The Uses of Art

In May this year the Van Abbemuseum, together with five museums and four other partners, started a large five-year European cooperative project: The uses of art – on the legacy from 1848 and 1989. It is the second project of the new international confederation of museums known as l’Internationale. The network links the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven with museums in Antwerp, Barcelona, Istanbul, Ljubljana and Madrid. In the next few years the organizations want to examine how they can arrive at a new form of international museum cooperation with a large series of exhibitions and symposiums. The years in the title of the project (1848 and 1989) function as background and refer to the two civil revolutions in the 19th century and the 20th century. These were both moments at which large groups of citizens spread throughout Europe forcefully advocated a new social order. In the project we would like to use these moments, which were both creative and destructive, to help us reflect on the present and examine the current significance of civil institutions such as museums, art schools and universities. 

For the Van Abbemuseum the l’Internationale project The uses of art is closely linked to the museum’s agenda in terms of content for the next five years. This agenda is not so much determined by developments in art alone, but rather provides a general reflection on the contemporary world. The internet, the crisis – both in political and economic terms – and the issue of ecology mean that society will undergo some far-reaching changes in the coming years. The general trend in this shift is characterised by a complex restructuring in the relationship between micro and macro politics, or, expressed in less abstract terms, the relationship between the individual, the small community such as a town or municipality, and the large political structures such as the province, the state and Europe. The NSA surveillance scandal, the Arabic spring and recently the protests around Gezi Park in Istanbul are all examples of the new relations between big and small. Local or personal themes such as religion, freedom of speech, or simply a park are at odds with the interests of powerful, national governments.
Also the way Europe, with its incomplete democratic legitimization, and IMF enforce rigorous protestations from southern member states, clearly indicate the difficult relationship between large supranational structures and smaller, national governments. In the Netherlands an almost infinite series of cabinet crises of governments which have silently transferred state responsibilities to local municipalities for nearly a decade, serves as an early sign of this revolution. As a result municipalities are longer referred to as “lower” but as “other” levels of government. These are all developments that indicate that far-reaching changes are taking place in the dynamics between the local and international levels.

This development has enormous consequences for our cultural experience, which has traditionally had a strong national character and infrastructure. Museums, universities and art schools have close links with the modern, democratic, capitalist nation state. One characteristic of this modern state was succinctly described by Auke van der Woud[1] in his excellent study of the creation of the modern Netherlands as a revolution of the classical “ideal civilisation”. While before the 19th century civilisation was, above all, a task for the individual, who first became cultivated himself and only then turned to his environment, the 19th-century citizen became civilised because he lived in a civilised environment. The point of departure for the 19th-century nation state was the notion that things could be made and the governing body at the top endeavoured to create a climate, both physically and culturally, for orderly and productive citizens: the state as an all-encompassing machine for the “good life”. In a similar vein, the museum was described by the French author Bataille as the lungs of the city, which people are pumped through on a weekly basis, to emerge at the other end refreshed and inspired. But it is this sense of order, control and security that we no longer find in the contemporary world.

It is above all the internet which has made this tightly-knit structure of institutions, interconnected by the rather arbitrary unity of the nation state, function less and less like it did in the past. While you used to move neatly and in an orderly fashion from one access point to the next, the internet now invites you to become involved in everything, as though you were sitting behind the counter yourself. Doctors, journalists, politicians, as well as art critics are confronted on a daily basis with citizens who are constantly testing the conclusions of the experts against the infinite ocean of information that is the worldwide web. That is not to say that all the civil institutions have become completely obsolete at a stroke. We still go to the doctor when we’re ill, buy newspapers when we want information, and visit museums if we want to see art, but in addition to these traditional services, we also always have other channels to gain access to information about what we’re looking for or about what has happened to us. The institutions may not have become obsolete at a stroke, but we do use them differently, and this also applies to art museums.

The biggest shift in art is that it is no longer a clearly defined and self-evident field which can withdraw to the museum. Rather, art has become a sort of infiltrator with a latent presence everywhere, always ready to get going and become active. Art is no longer a thing with its own identity – the work of art – but rather an attitude: a specific way of looking or experiencing things which everyone actually always carries round with them, but which is only used from time to time. The basis of this attitude is an open-minded approach which observes things that are already visible, but not yet comprehensible. It is a way of looking at the act of looking itself, in which all the details which we are accustomed to ignore become visible. In the early modern period this looking at the act of looking was considered an autonomous field and art was seen as the place where the universal laws of this looking were analysed and exposed. The relationship between the public and the art institute was a passive one, based on the principle of representation. In the museum the citizen could follow the general development of art but did not have to become involved in it at all. Nowadays the importance of the representative function has declined and art has become more of a  skill which we sometimes use and sometimes don’t use, like a sort of idiosyncratic “app” on the smartphone of our citizenship.

With the l’Internationale project The uses of art the Van Abbemuseum is looking for a correspondence with this new “use” of art and the new relationship between macro and micro politics. The museum is part of a decentralised network of museum expertise, and the “raw materials” (the works in the collection) can move about freely as required. In this new structure the museum will still tell stories about art from the (recent) past and present. However, it will no longer do this as a neutral and omniscient storyteller, but will explicitly provide a specific perspective responding to the present moment. With l’Internationale the Van Abbemuseum wants to become part of a new structure which shares a number of characteristics with the internet. The challenge in this respect is above all to not just suggest in a superficial manner that the members of l’Internationale are interconnected in a hip, digital way, but to also change working patterns behind the scenes so that they start to fit in with the modern age. After all, an e-mail can be sent just like that, but transporting a Picasso with a value of several million euros requires a greater effort.

However, in our opinion, the starting point is not the collection or the institution, but the user. In this respect the micro level is more important than the macro level, with the individual as a member of a community as the point of departure. The cultural heritage owned by all the l’Internationale members is collected for and by a community – by yourselves. The story about 1848 and 1989 is therefore not a story about or for Europe, but a story about and for the people who live in Europe. When you ask yourself the question “Who am I?” you always ask it against a background of “we” in which you exist as an individual. The European “we” is diffuse and comes in many different forms, and it consists of many different communities which each have their own story. Exchanging these stories in such a way that you can experience both the differences and similarities with people elsewhere is one of the main aims of the Van Abbemuseum and l’Internationale. We hope that you will use art and the museum in this way in the future in order to make sense of the world that is coming and that the museum can be a place where you feel at home and where you are invited to think about your place in the world, today and tomorrow. This may sound like a utopian dream, but it is not inconceivable. After all, every journey starts with a dream about what can be, compared to what is now – certainly when that journey can take five years.

L’Internationale comprises Moderna galerija (Ljubljana, Slovenia), Museo nacional centro de arte Reina Sofía (Madrid, Spain), Museu d’art Contemporani de Barcelona (Barcelona, Spain), Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen (Antwerp, Belgium), SALT (Istanbul, Ankara, Turkey) and the Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven, the Netherlands). The other partners of The uses of art are Aprior / Royal Academy of Fine Arts (Ghent, Belgium); Grizedale Arts (Conniston, United Kingdom); Liverpool John Moores University (Liverpool, United Kingdom) and Universität Hildesheim (Hildesheim, Germany). For more information about l’Internationale and The uses of art see the temporary website: (the new website will go live at the end of November).