Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail)[ * ]

The Tate Modern and the Future of the Art Museum

Lisa P. Schoenberg


In May 2000 the Tate Modern, the new art museum located in the decommissioned Bank side Power Station in London, opened to thronging crowds and highly mixed reviews. The critical response focused in two main aspects of the museum: the fact that the collection is organized not chronologically but rather thematically; and the fact that the environment of the museum itself is thematic. With regard to both of these aspects, the Tate Modern is not original, but it is a powerful expression of what is sometimes called the “disneyfication” of the museum. We might interpret the critics as claiming that the Tate Modern lacks neutrality towards its collection, or, in other words, that instead of erasing itself from the space that the artworks within it inhabit, allowing each artwork to stand independently from its fellows and the museum itself, the Tate Modern through its organization and theme intrudes into the works and the viewer’s experience of them. In this article I examine and reject the model of the museum as a neutral institution, arguing that it is neither possible nor desirable to present artworks in a neutral or objective manner. I then propose that we consider museums, and not merely the buildings in which they are housed, to be “meta-artworks,” i.e., artistic creations in their own right. Finally, I extend this idea of meta-art to our definitions and ontology’s of art, contending that these too are changeable creations rather than descriptions of pre-existing realities.


In May 2000 the Tate Modern, the new art museum located in the decommissioned Bankside Power Station on the Thames in London, opened to thronging crowds and highly mixed—and strongly worded—reviews.[1] Within six weeks, more than a million visitors had been to the Tate Modern, and the projected first-year attendance was revised upward from two million to four million. Meanwhile, the critics were variously describing the museum as “a fraud”[2] housed in a building that “is ugly and intimidating”[3] and as a “brilliant realization of current thought about how people use museums and how art is best viewed”[4] housed in a “secular cathedral devoted to the worship of art.”[5]

The critical response focuses on two main aspects of the museum: the fact that the collection is organized not chronologically but rather thematically; and the fact that the environment of the museum itself is thematic. With regard to both of these aspects, the Tate Modern is not original, but it is perhaps the most fully developed expression of recent trends in the museum world. To critics like Jed Perl these trends constitute the disneyfication of the museum world. Thus Perl describes the Tate Modern as a “funhouse enclosed in a gigantic site-specific sculpture,”[6] which, like other recent museums, takes as its subject a “collective fantasy spawned by arts administrators” rather than “the fantasy lives of individual artists.”[7] Or, as he writes further, you no longer “go to a museum to look at things, you go to be enveloped by a mood, an ambiance, a scene.”[8] We might interpret Perl as claiming that the Tate Modern lacks neutrality towards its collection, or, in other words, instead of erasing itself from the space that the artworks within it inhabit, allowing each artwork to stand independently from its fellows and from the museum itself, the Tate Modern through its organization and theme intrudes into the works and the viewer’s experience of them.

Perl is arguing that the Tate Modern (and other new “funhouse” museums, such as the Guggenheim Bilbao) takes on the role of directing a certain interpretation of the works within it, much as Arthur Danto describes titles as doing.[9] As Danto writes, a title “is more than a name or a label: it is a direction for interpretation.”[10] The perceptual structure of the artwork underdetermines the interpretation that viewers might have of it; titles, among other things, serve to constrain interpretations. But artists choose titles, whereas architects and curators are responsible for the feel of museums and the presentation of artworks within them. We might think that artists have a special role vis-à-vis the interpretation of their artworks that these other individuals should not have. If we accept a view in which the artwork is partly constituted by the art-historical context in which it is created, along with Arthur Danto, we might believe that artists circumscribe the range of potential interpretations of their works by what they could have meant by the work, or what artistic movements they belonged to and what artistic influences they felt, or by the heuristic through which they created the work. But we might think that architects should only direct our interpretations of the buildings they design, and not of the artworks housed within them, and that curators should not take on the role of directing our interpretations at all, except to the extent that they give us information about artists and art history that we might lack and which may inform our understanding of the artworks we view.

The Tate Modern and the critical response to it thus raise interesting questions about the role of the art museum—or any institution that collects and displays art—in our appreciation and understanding of artworks. In this article I will consider whether or not art museums should play any role—beyond that of doling out historical, biographical, or theoretical information, and properly exhibiting artworks—in our interpretation and appreciation of art. In the first section, I will consider the concept of neutrality, and argue that museums have never been neutral towards their artistic inhabitants in at least one important sense, for museums have always conditioned how the artworks within their walls are viewed, and frequently have done so in violation of how the artworks were intended to be viewed by their creators. In the second section, I will consider another sort of neutrality which results from the very development of the modern museum. It is within museums that objects of disparate origin and intended function come to be treated as if they are alike, as if they are all the same sort of thing. I will argue that this sort of neutrality was imported into the arts from the sciences, and has been detrimental to the creation and appreciation of art. In the third section, I argue that museums, along with aesthetic theories and the history of art itself, should be seen as meta-artworks. Museums, as creative expressions, do not have to be any particular way, and as such need not be neutral to the artworks contained within them.


