefulness in relation to other things. Certain types of objects fall naturally into the class because a culture recognizes them as art; thus we have painting and sculpture. And there are types of objects which evolve from usefulness into art, or become seen and then exercised as art, such as photography and film, or utilitarian objects allowed as art, such as some furniture and some artifacts of primitive cultures. Of course, it is possible for an object to fall away from art; a sculpture used as a doorstop is a doorstop. But taste, though finally harsh, is initially accommodating. Anything can come before it. In our culture more and more does, including much that is artistically trivial. This challenges taste and helps preserve things which might be lost to taste in the future.
Aesthetic judgment is like practical judgment in one way and quite unlike it in another. Practical judgment values an object in proportion to its usefulness in some phase of life, and can estimate that value from the attributes of the object. Aesthetic apprehension includes judgment as it searches for greater aesthetic pleasure. The pleasure, and the value it has, is the "usefulness" judged. No specifiable attribute can induce this pleasure or bring this value. Only aesthetic attendance can; the experience renders judgment and judgment renders the experience. Aesthetic pleasure is all, and only, experience. It is estranged from words and divorced from effect. It is intense, swift, lively, unpredictable, unalloyed, indescribable and real, and it has value. I cannot afford proof of this value in words because it does not rest on principles. It is not easily had, but once in hand it comes across as a fine joy, without rancor or expense, without the subtle vengeance of common sensuality.
Of course there is also the measure of history, the importance our culture gives objects which are useless except as vehicles of something felt but indefinable. If art lacks high human value, then we have been persistent fools, and art is a systematic delusion, a hollow monument. Many of us know this is not true, because we can consult our feelings and report them. We can say art holds something for us nothing else can. But there are those for whom art remains opaque, foreign, phony, the passion of the privileged few. In one way they are right. Art is for a privileged few, but those few have earned their privilege and deny it to no one. Those of us who make art our life are not the keepers of the jewels or the guardians of the shrine. We are here to preserve the highest standards and make them available in the face of criticism and misunderstanding. Lowering these standards is a disservice to art, to ourselves, and to everyone. We must maintain them to give to those who can appreciate, and offer to those who cannot or will not. We know that art has the functional permanence of a natural organism, and the same physical fragility. Great art does not compromise. As Oscar Wilde said, "Art should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself artistic."
A fine work of art is a species of invention, and all profound invention is individual. It comes up from a deep and solitary well. Feelings and ideas are not shared until they are expressed; profound feelings, fresh ideas, if commonly found, would not be profound or fresh. Genius is genius by its rarity. Today the older working forms of art-making have eroded in favor of conception or innovation; coming to inspiration, to the full use of genius, is a long process, demanding persistence and patience made more poignant by the loneliness of the trade. The serious artist, ambitious for his art, is prepared by nature and driven by vocation to consult and trust only his own feelings, and to be skeptical of intrusion. He is a self-contained manufacturing unit who will only alter his product from internal need, who expects to endure rejection of that product after it is made, and suspects, even despises, the various "systems" - particularly gallery and museum - which bring his product to the public. These traits, in turn, have fostered the unfortunate dogma of the artist-as-exile: if you're honest you're poor, if you are rich and famous you've sold out. To the artist material success is a hypocrite's nightmare, even if well-deserved and slow in coming. He feels obliged to conform to the stereotypes of present-day bohemia. And now the attitude is celebrated by art purposely designed not to enter the "system," as if aping the outworn neuroses of the art world will yield the depth of past art.
But this wave of romantic hysteria is a last flurry, a dying gasp. Art is coming back into our life as central and important. Improved industrial and social conditions satisfy our needs and move further from our interest, just as religion did when the real harshness of life was alleviated. Art will surpass technology. It is not stationary; it grows and is improved by cultivation. It gives the ultimate pleasure and the most efficient one. And as it moves to the center of our culture, artists and museums must pave the way.
Museums have grown and changed since World War II. Life is getting better and easier, and people turn to the arts for self-fulfillment. Public interest and interest in the public take an ever increasing share of the art museums' time. Ironically, museums are threatened as much as helped by their new popularity. Their willingness to accommodate the public fuels further demands and requests. The special exhibit, improved exhibition techniques, increased education facilities, and travelling shows are at once the glory and despair of the art museum. Private funding, once their life blood, is no longer equal to the task. The earnest scramble for public money has begun, and with it bureaucracy spreads its paralyzing roots, for example through the accreditation procedures of the Association of American Museums.
