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#museumpractices: The Museum on My Mind, Part I

#Hashtags provides a platform for longer reconsiderations of artworks and art practices outside of the review format and in new contexts. Today #Hashtags kicks off a new series on the institution of the museum, by writer Rob Marks. Stay tuned for Part II, and please send queries and/or ideas for future columns to hashtags@dailyserving.com.

Part I: If the Walls Would Not Speak

The museum is the kindest parent, ushering me to the brink, toward moments of wonder and awe, insight and revelation. But almost at once, it is the cruelest parent, jerking me back, repossessing the very experience it had allowed me to glimpse. Although it is laudable for museums to exalt the goal of “activating” the visitor, of nurturing visitor engagement and visitor choice, the structure of museums turns the visit into a battle for control and unearths a central tension of museum practice. On the one hand is the archeological experience of a cultural object, which claims the object as an illustration within a narrative to tell the visitor something about the context of the object, its meaning for others; on the other hand is the aesthetic experience of an art object, during which the object escapes its historical–cultural context, illustrating nothing except the visitor and telling the visitor something about the self.

It is an old tension, and it would be unreasonable to expect that it might have been resolved by now. It is, simply put, not for resolving. This vigorous state of irresolution, however, has not been matched by an equally unsettled set of museum practices. Although much has been written about exhibition commentary and structure, and new technology has inspired new formats of presenting information, museum methods have remained remarkably fixed in their philosophy: to marshal language toward interpretation. This article is the first in a series of essays, a polemic, a tribute, a sensation: a quest to enter into this churning tranquility. I am not a curator, nor am I a museum director faced with the demands of a dozen constituencies. I am simply a traveler, a visitor, a child of the museum who is beginning to feel cheated out his inheritance, out of the wonder that is—or should be—the legacy of the museum.

John Cage, Déreau 22, 1982; one in a series of 38 engravings with drypoint, aquatint, and photoetching; 14 x 18 inches; published by Crown Point Press, San Francisco. Courtesy of Crown Point Press. Dereau and all the other works in this article were on display during John Cage, a retrospective exhibit at Crown Point Press, which ran from February 3 through March 31, 2012 in honor of the 100th anniversary of Cage’s birth.

With or Without

“We can get along with education, or without it,” the pioneering composer and artist John Cage said nine months before he died in August 1992. Cage was responding to poet and scholar Joan Retallack’s question, “Knowing the extent to which [your work] is a result of chance operations teaches me something about seeing, and about the radical contingency of events in our world. . . . But how would one notice any of this . . . if one knew nothing about how and why you have worked the way you do?”[1] Retallack means how would one know that Cage applied the system of “chance operations” for which he was famous, as a tool to marshal “indeterminacy,” to put “the intention of the mind . . . out of operation”[2] during his creative process? How would one know that the composition of both his musical works and the prints he produced at San Francisco’s Crown Point Press over the last 15 years of his life, by reflecting this “radical contingency,” reveal something about the nature of world? Retallack said of Cage’s Where R=Ryoanji print series (1991):

“I was seeing them as I was trained to see “abstract” drawings, looking for elements of balance and design. Then I remembered that they were tracings of chance comings together. . . . At that moment of remembering, or realization, everything changed. I was no longer seeing “design”—something heavy and portentous; I was seeing the lightness, the grace and fragility of chance—how wonderful that that had come together in that way. But also how close it was to not happening at all. I would not have had this experience without knowing how you work. It was the conceptual context, that I took on, that opened up that way of seeing. And it seems to me that it is that context, of knowing the chance procedures, that keeps those traces from solidifying. . . . Keeps them from losing the motion that’s in them as events that have just grazed this piece of paper. It’s as though at any moment they could glance off again, fly apart.”[3]

John Cage, Where R=Ryoanji: (R3), 1983; drypoint; 7 x 21 inches; published by Crown Point Press, San Francisco. Courtesy of Crown Point Press. This is not the image to which Retallack refers when she says “I was seeing the lightness, the grace and fragility of chance,” but it is an image from the same series. According to Crown Point Press founder Kathan Brown, Cage “would start by asking as many questions as he could think of about the circumstances of the work,” for example, questions about number of objects, colors, types of line, methods.