Before I can address the question of whether museums should provide a neutral environment for the works they house, I must first deal with an assumption on which this question rests. For this question assumes that museums did provide a neutral environment for art before this disneyfication trend took hold, or at least at some point in their history; or, if not, at least that it is possible in principle for them to do so. Like a frame, the museum is supposed to disappear at the moment we encounter the work of art. But this idea of the museum is increasingly under attack by theorists skeptical of modern institutions. As Charles Saumarez Smith writes:

The literature of the transformation of goods as they travel through a life-cycle suggests that once artifacts appear in museums they enter a safe and neutral ground, outside the arena where they are subjected to multiple pressures of meaning. This is not true; on the contrary, museums present all sorts of different territories of display. [11]

In Smith’s view, museums originally served to “remove artifacts from their current context of ownership and use” and “insert them into a new environment which would provide them with a different meaning”[12] which is “regarded as having a superior authority.”[13] This seems a rather obvious point. Museums take artifacts, many of which once had an independent, extra-museological use and significance, and turn them into artifacts that exist solely to be exhibited and studied. Museums remove objects of religious worship from the context of religious practice, and, as a portrait in a museum does not generally serve the function of representing for the museumgoer a loved one, they “suppress the model in almost every portrait.”[14] In transforming the context, use, and significance of artworks, museums hardly seem to be acting in a neutral and self-effacing fashion towards them.

This point often seems on the verge of being forgotten. “[I]t is clear that the traditional notions of museums as neutral spaces—spaces that defer to art instead of visually competing with it—is being abandoned” writes Deborah Solomon in a New York Times article[15] on the recently developed branches of the Guggenheim, which have garnered conflicting reviews, much like the Tate Modern. But even a museum that is nondescript, sets up certain expectations towards the artworks within it. Just as a title does, the presence of a work in a museum indicates that the work is to be viewed under our conception of the visual arts, rather than used for some other purpose, even the purpose for which it was originally intended to be used. A nondescript museum may not be a direction for a particular interpretation, but it is a direction that the work is to be interpreted under our concept of art.

Indeed, it might be thought of as more than that, for the neutral white-walled art museum that Solomon refers to (she describes it as a “White Box…untainted by any vestige of life”[16]) not only serves to indicate that the works within it are to be appreciated as art, but also reminds the viewer of a specific ideology regarding that appreciation, one in which “statues must be isolated in space, paintings hung far apart, a glittering jewel placed against a field of black velvet and spotlighted” for “in principle, only one object at a time should appear in the field of vision.”[17] For Germain Bazin, such a museum is “a clinic for masterpieces”[18] because works are exhibited in “an entirely neutral setting—no picture wires, no frames, and plain white walls.”[19] But while the setting may be neutral, the attitude towards art which the setting makes manifest in physical form is not, if we understand neutrality to require the withholding of any aesthetic ideology whatsoever. The attitude is that of Modernism: appreciation must focus on the work itself, which consists, say, of a set of perceptual properties, rather than on such extraneous matters as the artist’s intentions, the context in which the work was created, or its similarities to and dissimilarities from other works. While we might understand Modernism to require a radical kind of neutrality—the kind with which we approach things that have no significance for us, like the squiggles of a foreign alphabet, or the way neurological patients with visual agnosia look at faces, the kind where we impose no concepts, ideas, or even recognition of prior experience on that which we view—such neutrality is itself counter to the conception of art as a meaning-making activity, one in which we find or impose meanings on the perceptual structures of works by reading them through the distinctly non-neutral eyes of our experience. In urging us to resist this, Modernism is not neutral at all, for it is impressing on us a distinct and, by historical standards, unique set of practices regarding the appreciation of art.

Then there is the antithesis of the White Box, the sort of museum that attempts to present artworks in historically authentic surroundings. Museums like the Cloisters in New York, which exhibits medieval art in several authentic cloisters imported from France and Spain, or museums which contain period rooms or reconstitute the ambiance of a historical period through details such as the use of antique frames, might seem to achieve another kind of neutrality, in that such museums attempt to reflect the aesthetic environment in which the works were first presented rather than imposing a latter-day environment on them. The works then reside in something like the setting envisioned by the original artist, if not necessarily serving the purpose he envisioned them to serve. A museum of this sort might even be a white box, although its white boxness would serve a different sort of purpose than that described above. It would instead serve as the appropriate historical context for Modernist paintings, not neutral in the same sense in that it is now to be noticed as an extension of the chosen aesthetics of the painter rather than simply disappearing as background, but one might suppose neutral in that the presentation at least arises from, rather than being imposed upon, the paintings contained within. On the other hand, historicism is itself a specific aesthetic theory, and one with which a Modernist might properly disagree, not wanting the context in which the work is exhibited or in which it was historically created to be connected thematically with it, given that the work is to be appreciated in isolation from these sorts of external factors. And furthermore, as Bazin points out when he considers why period rooms and even imported buildings are so popular in the U.S., we may crave the “evocation of atmosphere” because our “sense of the past has been less keenly developed”[20] by our less historical surroundings. In other words, we may favor the historical approach not because of its neutrality at all, but because it produces in us a distinctly non-neutral sense of nostalgia or an ambiance of the old and exotic that has nothing to do with the intentions of the artists, for whom it was neither old nor nostalgic.