Museums must defend what they are, not try to be what they are not. The museum is like the artist in some ways: isolated by devotion to high standards, dependent on its own conscience, suspicious of intrusion from the outside, and awkward in its own defense. But it is also a public body. An artist may be expected to be a buffoon, which is unfortunate but need not interfere with his work. But the museum is expected to be all things to all people. It cannot be. The purpose of the art museum is to bring the best art to the public in the most efficient manner - and by that I do not necessarily mean the most economical. Everything must be measured against this principle. Just as the artist must put away the false image of the lonely bohemian, so the museum must learn the lessons of survival and the perils of popularity. It must not be done at the expense of integrity, real integrity, integrity of high standards, of freedom, and conscience working together.
The Artist and the Museum
I have some personal experience in museum work, and I am sympathetic with museum problems. But I see the art museum from the outside, as an artist, and it is the viewpoint that I must propound. What follows is neither comprehensive nor balanced. The subject is general because there is no such thing as "the artist" or "the museum." Therefore instances of types of activity, problems, and suggestions will not be true or applicable in all cases.
THE ART MUSEUM AND RECENT ART - WORKING ATTITUDES
Museums, and the collections which preceded them, preserved objects which had outlasted or had been taken out of the environment in which they had a place. The attitude that a museum object was both old and exotic was institutionalized in internal structure, a system of separate but equal departments, each having as its curatorial concern a specific "field" within which were a number of objects of a type. The "field" is fairly stable; change is in terms of scholarship and discovery, which creates a slowly growing body of knowledge, like an enormous midden which curators can crawl about, magnifying glass in hand.
The notion of quality, therefore, is sometimes non-aesthetic. An ancient sculpture can have "importance" that is more exemplary than artistic, more to do with qualities than quality. A good curator can tell us when and where the piece was made, but he may be less sure if it is as good, as art, as a piece from the same culture a hundred years earlier. New art brings forth objects for which there is no sign of "importance." Connoisseurship comes in slowly, like wine-tasting after fermentation. Museums know that in the great body of new art are some works which are good enough to merit their attention, but they have no guidelines, no way to separate the good from the bad. All too often museums substitute policy for connoisseurship. These are a few:
WAIT AND SEE
The museum waits for things to shake out before buying or showing new art, seeking safety in passivity. But a passive stance is not workable. The following examples are composites of real situations.
1. A large art museum is negotiating to buy a piece of sculpture from a private collector. The sculpture was made nine years before, and the collector bought it then for $5,000. The present value and asking price is $85,000. The curator of contemporary art tried several times to get this purchase through the acquisitions committee but was turned down. Now they have decided to buy it because it appears to be an "important step" in the history of modern sculpture.
What has happened? The museum has failed to serve the public efficiently and well. The sculpture has been withheld from public view for nine years. Now it will cost the museum more money, money that could have been used for other purchases, and the museum has lost the accrued value.
2. A museum buys at auction a painting by the "outstanding" member of a certain school of modern painting, a type of art the museum at first had rightly disregarded as not very good. Then the price was low, but now, at auction, it brings $130,000. Unaccountably, the artist's work has risen sharply in value. Critical opinion, almost without dissent, regards the artist as a modern master. The museum is "forced" to reverse its judgment.
Again, the museum has failed the public. It has wasted money and betrayed its own good judgment. It has been led by the market, by galleries and collectors, by failed critics. In all periods, certain types of new art are driven into an oversold condition. This naturally happens at the point of greatest critical acclaim, which naturally is the point of greatest desirability. This persists for a while and then settles out, eroded by the wisdom of time. The museum has a bad investment and a mediocre work of art, which will be hung alongside, and as equal to, much finer works. Connoisseurship has failed, but the public does not know it.
3. The museum has a very conservative policy of exhibition and acquisition. It is the only art museum in a fairly large metropolitan area. Its big show of the year is a retrospective of a great French Impressionist, which gets rave reviews. There are no shows of recent art; there had been a loan show of early Abstract Expressionist paintings a few years before, but nothing similar since. There is no juried show of local artists. Museum policy reflects the attitude that exhibiting "unproved" art sanctifies it, and that the museum should properly avoid anything that smacks of the marketplace.
The result? The museum's "conservative" policy fails the public. "Showboat" exhibits like that of the Impressionists are loved by all but gain no ground. New art will be old, expensive art when it is finally bought. The interested public must go to the few galleries in the city or read art magazines to see the rich ferment of new art. Local artists have no way to get first-hand impressions of new art, or the art of a generation past, and nowhere to show, so they move to New York. The museum maintains high standards, but at what expense! Rather than exercise their taste they abandon it, and excuse themselves with righteous non-reasons, such as "influencing the market," which is not their business. And they lose the most vital part of their constituency.
A wait-and-see policy is a bad policy.