In a museum dominated by narrative, “knowing” is often framed as the province of language. For Retallack, and indeed for most museum curators and educators, the context of an exhibit—the recitation that places the work and the artist within the art historical, sociopolitical, psychobiographical and other frameworks—is crucial to the visitor’s experience of the work. The structure of this recitation is not merely the “talk”—the wall plaques and labels that ornament the artworks, the audio guides and brochures that narrate the exhibit, the docent tours that explore it—but also the “walk”—the sequencing that governs the procession, as if on a conveyor belt, from one label—and its artwork—to another, one gallery in order to the next. On the 100th anniversary of Cage’s birthday—September 5, 1912—it makes sense to ask why this tendency is so prevalent and what structures allow it to manifest as such a jekyllhydian parent.

Despite the fact that Retallack is right—Cage’s work does resonate differently when I understand his process—“knowing” also disrupts my engagement. An artwork without label would seem to be if not mute, then at least reticent, but to what extent does the commentary of a label or a wall plaque arrest experience before it has a chance to develop? Just as the silence of Cage’s piano during his iconic composition 4’33” (1952)—nary a note is played—reveals the ambient sound of the world as music, the silence of the absent label—which seems to be an emptiness—reveals the sound of an artwork that words might obscure.

John Cage, Eninka 28, 1986; one in a series of 50 smoked and branded prints on gampi paper chine colle; 25 x 19 inches; published by Crown Point Press, San Francisco. Courtesy of Crown Point Press.

A Label By Any Other Name . . .

If Cage demurs to Retallack, “We can get along with education, or without it,” his formulation of “tourist attitude” suggests where his heart lies: “without it.” He’d prefer to be without either the talk of a guidebook or the walk of a map. Cage defines “tourist attitude” as the proposition to “act as though you’ve never been there before. So that you’re not supposed to know anything about it.”[4] Even if you do know something, Cage says, things will be different from what you’ve read, or even from your past experiences of the artwork, because the conditions of viewing, and being, are different now from what they were then. For Cage, then, wall text, and even the sequencing of an exhibit, seems to be too much information. This is less an offense—since, he says, it “will do”—than a lost opportunity to engage what gets scuttled in the frenzy of activity: the serendipity of wandering and, in response to unforeseen encounters, wondering. In fact, Cage, never settling for the predictability that wall text and sequence enforce, curated two exhibits that used chance operations to identify, place, and frequently rotate works during each exhibit’s run.[5]

Jonathan Franzen offers perhaps the most graceful counterargument to Cage’s tourist attitude. Writing about Edith Wharton’s capacity to evoke compassion for the most unsympathetic characters, characters “we wouldn’t like in real life,” he observes: “[T]he alchemical agent by which fiction transmutes my secret envy or dislike of ‘bad’ people into sympathy is desire.” Once an author gives a character a “powerful desire,” Franzen suggests, “I, as a reader, become helpless not to make that desire my own.”[6]

John Cage, Global Village 1, 1989; aquatint on two sheets of brown smoked paper; 38-1/2 x 26-1/2 inches; published by Crown Point Press, San Francisco. Courtesy of Crown Point Press.

Could it be that wall commentary, often far less compelling than a Wharton novel, nonetheless narrates that particular characteristic within the life of a particular artist that might make that artist’s intention palpable enough that I, the visitor, might magically embrace the artist’s desire as my own? I root for the artist, even if, as Franzen says of many a Wharton heroine, the character of his or her work might otherwise baffle or alarm me. It’s not that I relinquish my judgment but that I suspend it, at least for long enough to view the work through the artist’s—or, at least, the curator’s evocation of the artist’s—loving eyes.

Or is the power of some artwork so embedded in history or theory that, unaided by commentary, the visitor might overlook the works because they seem meaningless or intimidating? For architectural and art historian Laura Hollengreen, commentary is not a supplement to (or an enrichment of) the experience, as Retallack seems to suggest, but a crucial component of it.[7] Commentary, for Hollengreen, frontloads meaning—symbolism in Dutch art or indeterminacy in John Cage’s work—and builds confidence in order to seed an experience that might otherwise fail to develop.

John Cage, 75 Stones, 1989; Color spit bite aquatint with sugar lift aquatint on smoked paper; 54 x 41 inches; published by Crown Point Press, San Francisco. Courtesy of Crown Point Press.

Does Franzen’s seduction or Hollengreen’s education suspend or produce the very agency that many museums say they are seeking to activate in me? Once again, I find myself with an ambivalent parent, on the one hand encouraging me toward a Cagean tour of the world, and, on the other, seeking to shelter me from danger—the danger of misunderstanding the work or condemning the artist—by ensuring that I never stray far from home.