In describing these two examples of museum-types—both recent in vintage—I have barely scratched the surface of the history of artistic exhibition. From the first cabinets of antiquities in the 14th century to the establishment of the great national museums in the 19h century, there have been a profusion of practices regarding the exhibition of artworks, none of which seems to particularly foster the goal of neutrality. The earliest collections, stored in cabinets, consisted of randomly chosen curiosities that appealed to the unique and eclectic tastes of their owners. In 1727 a treatise called Museographia that was intended to guide collectors was published by Hamburg dealer Caspar Neickel, who described two categories of collectibles—naturalia and curiosa artificiala, the latter of which included paintings and other works which we would now consider fine art.[21] Such collections were intended to impress and entertain with their eccentricity. In the 16th and 17th century exhibitions became increasingly the lavish and excessive, with paintings covering every available patch of wall, the wall itself often painted red, a method of presentation which in which artworks were used as props in the creation of an atmosphere of luxury.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, display became more organized and historical, and museums began their transformation into educational institutions. During this period, there was an interesting conflict, one that portends the controversy over the Tate Modern, over installation of the pinakotheke in Vienna’s Belvedere. This picture gallery was developed under reformed principles of exhibition, with artworks placed in simpler frames, organized into schools, and presented in chronological order. According to the director Christian von Mechel, the paintings were put into chronological order “so that one learns at a brief glance infinitely more than one could if the same paintings were hung without regard to the period which had made them…It must interest artists and amateurs the world over to know there actually exists a Repository where the history of art is made Visible.”[22]

But the Viennese preferred the pleasurable effects of contrast that occur when paintings are hung together without regard for chronology or school. In 1785 von Ritteshausen published a particularly critical attack on the gallery, complaining that the “one who desires to write an art history can enter [the gallery] but the sensitive man is kept away” and arguing that the purpose of a gallery is “to develop taste and awaken the noblest instincts of the heart. That is why it must be founded on aesthetic principles”[23] rather than scholarly or educational ones. In his account of von Ritteshausen’s criticisms, Bazin notes that von Ritteshausen prefers a conception of art in which artworks provide viewers with a vision of fantastical and imaginary worlds. It follows that galleries should organize artworks by the sort of visions they produce rather than according to historical principles.

This particular confrontation of aesthetic ideologies at what Bazin calls the “dawn of modern museology”[24] is the inverse of the confrontation occurring over the curatorship of the collections in the Tate Modern, in which a museum organized so as to promote the effects of contrast is opposed by critics who prefer chronology. In both cases, there is a conflict between the presumably more rational ordering of artworks by chronology and school, or by analogy, and the ordering of artworks according to primarily aesthetic principles. Chronological order makes of the museum a kind of art history text, as indicated by the quote above; but only if one has sufficient artworks to illustrate all of the significant artists and movements. One of the criticisms of the Tate Modern is that it does not, and that it cannot adequately represent the 20th century with the sort of collection it has.[25] On this view, in short, museums must be representative and thorough, not quirky and unique, because each museum functions as an encyclopedia of art, or, as Bazin puts it, a “compendium of all knowledge.”[26] But while such an approach to organization might be considered more neutral in that chronology has some objective basis in fact, rather than a subjective basis in a curator’s unique vision, it might be considered to lack neutrality in that art has not always been appreciated as the object of art historical study. Some appreciators, including von Rittenhausen, have conceived of art as something to be enjoyed, an object of pleasure, rather than a form of knowledge to be learned. Museums in which paintings are presented chronologically, then, do not seem more ideologically neutral than the others we have examined.

One potential objection to this recitation of the cultural history of the museum is that it is what the observer brings to the artwork—his or her preconceptions, experiences, and, yes, aesthetic theories—and not the artwork’s surroundings that determine his or her response. In other words, theories are supplied by the observer, and any theory can be supplied in any setting. This objection would seem to disarm some of criticisms of the Tate Modern, in that the building and its organization, however non-neutral, would become irrelevant to the observer’s experience of the works. In a narrow sense, this objection is true. A person of strong religious faith can pray to a Madonna despite her presence in a secular museum like the Met, and a historicist can appreciate art historically in a white box. A Modernist can even subtract the luxurious and over-the-top surroundings of a 16th-century style museum with paintings piled on top of paintings, and see the work as if presented in isolation.[27] But in a broader sense, this is not true at all, for although frames are supposed to erase themselves from the space which paintings inhabit, they in fact do not, which is precisely why the Modernists felt it necessary to hang paintings without them. That is, we can in principle bring our aesthetic theories to any presentation; but it is difficult to appreciate art in a way in which it is never presented, or to ignore our response to the way it is presented. Museums also serve to form the aesthetic responses of the young and artistically inexperienced, and the settings in which they place art play a role in the forming these responses.