AVANTE-GARDISM: CELEBRATE THE NEW; BUY ACROSS THE BOARD
Each period of modern art has had its easy answer, and that answer is usually framed in terms of accessibility. In the late nineteenth century it was the Beauty of the Classics, in the early twentieth it was the sensuousness of latter-day Impressionism. Ours is the "tough" pose of newness, following the Dada strain of the late teens and twenties of this century. These attitudes imply that quality can be identified with a particular material or process. Such attitudes have come to be called academic.
The history of modern art, for about the last hundred years, shows that art which has lasted came in company with formal innovation, that at the root of quality was newness. When the depiction of real objects in an illusion of real space was swept away by abstraction, the artist had to start from scratch, to invent his own pictorial structure. Contemporary inspiration is conception, invention. This spirit, with the historical "guarantee" that quality comes with newness, plus the ubiquitous yearning for the shortcut, equals avant-gardism: deliberate newness for its own sake.
Ironically, avant-gardism is thoroughly academic, like all other easy answers in art. The credo is negative: turn away from "out-moded" forms, not only from the traditional forms and materials of art-making but also from the assumption that art has human value, and that some art has more than other art. Duchamp's impulse to undermine high art by mocking it has spread and calcified, as these things will. And it has allied with a spurious democratism which condemns value distinction. This puts the art museum on the defensive, because its very task is discrimination. It must defend its traditional function or go along with avant-gardism, as either part or all of its exhibition and acquisition program.
However, there is a way to accommodate avant-gardism, and other "isms," without compromising the integrity of the museum. Because of the many types of art now being made, the museum can have a continuing series of small shows which would purposely reflect current trends. Each could have a small monograph about the characteristics of the art and its dynamic place in current art-making, not as defense or apology, but as description. Taste and judgment would be put aside in favor of simple reporting, and that would be made plain. Such shows would be a service to the art public, the artist, and the art historian, all of whom would be encouraged to "taste and compare," and decide what they like. The museum would, in effect, say "this is what is going on. What do you think of it?"
Or the shows could be homogeneous, putting different kinds of new art together, perhaps on a rotating basis, or putting new art up against older art. This would give up the scholarship employed defining the unifying characteristics of a style, but it would afford comparison, which is at the root of connoisseurship.
Shows of this kind would have an added dividend: they would take pressure off. Off the public, encouraged to criticize, weigh and choose, not look in awe. And off the museum, which need not agonize over what may enter its sacred precinct. There may be complications and difficulties. Good curators are ambitious and may not like spending time and money on shows which will not bring them before the public eye. And no matter how relaxed the selection process, artists and their agents will carry on about "who got in" and "who was left out." The Whitney Annuals were always very interesting to me as an artist, and very influential. But they seem to have crumbled from a combination of curatorial incompetence and the inevitable critical outcry when each Annual was not a heaven-sent end-all spectacular, instead of the middle-level buffet they were and should have been. I think every museum with sufficient resources should have a continuous "Whitney Annual." In this way all current styles could be brought into the museum and shown to the public without promotion or favoritism, without compromise, without commitment of the "authority" of the art museum.
Showing everything can be a public service, but buying everything cannot. There is a theory that buying large quantities of new art when it is cheap will catch a few big fish for little money. This is wasteful, inefficient, and as much a violation of the public trust as the opposed attitude of wait-and-see conservatism.
1. The method assumes that bad art will be bought. The rationalization is that a "study" collection will be built for scholars of the future. I am very much in favor of showing bad art, and minor art, under certain conditions. I think art schools should give courses on bad art. But an art museum is not a museum of the history of style. Public money should not be wasted buying, keeping, and exhibiting inferior art. Even bad art tends to last, physically. It can make its way outside the museum.
2. At best, it is an inefficient way to collect. Of course it is wise to buy good art before it goes up in value. But most of the art made at any particular time is inferior, so the proportion of bad art bought this way will be very high. Bad art is only bought cheap if the museum has an active policy of selling when they realize, ahead of the market, that certain work is inferior. But few museums have this policy. And if they buy indiscriminately, they will sell the same way.
3. The method will not get the best of an artist's work. If careful and wise selection is not the general procedure, it will not be the specific procedure.
4. Any experienced collector, of art or anything else, knows that it is better to get the top item rather than several lesser items for the same amount. The masterpiece has greater human value than any number of lesser works and its market value rises at a steeper rate. The money used to buy inferior art should be applied to good art, even if more expensive.
Buying across the board, picking up anything that is new, is not good policy.
