These are a few random thoughts I’ve had in thinking about the role of the museum, and especially the Kunsthalle, the non-collecting museum, in the United States, but Los Angeles more specifically. Our city is lucky to claim a wonderful Kunsthalle in the Santa Monica Museum of Art located at Bergamot Station. The museum is at the forefront of experimentation with viewer engagement in part because they have the flexibility to incorporate and encourage new ideas/artists/curators/media/concepts given their freedom from the collection and all the maintenance, preservation, and display obligations that go along with that archival mission.
The history of the museum is essentially object-focused. In today’s world much has been written on museum engagement and the need for further interactivity between viewer and object. Some proposed solutions to the problem of lay viewers that have been used in traditional museum settings include digital methodologies through interactive web sites, computerized aspects of exhibitions, digital collection archives, and computer rooms within the space of the museum and exhibition. Another method of engagement has been the use of docents, tours, and family days as well as other activity focused events in the museum space. Some museums are also experimenting with mixing media and discipline by adding music tot he gallery, video, or sculpture to the exhibition space. This is usually done by creating art for the space rather than figuring the space around art, an initiative that is being heavily considered right now with the resurgence of conceptual and installation art from the 1960s and 70s with Pacific Standard Time event here in Los Angeles.
The underlying issue that has not been addressed is the problem of the work (mostly traditional art works) being created within a Cartesian tradition – meant to be simply viewed. This does not work in today’s society where, although the visual is still our primary mode of information acquisition, we are use to a greater interactivity with the media. In the age of technology, reproduction, internet usage, and international access, we are accustomed to forming our own experience. This is in direct opposition to the function of the art museum that is focused on object permanence, appreciation of an intended experience, and education about the intended experience.
Museums today have to contend with the fact that we have access to most of the great works in our very homes. How to establish the importance of the physical experience of a work is an essential question for museum’s especially as it becomes more and more expensive and time-consuming to visit these ever-expanding cultural ivory-towers. Within the museum walls, works created by artists that were meant to be engaged by the viewer physically are presented in such a way that viewers cannot be close to them and are not encouraged to interact in ways that will change or alter the work, despite this being the intention of the artist. Is the museum’s function that of preservation or of exposure? The museum needs to be able to collect, preserve, and display our past but what if their ability to preserve the object is at odds with the ability to preserve the intention of the artist and the piece? What is the art object without the context and artists’ impulse?
When we look at modern art, often people assert, I could have done that! The value of much modern and contemporary art is not in the physical form but rather in the intention of the artist, the impulse of creation. This is destroyed sometimes in teh need to maintain the object itself. I have written about this specific piece in previous blog posts especially having to do with Duchamp’s work but want to also consider the several installation works of Felix Gonzalez-Toerres, asking visitors to take a piece of his stack of paper (or candy), in essence, destroying the work as they experience the work. Duchamp is quotes as saying, “too great an importance [has been] given tot he retinal. Since Courbet, it’s been believed that painting is addressed to the retina. That was everyone’s error. The retinal shudder! Before, painting had other functions: it could be religious, philosophical moral.” In the end, the modern museum has to lump all these functions in together, to allow solely visual access to works and limited access even at that. So, how does the slow-moving institutional machine of the art museum re-center their mission of being a conduit to art for the general public and reconcile that with their concurrent mission of collections and preservation – in the end, they must turn to a collaboration with the Kunsthalle. In the next part, we will see how the issue of technology functions within the museum and finally consider the benefits and limitations of the Kunsthalle itself.
For an interesting blog on Gonzalez-Torres from a viewership point of view, check out http://momentc.blogspot.com/2011/01/felix-gonzalez-torres.html
If you are interested in Santa Monica Museum of Art – www.smmoa.org