The art world is haunted by a crisis of values, or rather, one could say that its white cubes are stalked by a series of general crises – the climate crisis, the migration crisis, the religious crisis, to name but a few. Together they seem to indicate a systemic change in what is considered to be valuable in society. These crises may have originated at different times and in different places, but they are all colliding at the moment. The question for us here is how art museums should respond and what effect they have on policy and programming, at least as far as the Van Abbemuseum is concerned.
The values behind the first museums – the enlightenment, aesthetic judgement, artistic autonomy, secularism and the modernisation of society – have been undermined for a long time by the exclusions and divisions based on race, gender, geography and power. Nevertheless, these western norms have not fallen into complete decay, though they have not been effectively challenged either by powerful new values that have simply replaced them. Instead, art museums exist in the midst of a wider social crisis, and what should be a turning point leading to a different future has become a long-term condition, an unresolved crisis.
At the Van Abbemuseum we are trying to move on with the support of artists, curators, the museum’s users and local communities, as well as colleagues in the confederation L’Internationale. Finding a new balance today means addressing some of the basic assumptions on which a museum operates. It is not enough to take for granted a shared belief in the value of art, its inspirational potential or its educational benefits. These ideas must be reaffirmed in the context of the wider crisis of values, and in this process they must be amended, abandoned or completely reformulated. One such amendment is to recognise that what we call “modern art” is actually more than a century old and has become historical. Having a modern art collection like that of the Van Abbemuseum means showing art from the relatively distant past to a public whose social and cultural norms are no longer shared by the artists who made the works. Therefore the museum becomes a place where the social history of art is told in parallel with the presentation of the artworks for their own sake. We are trying out this approach in the exhibition The Collection Now, linking art to its own time and place, while at the same time allowing a work of art to transcend its historical context and transform the present. The fact that modern artworks age also means that the museum becomes a kind of space-time machine for our visitors and users, where different pasts are made accessible at the same time. Therefore in The Collection Now the museum tries to create a path that offers an insight into the art world in different modern and contemporary times, as well as into the artists’ understanding of the world then and now. These narratives are then balanced with the presence of the artwork itself, giving us the opportunity to compare past and present values and speculate about a different future. By telling parallel stories through different forms of information and meditation, an attempt is made to address the crisis of values.
This crisis has been both long and deep-rooted, although this has recently been closely related to the loss of faith in the concept of public and communal life over the past twenty-five years. Art performs at its best when it is shared and open to all – whether this is in a public museum, a temple, a village square or a city street. When it is hidden away in private, it loses its strength. Therefore it is vital for art museums to be open and inclusive places where hospitality is valued and where the importance of communal activity can be seen as something positive and worth supporting. As global culture increasingly reaches people all over the world, there is a danger of a natural counter-reaction that not only values what is local and authentic, but also starts to exclude developments in other places. This is one of the main reasons why we established the L’Internationale confederation where different institutions can share common values. In the Van Abbemuseum, we try to be a meeting place where Eindhoven can encounter international culture, and vice versa. We do this with temporary exhibitions such as the current Positionsseries that bring together individual artists from different places, independently of any curatorial narrative. The artists speak for themselves and from their own complex “positions”, which do not correspond with the imposed local, national, international and global patterns, but borrow from all of them, mixing them up in a way which is only possible for an individual or in the practice of art.
Bringing carefully chosen parts of the art world to Eindhoven is one way to go. The museum also tries to take Eindhoven to other places, transforming its ideas about its collection and its activities by means of encounters outside the city. A few years ago one of our Picasso portraits was the first painting by the artist to be exhibited in Palestine, and later our collection was shown in three exhibitions in Istanbul. This was also the reason behind a long-term project in rural China with the artist Li Mu. Li has spent the last year working in his home village, reproducing works from the Van Abbemuseum’s collection in an environment which is radically different from North Brabant. The results can now be seen in the museum in videos and drawings documenting the four seasons in the village of Qiuzhuang and following the creation of the artworks and the stories of the villagers. While rural China may seem remote, its relationship with global culture cannot be underestimated because it is one of the most important places where the current crisis of values will be played out. If the only future for the villagers is a train journey to the big Chinese cities, the environmental and social consequences will be disastrous. The question of how to make life in rural China acceptable will continue throughout the twenty-first century. Li Mu’s project is one of the first artistic projects to focus on rural life and tackle the question of how to build a relationship with global society and European culture.
Li Mu’s exhibition A Man, A Village, A Museum is an excellent example of the kind of art that is being made today. It is conscious of its place in the world and its relation to history. It does not claim to lead to any bright new horizons, or to transform the future by inventing new forms and designs. Global corporations usually present such utopian projections nowadays, while artists are often working on unravelling the untold stories from the global archives. Looking at the art that has been produced so far in the twenty-first century, it is difficult to see it as other than the product of a crisis which should be viewed as a turning point that has been delayed for too long. It is impossible to predict whether the current synchronicity of so many crises heralds some profound new understanding. Meanwhile the artists we show in the museum choose to produce art full of space-time conundrums, art that reaches out to the past at the same time as touching on real situations in the world, art that neither obeys its users nor has any responsibility for them, but wants them to share in its stories. This seems an appropriate way of working today.