THE ART MUSEUM AND RECENT ART - THE ONLY SOLUTION
There is no easy way to do well the buying and showing new art. In art-making, in museum work, in any human activity, success comes through competence. There is no substitute for quality in art and there is no substitute for a good curator and director. Substituting policy for competence will institutionalize failure. Just because good curators and directors are hard to find is no reason not to look.
It has been my experience that failure at the curatorial level goes back to the director and board. They look for the wrong characteristics in a curator of contemporary art. There is a fear of extremes, even the extreme of quality. This is understandable; a good eye, foresight, and imagination in new art brings down criticism, often savage and irrational. I have seen this many times. Trustees are successful, conservative persons of high standing in their community. They do not like controversy. So museum policy must create conditions favorable to enlightened showing and acquisition of new art. I have the following suggestions.
1. The curator of new art should be picked by one person, not a committee or any other kind of group, and not necessarily by the director. The selector should be a person with a known record of good judgment about people, and he should be sympathetic to new art. He must recognize genuine, uncomplicated ambition and the ability to see art well, which are the basic qualities this curator must have.
2. The department of recent art should not be set up like other departments in the museum. The curator should be given a budget and a period of time to do exactly as he pleases. Exhibitions and acquisitions would be his responsibility and he would be held accountable for them. There should be no acquisitions committee for new art.
3. Kant wrote ". . . seek the testimony of the few; and number not voices, but weigh them." There are persons who have a record of seeing the quality of good new art before others. They should be asked to sit on an advisory committee for new art used entirely at the discretion of the curator. They should be chosen solely for their proved ability to spot quality, even if they have conflicting interests. The curator must sort out the information and make his own judgment about the self-interest of any member of the committee.
4. A study could be made of those in the museum business who seem to have been consistently "right" over the years; and an analysis could be made of the dynamics of their talent. A number of persons come to mind, not always in connection with new art. For example, the director of a small museum with limited funds who buys superlative examples of "out of fashion" art at depressed prices. We all know that a great Pollock could be had in the early 1950s for $6,000, but we have forgotten that a pretty good Monet did not bring much more. As far as I know, no systematic study has been made of the cycling ratio of quality to cost, and of the persons who have done well and badly in the market.
5. The ability to pick the best new art can become a recognized specialty to be nourished, like any other talent. Museum schools, for example, can have intense courses of comparative study of quality to train museum professionals. The course would be purely aesthetic and would assume thorough grounding in art history. Only real art would be used; no reproductions, no books. Such schools would be in large art-producing cities like New York, where plenty of good and bad art can be seen easily. Discussion, disagreement, and debate would be the order of the day. The thesis would not be written, but would consist of the judgment of a specific body of new art. The most concentrated art "education" I ever had was judging the "Davidson National Print and Drawing Competition," for which I had to select, in four days, some 170 works from 3,709 submitted. It was physically and emotionally grueling, but my taste was challenged, and altered, as never before in such a short time. I do not know how this experience could be brought into a museum school course, but it is worth trying. A school like this would quickly have an international reputation and be a great good for museums and the museum public.
THE ART MUSEUM AND THE ART COMMUNITY
As an artist, as a member of the art public, I have a natural interest in the art museum. Most of my suggestions are made in the interest of high standards and efficiency, which I take to be the two essentials of museum operation, and the means by which the museum can do the most for me. Museums usually aim for high standards, but these standards may be undermined by certain insidious attitudes within the art community and by the new popularity of museums. Efficiency, however, has never been the strong point of the art museum. There is wastefulness, duplication, and a high ratio of expense and effort to performance. I have seen this first hand, and I have seen the opposite: a museum severely handicapped but forced to produce, and forced to revert to very direct and basic methods. A museum is like a business with a product to sell and a public for that product. Their responsibility is to the whole public. Artists are a special part of that public, but only part. Any special compensation for artists must also directly help the museum. The museum is the highest agency for the artist's work and the artist is the art museum's basic resource. If the museum can stimulate and improve art-making in its community, all will benefit.
EXHIBITION AND THE ART COMMUNITY
Here are a few things museums can do.
1. Get the best new art out where it can be seen. This is important in the larger art-making centers of the country. Art is fed by art. That is why there are centers of art-making: Paris in the nineteenth century, New York now. To the evolving artist, the good artist, half of making art is seeing art, of judging, appraising, evaluating, ingesting, using. When I was learning my trade, in the late 1950s, nothing was more important than seeing art promiscuously and talking about it endlessly. The most important shows were mixed group shows in museums. I could not care less that the critics of the time had bad things to say about these shows; I was there, attending each picture in turn with the anxious hunger of an ambitious young painter. I looked for what the picture had for me, what I could take to add to my inventory of painted form. There is no sterner criticism. It would be hard to overestimate the value these shows had for us.