Thus far I have relied on one construal of the term neutrality and what it means to be neutral vis-à-vis artworks. On this construal, a neutral context is one in which artworks are not subject to multiple pressures of meaning, or, indeed, any pressures at all insofar as they are external to the work itself and to its original purpose and significance. As we have seen, the Tate Modern is hardly unique in not providing that sort of neutral environment, as museums have not generally done so. However, another construal of the term neutrality, in which a neutral context is one in which all artworks are treated alike, is possible. On this construal the museum might be thought of as a neutral institution par excellence, for it is in the museum that works of different origin and intended use, of different style, content, and temperament, are placed together as if they are the same sort of thing, and correspondingly garner the same sort of response on the part of museumgoers, who walk past religious icons, furniture and vases, and Impressionist paintings with the same respectful and hushed manner.

For a museum to exhibit this kind of neutrality, it must lack one of the kinds of neutrality described the previous section, for in treating all of these disparate objects as the same the museum must impose upon them a new conception of their nature and purpose, in violation of their creators’ intentions, with the exception of works created during what Bazin calls the museum age. It was Malraux’s insight that these two kinds of neutrality are inextricably linked (if conversely) in the history of the museum. For as the museum began to separate artworks from their origin, and place them, however dissimilar, into collections, it pushed us along the path to our current all-encompassing conception of art, under which the objects in museums come to be viewed as equivalent. For this conception to come into being

works of art have to be isolated from their functions. What common link existed between a “Venus” which was Venus, a crucifix which was Christ crucified, and a bust? But three “statues” can be linked together.[28]

For Malraux, then, museums, along with all the reproductions of artworks that are available in art books “now that the plastic arts have invented their own printing press,”[29] the worldwide collection of which he calls the Museum without Walls, play a formative role in our ideas about art. As he writes:

In the past a Gothic statue was a component part of the Cathedral; similarly a classical picture was tied up with the setting of its period, and not expected to consort with works of different mood and outlook. Rather, it was kept apart from them, so as to be the more appreciated by the spectator.[30]

The transformation of the earliest cabinets, in which the objects were linked only in that they had been gathered by the same idiosyncratic collector, into the museum in which all the objects are viewed as of belonging to the same kind, begins with the “confrontation of metamorphoses” which occurs when the work of art is exhibited with “rival or even hostile works.”[31] The first cabinets and museums severed pre-existing works from their functions, but this did lead immediately to the modern concept of art. Instead of being compared to each other, works were judged insofar as they delighted the eye, or against the supposedly timeless ideal of perfection or beauty. But eventually, as “the art museum invite[d] criticism of each of the expressions of the world it br[ought] together, and a query as to what they have in common,”[32] works came to be judged in relation to one another. The works by an individual artist or by a particular school were compared to each other and to rival works, and out of this comparison some sense of each artist’s and school’s unique style developed. The strong contrast between styles made it clear that art was not portraying an independent truth, but rather speaking a series of different languages. Under this revised aesthetic, a masterpiece was no longer the work that comes closest to the standard of beauty; it was the best expression of a particular artist’s unique style or language.

It is a natural consequence of this aesthetic that more and more objects come to be subsumed under it, for once people saw artworks as expressions of differing visions and styles, and appreciated them for their distinctness from one another, it followed that objects that were once considered non-art because of their differences from art could be considered simply different art, and valued for, rather than despite, their divergence from the tradition. This revision of our aesthetic values led to the resurrection of past art, including works judged to be clumsy attempts at the ideal of beauty or perfection, works that would once have been painted over as Raphael painted over a fresco by Piero della Francesca,[33] and works that could not previously have been conceived of as art, such as Polynesian sculptures and Pre-Columbian art; for all these could now be seen as having styles of their own. While each age of art had resuscitated some artworks of the past, each age also silenced others; but under this new idea, in which the term art was no longer applied to works of a particular time, place, sort, or purpose, the term is applied to all the forms previously accepted and more. The result of this, Malraux writes, is that “a large share of our art heritage is now derived from peoples whose idea of art was quite other than ours, and even from peoples to whom the very idea of art meant nothing.”[34]

Malraux calls this idea of art the crowning victory of the West. As it is not based on a specific set of aesthetic rules, but instead the celebration of all forms and styles, it for the “first time covers the whole world.”[35] We can see an echo of his acclaim for the modern conception in the works of contemporary philosophers who favor all-inclusive definitions of art which incorporate works produced for different purposes in all sorts of cultural circumstances as art, and who believe these definitions to be more conceptually and culturally neutral than and thus superior to definitions of the past. Formalism might be thought of as one such all-inclusive theory insofar as any object can be approached as a formal structure, but so are contextual and historicist theories, for while these theories acknowledge the importance of the distinct purposes for which works of the past were originally created, they do so merely as background for the aesthetic experience. As Malraux writes:

true, we are trying more and more to gauge the feelings of those first spectators, but without forgetting our own, and we can be contented all the more easily with the mere knowledge of the former, without experiencing them, because all we wish to do is put this knowledge in service of the work of art.[36]