Narrative of Self; Narrative of Other

For a given curator, the process of exhibition making may be a joyful sharing, a labor of intimacy with, if not love, of the material. As curator and critic Simon Sheikh recounts, however, the museum’s historical roots gather nourishment from the language not only of “cultivation,” but also “corrective vision.” Sheikh says, “the right way of seeing . . . was offered as narrative pleasure, giving the spectator access to the viewpoints of power—indeed, empowering them by infusing them with knowledge while situating them within the grand narrative of the nation state and Western civilization,” an enterprise that continues “through to today’s multi-facetted and mediated art institutions with their confluence of spectacle and education, national history and multicultural internationalism.”[8]

John Cage, Without Horizon 33, 1992; one in a series of 57 unique aquatints with etching and drypoint on smoked paper, 7-1/2 x 8-1/2 inches; published by Crown Point Press, San Francisco. Courtesy of Crown Point Press.

Curator and artist Paul O’Neill refers to exhibitions, particularly group exhibitions, simply as “ideological texts.”[9] There is nothing wrong with thinking of an exhibition as an art historical, sociocultural, or political essay, in which the artworks function as illustrations of the essay’s theme. But then the exhibition is not about the visitor’s relationship to the artworks; it is about his or her relationship to the theme and its underlying objectives. At one point in their conversation, Cage and Retallack parse the difference between an “illustration” and an “accompaniment,” a distinction that applies equally to the book they were talking about and to an exhibition. “[I]llustration means that the center exists in another place,” Cage says. “So an illustration is not at the center, but is about the center. Whereas with accompaniment, each one is at its own center.”[10] Is the commentary of the label illustrating the artwork, the ostensible center of the exhibition? Or is the artwork illustrating the commentary, and is the center of the exhibition really the story that the curator seeks to narrate? Which lands us back at the (false) dichotomy of the aesthetic versus the archeological.

Cage allows for one other possibility: the two—artwork and narrative—may accompany one another, each maintaining its own centrality. Many museum experiences may, in fact, unfold this way, if only accidentally. If it is wise for museums to ensure “multiple interpretive voices”—the juxtaposition of narratives so that they undo their own narrative making—what might an exhibition do or be to sustain the aesthetic—the narrative of self—as central, along with the archeological—the narrative of other? Stay tuned.

John Cage, HV2 25B, 1992; one in a series of 25 aquatints; 12 x 14 inches; published by Crown Point Press, San Francisco. Courtesy of Crown Point Press.


[1]Joan Retallack, ed. Musicage: Cage Muses on Words Art Music. (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press and University Press of New England, 1996), 130-31. Musicage is a monumental work of reportage, a transcription of ten days of conversation between Cage and Retallack that occurred over two years. It shows both conversants to be effective interpreters of Cage’s work and philosophy.

[2]Retallack, 127.

[3]Retallack, 132.

[4]Retallack, 129-130.

[5]Changing Installation at Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory (with works from the Carnegie Museum of Art), and Rolywholyover : A Circus, which traveled from Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art to four other cities [Houston, New York, Philadelphia, and Tokyo].

[6]Jonathan Franzen, “A Rooting Interest,” New Yorker, February 13 & 20, 2012, 60.

[7]Laura Hollengreen, “Space, Seam, Scenario: The Many Operations of the Museum Label,” Presentation at “‘Your Labels Make Me Feel Stupid’: Museum Labels as Art-Historical Practice” panel at the College Art Association 100th Annual Conference, Los Angeles, February 22-25, 2012.

[8]8. Simon Sheikh, “Letter to Jane (Investigation of a Function),” in Paul O’Neill and Mick Wilson, eds. Curating and the Educational Turn (London: Open Editions/de Appel, 2010), 65.

[9]Paul O’Neill, “The Curatorial Turn: From Practice to Discourse,” in Judith Rugg and Michelle Sedgwick, eds. Issues in Curating Contemporary Art and Performance (Chicago: Intellect Books, 2007), 14.

[10]Retallack, 150.

Rob Marks writes about the nature of the aesthetic experience and the effect of the aesthetic experience on self and society. He received master’s degrees in journalism from UC Berkeley and in visual and critical studies from the California College of Art, and is the Publications and Training Manager for the Alliance Health Project of the University of California, San Francisco.

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