I only wish there had been much more. We had to turn to galleries and art magazines for varied fare. Even today in New York, the art-making capital of the world, there is no single permanent exhibit that really shows the incredible richness of American painting of the last thirty years. There are samplings, but they are so limited, so fragmentary! This is very unfortunate for artists. Galleries usually show recent art; museums have bought too cautiously; and most of the work of a previous generation is in estates, private collections, or the storage rooms of large galleries. Great recent artists are known to thousands of people through one or two pictures perpetually reproduced. We are driven back to books and magazines, to the "museum without walls." We are grateful for this resource, but it is not the real thing. The art is there. There must be some way for museums to show more of it, more regularly.
2. Homogenize permanent and special exhibits to encourage comparison judgment, seeing. Why must exhibits be arranged by who did it and when done? Provenance is not aesthetically important. If a museum has a good collection, "new" exhibits could be made just by judicious rearrangement. This could be done fairly easily. It would help both the artist, who would see in different juxtapositions, and the average museum goer, fatigued by repetition.
3. Have local open juried shows. This is important where there is much art-making and few galleries. If done right, it helps everyone. I have seen local shows dropped or not begun because the procedures were self-defeating or unlikely difficulties were anticipated. A study of such shows would bring to light the best techniques.
The "May Show" at The Cleveland Museum of Art is a well-planned, durable local show, 55 years old in 1974. That year, over 2,000 works of art were entered from thirteen counties in northeastern Ohio, a small enough area for the practical delivery of relatively large and fragile works of art. Three hundred and seventy works were accepted. Jurying is done by museum staff members; the catalog is the museum's May bulletin. Costs were about $3,000, most of it for part-time help and mailing. Many volunteers also help. Attendance is usually up about 50 percent during the period of the show. There is a lot of publicity. Sales usually are more than $30,000 and the museum gets 10 percent. Sales are increased by a well-attended "Patron's Preview"; you get an invitation if you bought a work from the show the previous year. The "May Show" stimulates interest in new art on the part of the public, artists, and the museum staff. businesses and government agencies buy more and more for offices, and museum special exhibitions of recent art influence artists in the area, affecting much of the work submitted to the show. It is obviously a good thing for everyone, and should be done by any museum with sufficient resources.
If a regional art museum fears that there is no talent in their area, I refer again to the "Davidson National Competition." The 3,709 entries came from everywhere; good art coming out of places I did not even know were inhabited. The great increase in communications in the last generation has helped produce a great increase of art-making. Apparently only a few of those artists have any hope of regular exhibition. It is a resource which should be tapped.
OLD PROBLEMS, NEW DEMANDS
Recently many demands have been made on museums by artists' groups. I find many of these demands unworkable and restrictive because they do not consider the nature of artists, museums, and the museum public. Though intended to help artists, their implementation could do the opposite.
The Art Workers' Coalition, a New York group, presented the Museum of Modern Art with a list of demands in 1969. It was a good codification of ideas in the air then as now. I have drawn from that list, adding from other sources, to make a general view of the kind of proposals which have come from artists' groups in regard to the relationship between artists and museums.
1. Museums should exhibit certain special kinds of work, the work of certain types of artists, and engage in certain activities, specifically:
A. Create separate sections of the museum, and exhibit programs or quotas for disadvantaged groups such as blacks, women, artists without galleries.
This would be against the first principle of museums, as stated above: to bring the public the best possible art in the most efficient way. Any quota corrodes that principle and is undemocratic. The museum's obligation is to an unrestricted public, not to any special group, and it must maintain its responsibility to its charge.
Furthermore, it will not work. Quota systems do not take account of human nature. Pride will out. The good minority artist, knowing that his or her work will stand up to the best, wants that work chosen for its quality. Whatever their sympathies, they will not want their work shown in a qualitatively indiscriminate manner.
Permanent exhibits on a quota basis would become aesthetic "slums," a prison to escape from. Anyone accepting inclusion of work knowing that the selection is influenced by factors apart from the work will be compromised. The public, knowing the selection process, will expect the work to be mediocre. The artist will be degraded, the museum will lower its standards, and the public will be cheated.
B. Create conditions for the exhibition of technologically complex work: hire staff technicians, buy equipment for special effects, go out of the museum to carry out complex environmental art for which the museum building is not suited.
Again: public service and efficiency. Painting and sculpture are "democratic" because relatively many works can be shown simply and cheaply, and the public is given a variety of choice. This is a fact, not a justification of the media. The museum must weigh its decision. Is the electronic or environmental work good enough or interesting enough to spend extra time and money; is the museum obliged to provide the artist with a "studio" and pay for his materials; and is there any public benefit from an environmental work which few people can see? It will be found that exhibition or creation of these works involves a high ratio of cost to performance. It also would discriminate against those who work in more easily handled media.