Works with any sort of history and any kind of purpose will fit under this kind of schema. Works here are appreciated through the aesthetic and cultural ideology under which they were created, rather than a foreign ideology; indeed, works are seen as specimens illustrating the various forms of these ideologies, the profusion of which is often the ultimate subject of study. And here we begin to find the language not only of intellectual endeavor, but of that highly valued form of intellectual endeavor, science, at least in its classificatory form. It seems that the appreciation of art has become not just a form of knowledge, but a form of objective science, a kind of anthropology; and that might serve to explain the sense of victory, that our theories of art have finally been made scientific, and our appreciation of art based on sound and rational principles. We are now right in our understanding of art, whereas before we were wrong, for artists “can be as mistaken about aesthetics as scientists can be (and often are) about scientific method.”[37]

As appealing as this view may seem, it is riddled with the sorts of tensions and contradictions that generally arise when we approach the human sciences from the perspective of objectivity. It might appear that we would achieve a higher degree of neutrality by approaching all art--including our own--from the perspective of an anthropologist. But as Dilthey made clear, there are hermeneutical problems with anthropology, as well as the human sciences generally[38]. The objectivist study of culture is (a) not really neutral, for it imposes its objectivity on things that are themselves subjectively meaningful; (b) is not really objective, for even those who attempt objectivity are culturally situated; and (c) cannot lead to true understanding of culture, including art, because true understanding necessarily involves entering into culture empathetically, from within rather than from without. We have already discussed (a) in a variety of guises; the all-encompassing neutrality of the museum, in which all artworks are seen as the same sort of thing and are treated in the same sort of way, requires forgoing many artworks’ original purposes and values except in the strictly delineated context of appreciating the artworks’ cultural histories.

While supporters of the neutral conception of the museum might respond that this view is empirically correct, in that there are a variety of purposes which art has served throughout history, this leads us to (b) and (c). First, the standpoint of objectivity here is problematic, as we cannot eliminate our own cultural context, and indeed our desire for a universal perspective and our favoring of science as a model for understanding culturally meaningful objects might themselves be seen as being the subjective expression of a particular culture. In other words, our supposed objectivity might be said to involve the promulgation of our subjective point of view as the one right view on others, which seems to be entirely in conflict with the stated goal—in which other cultures and their artistic expressions are to be studied as their own creations, and ours is to be placed among them in no particular place of privilege--of objectively studying culture in the first place. Indeed, it is in conflict with more than that: it might seem to lead to the very elimination of that which it studies, by imposing an external ideology of art on the artworks it encounters.

Second, we cannot understand the purposes under which artworks were created if we do not take them seriously, i.e., if we do not consider them as purposes rather than as merely heuristics of cultural production. Anthropologists are in a curious position here, for while they attempt to understand cultures from within, they also claim to describe them from without, as can be seen in the context of aesthetics in Anderson’s work. He attempts to describe the purposes of artworks as they are understood within the culture of origin; but at the same time he tries to create a more inclusive definition of art as a cultural product which assumes that all of these different purposes, interculturally in conflict, can be viewed in some sense as equivalent. While he does not describe the specific aesthetic ideologies in these cultures as subordinate to his own more inclusive one, his very presence as a scholar of culture—one with presumably greater knowledge, in that he is conversant with all of their cultures while the artists within each culture presumably, for the most part, know only their own—suggests a privilege for his view. The idea that those with acquaintance with different sorts of experiences are in a more objective and privileged position when understanding and evaluating them can of course be traced back to John Stuart Mill, but it can be challenged on the grounds that the stance of objectivity precludes full understanding of subjective experience.

It might seem that I am suggesting that full understanding of culture requires belief in its conceptions, including its philosophy of art. Under that requirement, of course, we cannot truly understand the artworks of other cultures unless we become converts to their philosophies of art. We would be aesthetic solipsists, losing the benefits of the “crowning victory” that our engagement with the arts of the world has given us. But Gadamer believed that it is possible to escape this kind of solipsism, by engaging the works of other historical periods in a conversation. In order to do this, we must understand them as texts that are produced by people other than us, but that is not the only requirement. We must also take the works seriously enough to allow them to call into question our own beliefs and assumptions. As Gadamer writes,

To conduct a conversation…requires that one does not try to argue the other person down but that one really considers the weight of the other’s opinion. Hence it is an art of testing. But the art of testing is the art of questioning. For we have seen that to question means to lay open, to place in the open. As against the fixity of opinions, questioning makes the object and all its possibilities fluid. A person skilled in the “art” of questioning is a person who can prevent questions from being suppressed by the dominant opinion.[39]

If we wish to fully understand the art of other cultures, then, we need to consider them as potentially truthful expressions that might change our beliefs rather than merely as expressions of culture; we must allow them to have a claim on our understanding of art and life. The objectivist view does not allow these artworks, and the philosophies of art which produced them, to call into question the beliefs or presuppositions of those holding the objectivist conception of art, which is assumed to have the superiority of science, and as such this view prevents us from even considering the subjective reality of the works.

