ljubljana – the next step
Uit de keuken van de curator

ljubljana – the next step

11/05/2009

Taking up Charles’ invitation, allow me to also reflect on some of the issues raised in the inspiring if not historical conference in Ljubljana. And please realize that these are open speculation, which hopefully show my active attempt to get grip of the question raised in these inspiring days, but do not contain the firm architecture of a finished argument. Or, more plainspoken: please, give me some slack.

Continuing on the key-issue Charles already pointed towards in his comment, I wish to consider some questions surrounding the ideological position taken in by the representatives of Tate and Beaubourg. Both claimed in one way or another that they were not ideologically determined, suggesting that the walls and halls of their museums are no machinery for the reproduction of a certain organization of the social relationships within a, perhaps global, society. They wishes to consider themselves as open spaces where ‘a’ public could interact and exchange, learn and appreciate, an art no longer of only a western brand, but of global making. It is not hard to get a sense of the contradictions at work here. For the idea that acquiring art from all over the world and displaying it on one geographic location, for a global public, requires that an impressive segment of that public needs to travel a great deal to see works that once may have been in their own vicinity. Just as one can wonder how these workers behind the walls of these large museums, who select and collect these works, are able to make their judgments ideologically unbiased. Buying a work and placing it in a collection is by definition it seems an ideological act, for it affirms a certain order from which it derives. When we buy, we use our limited capital to affirm a certain work and defend this affirmation by using arguments that are as much inclusive as they are exclusive. It’s immensely naïve to think one could somehow surpass this situation, and it’s important to realize the uncomfortable position a museum find itself in, for it’s this feeling of uncomfort which is the beginning of any honest speculation on ones position and its possible potential.

 

This all may sound nice, but the challenges only begin here. For can we describe in more detail how the ideology of the museum functions? Let me turn to a somewhat forgotten French philosopher to explore this question: Althusser. In a text on ‘Ideology and State’, he distinguishes between two types of ‘machinery’ at work in society which maintain its status quo, on the one hand the ‘State Apparatus’ (police, army, judges, etc.) and the ‘Ideological State Apparatus’ (Church, school, certain forms of medicine, culture). Both function, according to the strict Marxism that Althusser inheres to, to reproduce the conditions and relations of production, which are the source for the profound contradiction underlying the capitalist society. Even if we believe that the communist response to this is likely to turn into similar contradictions, the analysis that a society continuously produces and reproduces imbalance is not such a crazy claim. So, even if we should not strap on our boots and start a long march, the workings of these two ‘Apparatuses’ should still interest us. In Althusser’s analysis their difference lies in that the ‘State Apparatus’ works ‘by force’, whereas the ‘Ideological State Apparatus’, works ‘by ideology’ – no surprise here. It’s understandable that the museum is part of the latter group, and that for those reasons our focus also lies there. So, we can ask ourselves now, what does this mean; how does ideology ‘work’ in this case?

Here a philosophical point is necessary. An ideology is the name we give to the principle which organizes the manner in which we arrive at representations of our reality. This may sound cryptic, but one can give a clear example of it in museum terms, in the sense that one can order artworks for instance by means of style or by means of chronology. If the principle (the ideology) at work is style one can place works of different periods next to each other and state: they are the related, for they are of the same style. A chronological order would oppose such reasoning and say: they may bear formal similarities, however, they do not belong to the same period and therefore are different. The representation of the art in the museum therefore is determined by the type of relationship which creates the organization of the category of art. One can attest that this is much more a fundamental principle of knowing something in general, and that this has little to do with the social organisation of a society. However, there are historical examples that suggest otherwise. For instance, when the Louvre was founded in the chaos of the French Revolution, the curators were confronted with the problem that they had to exhibit many works which showed signs of religious and feudal origin, which were considered counter revolutionary. If they would have organized the galleries following the principle of ‘subject’ they would create a display which would affirm a social organization that they were happily abolishing at the moment. Therefore to save the ‘grand masters’ from the past, they suggested that the merit of their work lay not in the symbiosis of subject and form, but solely in their form and that the gallery should be organized demonstrating the progression of form. This then new historical arrangement responded to the new organization based on the idea of the Republic. So the manner in which a museum decides to present relations between works is rooted deeply in the contemporary social organization of society. (For a detailed account of the formation of the Louvre, on which this argument is based, see Andrew McClellan’s exemplary study ‘The Invention of the Louvre’.)

An ideology is therefore close if not similar to an epistemology – a theory of knowledge. Which means that the way in which we know is related to way in which we behave in a society, for the result of these principles as we can see in the case of installing artworks in the museum, result in a particular type of action. And, in this case, it is hard to overestimate the banality in which this manifests itself. The form and type of language one uses, the way the architecture is structured and functions, the way in which we wear our clothes. They all are manifestations of ideologies. An ideology, therefore, does not ‘exist’ as a stone exists, but only exists in a practice: in the production, reproduction and implementation of it. There is no thing-like status which we can attribute the ideology as something that lies behind, or underneath, a certain event, but it coincides with it and only ‘is’, as long as the event exists and produces the same effect. Nor should we think that there is a type of knowing, a type of human conduct, which somehow escapes this situation and can be ‘pure’.