2. Artists should retain some rights to their work after it is sold.
A. An artist should have the right to refuse to allow his work to be put in any show he does not want it in, and he should collect a fee when a work is shown.
When a work is sold to a museum, the museum assumes ownership and legally has the right to do whatever it wants with the work, consistent with the terms of its charter. Any restriction on the use of the work will hinder the museum from discharging its public function efficiently. Restrictions of showing and the payment of fees would add to the burden of cost and paperwork and would diminish effectiveness. If museums made money, a "residual" right could be negotiated by the artist's agent. This would make sense, as it does in the television industry. It could happen. But presently it would benefit no one, not even the artist. Museums would be even more hesitant to buy and show.
B. Artists should get a percentage of subsequent sales.
This is an interesting idea, but it is fraught with technical problems, and really is not the museum's business unless it sells art. An artist might share in the profits yielded in subsequent sales. But then he should reimburse the seller if the work is sold at a loss. Given the intricacies of disclosure, mutual agreement on timing, and methods of sale, the paperwork and the inevitable quarreling, I see only the lawyers coming out ahead.
C. Museums should not sell the work of living artists.
Museums make mistakes. It is not in the public interest for a museum to keep and store a work of poor quality for its collection. It should be sold. It will be objected that such a sale can hurt the reputation of the artist, but the artist already has had the advantage of the sale to the museum, and the museum would probably handle the sale discreetly. The museum must put the public interest first.
D. Museums should inform artists of all legal rights they may retain in a purchased work: reproduction rights, copyrights, etc.
It is up to the artist to get this information, not the museum. Copyright law in fine arts is interesting and complex, and a clear statement of artist's rights and how they can be applied would be welcome. It would be a most interesting article in one of the art magazines. Again there is not much money involved, so the question is academic. But this may change.
WHAT ARTISTS CAN DO FOR THEMSELVES
Their position in the art world makes museums seem responsible for things outside their area of competence. They are seen as "local government." This they cannot be. In many ways artists and museums are natural antagonists who must work together, like labor and industry. Artists have a tough time and others make more money from their work than they do. But the museum cannot solve this. And no amount of complaining about the evils of the "system" will help. If artists are to improve their lot, they must take the classic path of social reform: organize. And organize sensibly, practically.
Artists' unions are springing up in many parts of the country, and some of them are refreshingly down-to-earth. The Boston Visual Artist's Union, organized in 1970, is a good example. It is really a guild, rather than a union, because it is organized for the natural benefits which accrue to a group rather than to make demands on another sector. The membership - artists and craftsmen from all over New England -is more than 1,000 and growing rapidly. Their newsletter has a circulation of about 1,500. They obtained a very fine rent-free gallery and office space in downtown Boston where they have shows, meetings, panel discussions, and other activities. Practical things count most: discounts on art supplies, health insurance, a lawyer to advise artists, a committee to influence legislation, a "job bank," a slide registry of members' work. There is a bit of "anti-system" rhetoric about the group, but they stress the everyday matters an organization can handle better than individuals. Given the nature of artists, as described above, this is quite an accomplishment. If this movement developed with the same spirit, we would have a national artists' union, vital and pragmatic, powerful enough, for example, to influence federal legislation, and a national arts lobby, including museums and all interested persons, a profound force for the public good. There are already too many smaller groups, fragmented and competitive. We need a national union to render one voice out of many.
ARTISTS AND MUSEUMS: INTERRELATIONSHIPS
Social change and changes in art since the late 1960s have given rise to the idea that the artist should engage directly in museum activity. Proposals to this effect have been articulated but the idea has never been thought out. The rationale seems to be that artists are affected by museums and therefore should have a say in what museums do and how they do it. This is liberal and sounds good and hangs out the picture of the poor disadvantaged artist versus the rich elitist museum. But a little thought brings up other viewpoints. For example, that an artist's participation in the museum would be a self-serving conflict of interest, like hiring a drug manufacturer to work for the food and drug administration.
The artist in the museum organization - our principle of standards and efficiency says that the artist, as such, has little to offer the museum by working within the museum organization. There is one exception, to be mentioned later.
The artist in museum administration - The psychology of the artist is not fitted to work well within an organization. Actually, I think it is too bad that so many of artistic temperament do work for museums. The art museum is the public agent for the arts, not an "artistic" organism. Those responsible for museums must be good organizers, tactful politicians, and shrewd fundraisers. They could learn from businessmen, lessons taken from the remorseless marketplace, where bad management is repaid by insolvency. The Harris report "Americans and the Arts" gives clear evidence that museums misjudge, misunderstand, and mishandle their huge constituency. It states, for example, that 93,000,000 Americans would be willing to add five dollars to their income tax if it went to support the arts. And museums are crying for money! We must organize, we must become more realistic. Hiring artists will not help.