In order to clarify these issues, I would like to return to a discussion of the critical response to the Tate Modern, for the conceptions I have been describing are those that inform the attitudes of the Tate Modern’s critics. The artworks exhibited in the Tate Modern are not from different cultures, of course, but they might as well be, for the critical approach to them is the same. They are to be studied neutrally, as expressions of culture and subculture. One of the presuppositions of Perl’s criticisms is that museums should not be organized in such a way that artworks works clash or jangle with one another, but rather in such a way that each artist’s works are appreciated separately, as an expression of his or her individual fantasy life. Under this view, art museums might be thought of as classificatory institutions, like natural history museums that exhibit different forms of rocks or butterflies. But this is to thwart, or at least neutralize, artworks that might wish to stake a claim of rivalry against other artworks. While we might under this conception appreciate Dadaist art, for instance, for its criticism of more traditional conceptions of art, we do not allow it to effect those conceptions when we separate it from the art it is intended to critique.[40] It might be argued that allowing artworks to jangle and clash with one another is a more empathetic approach to art, one which acknowledges the power of artworks to make claims on other artworks, and on us, rather than be studied as curiosities external to our conceptions of life. Whether this is something that museums, which might be said to have produced this neutral conception of art in the first place, can promote will be considered later.

           There is one final effect of the development of the museum and the resulting ideology of aesthetic neutrality that is worth mentioning. Quatremere de Quincy complained as long ago as 1815 about the

strange system which has prevailed for some time in Europe. The public has      become persuaded that the secret to making the Arts flourish lies in these           assemblages of works known as collections, cabinets, museums. All the nations,            in emulation of one another, have made such a singular thing of them that one has         not yet thought of noticing that masterpieces or models, brought together at great      expense, all existed before there were collections and that since one has made     museums to create Masterpieces, there are no longer any masterpieces to fill the       museums.[41]

It was in the 19th century that contemporary art museums were first founded, and began harvesting art for the future, to use Bazin’s expression.[42] Now it might be said that many artworks are intended from their outset for the rarified environment of the museum, or at least that they are created under the knowledge that the museum is likely to be their final destination. Rather than being imposed on works, then, the neutral conception of art is often the context within which contemporary works are created. Some artists have rejected this view of art as so much fodder for museums, but the strong passion with which many reject it--the avant garde wanted to burn down the museums, and the curator Salomon Reinach describes museums as cemeteries--indicates the impact of this view[43]. When Maurice Barres wrote that the “dead corrupt the living,”[44] he meant that museums with their focus on the past prevent us from appreciating art as a living thing, not something to be studied but something to agree or disagree with, to reject as wrong or to take to heart. But in creating a conception of art as something to be objectively studied, museums have had their impact on artists, as well, who may create their works as objects of study, each reflecting a unique patch of cultural space--a previously uncollected butterfly--rather than making a living claim about art and the world. That is, artists may create their works for the cemetery, even before those works have a chance at the sort of life artworks of the past have led, not as the objects of study but as statements about art and the world.


Ironically, despite the issues being raised about the conceptions of art that museums make manifest, and despite the wide availability of art images outside the museum in Malraux’s Museum without Walls and on the internet, museums are currently being constructed at an unprecedented pace. But museums are more and more becoming artistic statements in their own rights, rather than mere exhibition spaces housing collections of artworks whose images can be accessed elsewhere. As Solomon writes in the New York Times, instead of the Museum without Walls we have the museum “that is just walls.”[45] Museums compete to “inhabit the most spectacular buildings” rather than “acquire the finest pictures.”[46] As we have seen with the Tate Modern, the critics seem to be alternately exhilarated and disturbed by this trend (a golden age of architecture, Solomon calls it, but her article is oddly negative in tone), which serves to indicate the power of the claim that is being made on us, which is that museums can be artworks that are as important as the works contained within them, rather than serving as self-effacing warehouses. Of course, museums have long made their homes in architecturally significant buildings, but the critics are now complaining that the buildings are becoming the point of it all, the reason for the museum’s being, and that they are complicating how we view the artworks within them.

These museum-artworks I will call meta-art, not only because they are housed in architecturally significant buildings, but because through their ambiance, style, and organization, they give us meaningful interpretations of art and the world, just as other artworks do. The Tate Modern is an example of a meta-artwork, a creative re-envisioning of how art should be experienced which does indeed involve the imposition of the creative vision of architects and curators on the works of painters and sculptors. But if we no longer believe in the objectivist approach to art that the neutral museum exemplifies, this becomes not only acceptable but even, arguably, desirable. The artwork that is the museum cannot be required to stay neatly within its frame because it is a living expression of culture, not a subject of dead study; it makes claims on us and on other artworks and traditions. Under this view, artists do not have any special right to withhold their works from re-interpretation, from being subsumed in other works, re-interpreted, attacked, or used in unintended ways. Of course, artists have never had these rights (consider, again, the highly religious works housed in secular museums), but we acted as if they did, when we proclaimed our museums to be neutral institutions that would not involve the imposition of anything on the artists’ unique visions. Under the conception of meta-art, although artists cannot prevent their works from being subsumed in meta-works, whether in the form of their actual physical canvas, or through the reappropriation of motifs and styles, at least their works are a part of the ongoing conversation of art.[47]

Additionally, I would like to apply the term meta-art to art movements, theories, philosophies, and histories, on the grounds that these too are art-creations. According to Malraux, art “involves a constant metamorphosis of forms due to…the nature of the creative act.”[48] This constant metamorphosis, I would argue, involves not only the forms of art, the styles and schools, but also ideas about how art is to be used, presented, interpreted, identified, and defined, as well as how broadly the term art should be applied, for just as humans create artworks, we created the concept of art, the ways of life that are associated with it, and the increasingly general scope of its application; and just as we created it as it is now, so we can make into something new. Questions such as what is an artwork for? What sort of artwork is especially important or sacred? Where do we house artworks, and in what sort of arrangement? What other aspects of our lives--religious, intellectual, emotional, social, political--do artworks involve? have been and will continue to be given different answers in different historical periods, and not because people of one age or another are mistaken, or in a state of evolutionary progression towards the one true conception, but because our conceptions of art can be as creative as the forms that particular artworks take. In short, I am arguing for a relativism about art.