But what particular role does an ideology then play within the maintenance of the status quo? Again we may sense that it’s important, but it’s rewarding to take the extra step and try to think it through and formulate why. It’s clear that the easiest way to maintain the status quo in a certain situation is by force. If one wants to prevent an apple from falling to the floor, one has to oppose the force of gravity. In a similar fashion, if one wants to maintain a social situation of unbalance, one has to forcefully maintain it and threaten the other party in its survival if it does not do as told. Slavery being the clearest example here. However, these axiomatic cases, cannot be copy-pasted to a whole society. So a society in its wish to keep things the way they are, be they fair or not, needs a more elaborate structure to keep it functional. This elaborate structure is the ideology, which is not just available to the one with force, but can be ‘possessed’ by nearly everyone participating in the systems of representation and debate – all those who can ‘know’ and can apply that ‘knowledge’. For, if one is convinced of the correctness of a certain form of behaviour, one doesn’t need a gun pointed at one to act accordingly. The function of Ideological State Apparatus is to disseminate and reproduce this behaviour by making those who are participating within it liable to the current dominant organisational form and its logic. Tonny Bennett has in this line suggested that the museum in the modern society is not so much a apparatus of repression and discipline (to use the Foucaultian term), but is one of the mechanisms which transforms those who are subject to it in agents to the ideology inherent to it. By making the public connoisseurs of the type of relationships privileged by a particular type of social organisation, one makes them collaborators to the dominant form of reasoning and if that reasoning is coherent, chances are they will try to live up to and maintain that coherence. So if the repressive State Apparatus punishes and disciplines those who transgress, the Ideological State Apparatus produces consensus about what is transgression and what not. For details on the type of consensus produced in the museum one can look into Bennett’s study, even if the precise nature of the aesthetic consensus produced is in museum of art is not touched upon there in great depth. (Bennett, The Birth of the Museum, 2006 (first published 1995), Routledge)

 

This may all be, but it paints a rather depressive if not suicidal picture for the museum that somehow wants to act not just as an agent to the dominant ideology, but seeks to produce some form of resistance against it. The only logical action that seems to follow to this grim picture is abolition. If the nature of an institute as the museum is as described above, there is no escape. But, perhaps this is just another form of delusion, for if ideology is embedded in the way we know, then there is no outside to it which we can ‘know’ and one institute more or less will make only little difference. We will not stop knowing because of the closure of one institute. One can also ask if something which knows no outside, can be discussed in the way done above. For if there is no outside to it, how can we recognize it? For it is everywhere (where we know), which is the same as saying nowhere; and here being collapses easily into nothingness. Is not the whole debate on ideology a type of pseudo-debate, since it originates in an assumption that an ideology is something and therefore not everything, and that therefore there must be a domain of non-ideology. Or, formulated differently, does not the type of argumentation as followed above, continuously refer to a space beyond ideology, just by suggesting that it is repressive and that no one wants to accept such a state of affairs? So, is not the claim that an ideology manifests itself always when we start to know just a particular form of repression. For it suggest that we should revolt, but makes it extremely unattractive at the same time, by logically coming to the conclusion that it’s meaningless. Is this the unhappy result of an argument that started to drive down a dead end street?

 

No, there is a way, but not out, I’m afraid. On the conference one participant made the titillating remark, that a museum that wants to be radical forces itself to radical action, and to most radical of all actions is abolition. So, museum are confronted with a quite clear set of choices, either one prevails and seeks to remain in power, or one goes down. But, thinking this through, it seemed to me that answering one extreme by another one, is not radical but logical in an almost conventional manner. It is refers to a form of argument that knows only yes or no, a positive and a negative, and shows little sympathy for a more complex and – to use a new key-word of the VAM – entangled position. For it seems that resistance does not so much manifest itself in the radical refusal to participate, but in the complex attempt to explore the possibilities of ones position which stretches itself out towards a form of hegemony and reproduction of a certain system, but nevertheless constantly is confronted with the imperfections of its method and the ‘failures’ within the system. Considered discursively the museum might allude towards a conformative structure, but when looking at the practice of the museum, one has to realize that the harmonious clarity of its discursive imperialism al to seldom is achieved in an unambiguous manner. It seems that the possibility of the museum lies neither in its complete abolition, nor in a straightforward embrace of its ideological functions, but in the muddy, concrete practice that determines its being. In a sense we have to realize that we are a force and seek to investigate to what end we are using it unconsciously. For an action executed within the museum often, if not always, contain elements that refuse the logic of ideology. To give one example, for instance the conservation of an object or installation, constantly places one for a problem that the ideology of the museum would rather not have, namely that one needs to decide what is ‘true’ about the work and what not, what needs to be persevered and what not. One can deal with this problem in a unreflective manner and simply try to answer the question to the best of ones ability, but one can also see the fact that there somehow is an internal resistance within a work towards a clear incorporation into this ideology of preservation as a fruitful and interesting event and see it as a moment that allows one to consider how ones ideology is composed and what possibilities and challenges it contains. I think it is here that we should seek for the possibility of resistance: in the practice of the museum. It’s in the sheer resistance of a painting to hovering in mid-air demanding the continuous force that pins it to the wall, that we might find the most powerful form of criticality available to us.