The artist as trustee - I can think of three reasons to put an artist on the board: one, because he could give money or art or something else the museum wants; two, as a token gesture to the art community; and three, because he has a special feel for art which could be instructive to the rest of the board, guide them into an aesthetic viewpoint, which trustees usually lack, and help bring the board closer to the objects, and the spirit of the objects, which are the reasons for the museum's existence. But the first reason has little to do with the artist as an artist, the second is cynical and merely appeasing, and the third presupposes a person who would be valuable to the board, artist or not. The reason for taking on a trustee is that he will be a good trustee. Everything else is secondary.
The artist on an advisory committee for exhibition or acquisition - I know I put myself out on a limb when I say this: artists are notoriously bad critics. Art history is studded with examples. It is hard for an artist to be objective. This is understandable. Objectivity, balance, fairness - these are qualities which must be worked on and sustained, like physical condition. As I evolved my own painting over the years, I was attracted to and used many "ideas" I saw in other artists' work; much of that work was not first-rate, but that did not matter - it had something I liked. When I write about art I must force a distancing, another way of seeing. The best judges of art have been persons who love it, are sensitive to it, and are "once-removed": writers, collectors, dealers. Artists are too "deep into" art. And there are the natural jealousies and allegiances. And too, there Is the matter of conflict of interest. All in all, it is not a good idea.
The artist as explicator - It has been my experience that artists do have something special to give by teaching and by talking about art. This is more true of successful artists. They are not more articulate than others, but they have forced their feelings into materials, put their work out against the work of their colleagues, and can refer back to what they have learned. Not every artist will he a good teacher or lecturer, of course, but the chances are good. And the successful artist will have the initial respect of students and audiences.
Museums are not tied to that great anesthetic monster, the education establishment. They can set up art education as they please and hire whom they please. And they have real art right at hand. It is a wonderful, open opportunity. Here is the place for intelligent innovation. Young artists could be given rigorous training in their craft, which includes the dynamic understanding of art as well as how to stretch a canvas. Most art schools are either frozen academies or chaotic playgrounds. Museums could do it well, and artists could be a valuable part of this. I would like to see it happen.
THE ARTIST PARTICIPATING AND PERFORMING
Integration, democratization, teamwork, participation, availability - these catchwords are in the air. They sound good as long as they stay abstract, and if you have not lived long enough to see how transitory and unreal liberal intellectual group attitudes are. I recall the 1950s, the "silent generation," when we all agonized over conformity and Reisman's "other directedness," and cursed the magazines that promoted "togetherness." Now it is group rights, everybody-the-same, join the team, and down with difficulty and the lonely "elite." And so it goes.
The art world, which has its full share of mindlessness, goes right along. "Work for what you get" is not a thought for the times. Not only is art to be made available to everyone, as it should be, but translated, diluted, popularized, made easy. Museums, which have met popular demands for pleasure and enlightenment, are caught in the middle, "mausoleums" for "dead art" which must hasten to implement the "vital, living" art of the present, and, it is threatened, of the future. Artists now want to use the museum as a studio, a stage. They make art that moves, makes noise, can be played with, entered, or walked on, that uses video and film, that contains themselves and "breaks down the barriers" between the work and the observer. Questions of value (is it any good?) are shunted aside; distinctions are made in terms of innovation and availability, and are expressed in cliches.
Art museums, whose good intentions do not always coincide with good judgment, are trying to accommodate these works and these attitudes. The International Committee for Museums of Modern Art of ICOM (The International Council of Museums), meeting in Poland in September, 1972, drafted a set of proposals "to be submitted to the museum profession." They are wonderfully vague and painfully worded, and I repeat them here not for their specificity or literacy (that will be obvious) but because they are the first "official" expression of the artist-should-be-in-the-museum idea.
In view of the double orientation of modern art museums, on the one hand conservation and preservation of collections and on the other such forum characteristics as experimental and innovation activities, the promotion of information, as well as an exchange of views between the artist and public, it seems indicated that the simultaneous functioning of the two above named components within the framework of a single institution is highly desirable.
Accordingly, modern art museum personnel should make every effort to enlist the artist in a common partnership, because the artist alters the character of a modern art museum and its public role by enlarging and redefining art itself through his work and ideas.