Relativism might seem to come naturally to the field of aesthetics. After all, Nietzsche declared morality to be art in order to establish morality’s relativity, thus assuming art as the paradigm of that which is relative. But the same sorts of problems with relativism crop in aesthetics as do in other fields, such as problems with the incoherence of arguing for specific practices without metaphysical justifications for doing so. Vis-à-vis the issues of this paper, relativism about art would give no special privilege to the objectivist view of art but seemingly no grounds for attacking it either. Ultimately, relativism would seem to lead us to a sort of hyper-neutrality, in which every sort of museum, every aesthetics, because equivalent (just as the artworks themselves do inside the neutral museum), all being expressions of culture, with the objectivist view of art being merely one option among others. The problems with neutrality discussed above—the hermeneutical problems, the negative impact on the creation of new art[49]—would seem to apply here as well, along with a further problem: surely, one might argue, there is a seeming incoherence in these moves towards hyper-neutrality in that they seem to preserve a form of objectivity while at the same time denying objectivity.

I believe the way out of this conundrum is to accept the relativism (about art) but to deny the necessity of neutrality in response to it, as Rorty and others have done.[50] But while relativism does not require any particular response, including hyper-neutrality, it does seem to lead psychologically to a form of numbness when confronted with the possible options, presumably because of the awareness it gives us of the metaphysical indefensibility of any single approach. Thus we are faced with a postmodern malaise. I would suggest that we use this hyper-neutrality to critique stultifying or dead institutions,[51] and then will the ability to believe in new ones not merely as cultural expressions that we approach neutrally but as living institutions. That is, assuming it is possible to forgo Rortean irony for a Jamesian Will to Believe.[52] We could begin by working to define art in a different sense, by making it into something rather than finding out what it is, participating rather than viewing it from a distance.

Before concluding, I would like to compare the view I am espousing with the cyclical view of art as proposed by Anita Silvers. Silvers argues that, “the history of art-theoretical stances appears to be cyclical rather than linear. Theories and their associated styles can be expected to recur, to be recreated or rediscovered or readapted century after century.”[53] While this view allows for historical change in our modes of understanding or appreciating art, it metaphorically at least limits the range of possible change to a certain set of options, and the movement between them to a stable and orderly back-and-forth. The conception of meta-art, on the other hand, does not reduce art to a predeterminable course, describable in the language of mathematics. Art history itself becomes our creative product, something we make rather than live through as we do through historical cycles. The benefits of such a view are many. To see art as allied to itself rather than to history, philosophy, or science, gives us a sense of the consonance of the great and small. It may also give us hope when faced with threats of the end of art, as in Danto’s article that Silvers was responding to in her comments above. Outside philosophy, as well, people feel this threat, as indicated by a science fiction short story I once read in which copyrights are attacked on the grounds that music will no longer be composable without infringing someone’s copyright, as there are only so many sequences of notes available for composition, as if there aren’t many other ways besides sequences of notes in which musical works are creative, as if tempo, rhythm, types of instruments, style, genre, length of the piece, amount of repetition within it, do not all make music subject to endless creative permutation. To know that creativity is not limited to a certain set of options, but can be expanded to allow us to decide how we are to use and appreciate art as well, may help us to make it new again.

The Tate Modern’s critics might still demand to know why art is being made new again in this particular form, with its intimidating industrial spaces and Terry Gilliamesque atmosphere. But I believe there is something important to be learned about the status of art from the overwhelmingly positive public response to the Tate Modern. The public, in my view, wants to escape the neutral conception of art as exemplified by the traditional museum. As many have pointed out, our museums are becoming more and more like funhouses or theme parks, like Disneyworld, as indeed are our restaurants and historic sites. As Danto writes: “it sounds very much as if museums and cathedrals together have been disneyfied in a world in which eating, shopping, and seeing the sights--museums and cathedrals, for example--are on a level and of a piece. They are aspects of the world of entertainment.”[54] In my view this is not because people want to be entertained rather than to think, as Perl and Danto seem to believe, but rather because they want to be immersed in art, and in another world, rather than view it from an ironic distance. We want this all the more given the multiplicity of images, easily ignored as Benjamin wrote that architecture is easily ignored, given its omnipresence in our life, that surround us in this multimedia age. There is little that is unusual enough in our experience to absorb us as paintings, seen rarely, once did, and we crave that experience. Art has become something that is either distanced from our lives, like the objects of another culture, or so integrated into our lives as to be without emotional impact. A funhouse museum like the Tate Modern, which has the sort of ambiance a culturally sophisticated haunted house might have, gives us the immersive and emotional experience that we have been lacking. The artworks within it are indeed subordinate to the overall scene, some of them becoming as it were props in the effect (for instance, Louise Bourgeois’ enormous spider-work, Maman, and her three ominous oversized towers topped with chairs surrounded by mirrors, which was exhibited in the Modern when it first opened), while others seem to play no role in the overall effect at all. The works jostle against one another, positively and negatively, rather than remaining steadfastly in their place; and the curators, as well as the architects, have had their say. This museum is not merely a classificatory institution committed to educating the public about different forms of art, and that is just why the public likes it.