The creative and animating presence of the artist is essential in a modern art museum. Through his work within the museum, which in this manner has become a studio and laboratory, the artist would be able to move from his present marginal position in society toward one of central and public significance. As for the public it would discover the seriousness of the artist's concern and would gain a deeper understanding of his thoughts and his art. The modern art museum as custodian of the artist's work and as interpreter of his ideas is obliged to consider his intentions as far as possible. At the same time the museum is bound to consider the work of art in its fundamental universal context. (ICOM, v. 25, no .3, 1972, p. 190.)
These proposals are not internally justified. When it comes down to why all this should be done, the text lapses into soft, reassuring indefiniteness: "It seems indicated" that it is "highly desirable," "enlarging art itself," "deeper understanding of . . . his art," and the last phrase above, which defies translation from English into English. Nowhere is it made clear what the museum and its public can expect to gain. The "seriousness of the artist's concern"? A lot of bad artists are very serious. If the "artist alters the character of the modern art museum," will we all come out better for it? If the "presence" of the artist was truly "creative and animating," this would be fine, but what if his personality is rotten and his art is no good? Many good artists are not very nice people. What if he gripes and complains and gets in the way, and makes himself generally insufferable? What if he does not stick to agreements and embarrasses the museum? Artists do things like that. The museum can go out and get a nice, clean cooperative artist. But that is no way to select art. And how many artists pile in the museum at once? You have got to have them all, if you are going to be fair and democratic. Will they all line up and talk at the public, like a mumbling, ragtag zoo? Will there be any public?
Then, as always, there is the question of quality. All current rhetoric notwithstanding, quality, the "goodness of good art," in Clement Greenberg's phrase, is the sole quarry of the museum. It has been my experience that informational and participatory art simply is not very good, and therefore not useful to the museum. There are physical reasons for this, but they are complex and I cannot develop them here. It is up to each art museum to decide what to do. But it must consider what it is gaining if traditional standards are relaxed in favor of vague ideals.
Quality speaks out in another way, from another direction. I have noticed, time and time again, how very interesting direct participation and the "studio" presence of the artist can be when strict standards of fine arts quality are not an issue. I think in particular of certain exhibits and demonstrations put on by the Museum of American Folk Art and the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York in which the aesthetic element is there but subordinate to other kinds of interest: tactility, craft, history, "how-to." Forcing minor art to he high art robs it of its interest, because the aesthetic approach is exclusive. It is all right to see interesting things about any art, and it is all right to enjoy the amusement park atmosphere of informational and participatory art. But it is not right for a museum of fine arts, whose policy is to collect, conserve, exhibit, and interpret contemporary fine art and to give us the special joy of fine art, to divert funds thus intended into the exhibit of minor art.
Museums are the victims of their own success and progress; the more they give the more is wanted. They also suffer because the newer multi-media types of art-making evolved within the gallery-museum context. The mutual antagonism between "newer" and "older" forms of art-making, between "formalists" and "antiformalists," has come about only because both were born and raised in the same household, and the newer forms have not found their natural arena. All forms of art-making can live peacefully together. Painters can paint, sculptors sculpt, conceptualists conceptualize, and earth artists pile their dirt. But the art museum cannot be a universal patron and must not try to be one. It can only do what it has been set up to do in the best way possible, and exclude what is outside its ken. Museums are not obliged to see that "avant-gardist" interdisciplinary forms of art are supported just because they exist. If the stuff is any good, it will find its audience and patronage, and, as is already happening, its museums. To each his own.
If the above remarks seem conservative, it is because I see the art museum as a conservative institution, literally conserving, protecting us from the loss or depletion of fine art, exposing it to us in the most prudent and effective way. Recently I was on a panel with Harold Rosenberg. He said that museums should not "mess around with art history," that with-it, up-to-date shows were interfering, "gambling" with art history. I would have trendy shows under certain conditions, as described above, but I agree with him. Museums are not here to participate in artistic innovation but to select and present the finest fruits of that innovation. Museums need the kind of innovation that will increase operational efficiency; innovation in exhibition, organization, fund raising, innovation for the museum itself and its constituency. The museum and the living artist, so poignantly interdependent, must keep a wary distance. This means strain and altercation, but that is the natural order of things, a check and balance. We are in the middle of a great creative period. Artists and museums are at the center, becoming more and more important to our civilization. Each has its function; each must defend and perform these functions fiercely, intelligently, and separately.
The author's bio read: "WALTER DARBY BANNARD lives and paints in Princeton, New Jersey. His one-man shows as well as group shows have been held widely in the United States and abroad since 1965, and his works are in public collections in more than a score of galleries and museums. The subject of many articles by art critics, Mr. Bannard himself writes and lectures extensively and is an editor of Artforum."