In his article on the history of the museum, Danto describes MOMA as serving as a kind of passionate inspiration to those who lived it: as he writes, “we visited the Met, but we lived the Modern.”[55] For Danto, the MOMA was a museum that changed lives. One of the reasons it did that is that people believed in the vision of life and the role of art in life that it offered. It perhaps goes without saying that people do not have that sort of conviction in the case of the Tate Modern. It is more like Disneyworld than a cathedral; the belief in the world of that museum, the immersion in it, is pretence. The impact of our relativistic neutrality on art is profound. We may visit the land of aesthetic conviction only as tourists, but that we want to visit at all is an indication of our fervent desire to once again believe in art of spiritual and emotional power. Whether that belief can be made reality is as yet unknown.

[1] See Jed Perl, “Welcome to the Funhouse,” The New Republic Online, June 19, 2000, (January 6, 2003); David Bonetti, “Tate Modern a Marvel of Reconstruction,” San Francisco Examiner, July 16, 2000 (January 6, 2003); and Alan Michael Parker, “A Trip to the Tate Modern,“ Salon, July 11, 2000, (January 6, 2003).

[2] Perl.

[3] Brian Sewell quoted in Parker, p. 2.

[4] Bonetti, p. 2.

[5] Ibid., p. 3.

[6] Perl.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Arthur Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).

[10] Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, p. 119

[11] Charles Saumarez Smith, “Museums, Artefacts, and Meanings,” in The New Museology, ed. Peter Vergo (London: Reaktion Books, 1989), p. 12.

[12] Ibid., p. 6.

[13] Ibid., p. 9.

[14] Andre Malraux, Museum without Walls trans. Stuart Gilbert and Francis Price (London: Secker & Warburg, 1967), p. 14. On that same page Malraux argues that if we could feel what the original spectators of an Egyptian statue or a Romanesque crucifixion felt upon viewing those works, “we would make haste to remove them from the Louvre.” It is fascinating that philosophers who argue that the historical context or heuristic in which the work was created is what constitutes the work are so uninterested in the motives, often religious, in which important works of art were created; or, if interested, allow little to follow from them.

[15] Deborah Solomon, “Is the Go-Go Guggenheim Going, Going…” in The New York Times Magazine (June 30, 2002), p. 41.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Germain Bazin, The Museum Age trans. Jane van Nuis Cahill (New York: Universe Books, 1967), p. 265. I owe my descriptions of events in museum history, including the account below of the conflicts over the founding of Vienna’s pinakotheke, to this detailed and fascinating book.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., p. 267.

[20] Ibid., p. 252.

[21] Ibid., p. 115.

[22] Ibid., p. 159.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Perl, “Welcome to the Funhouse.”

[26] Bazin, The Museum Age, p. 195.

[27] If you believe that it is possible in principle to make copies of artworks that function as instances of the work, rather than merely as reproductions, there is no reason why we cannot appreciate the work anywhere in any context at all, and bring our knowledge of the work’s history to it. This is the position of Currie, who argues in An Ontology of Art that setting is never a part of the work’s identity. While the original setting might provide information necessary to the understanding of the work, the appreciator can bring that knowledge to bear on an instance of the work that is far removed from the setting, just as he or she can with a musical work or a novel. Leaving aside the complicated issues of identity, it seems clear to me that the setting of a work has a subliminal impact on our appreciation of it that cannot be denied. Furthermore, it helps to produce our cultural understanding of how such works are to be responded to. Perhaps one reason that Currie believes that setting is not important is because Modernism, a prevalent and powerful ideology of art during the 20th century, has taken that stance, both ideologically and concretely. In other words, because the discordant setting in which he has viewed art in the Modernist age had a strong impact on him and convinced him of the ideology that art is separable from the world around it into neat, tidy pieces. So much for the power of museum settings to create a certain (debatable) stance about art.

[28] Malraux, Museum without Walls, p. 53.

[29] Ibid., p. 16.

[30] Ibid., p. 14.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid., p. 14-15.

[33] Ibid., p. 607.

[34] Ibid., p. 127. While at first such cross-cultural appreciation might take the simple form of careful attention towards that which had once been ignored, it makes sense that it would naturally lead us towards an anthropological theory of art in which art is defined as a cultural product. See Richard L. Anderson, Calliope’s Sisters (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1990), for a more anthropological account.

[35] Ibid., p. 609.

[36] Ibid., p. 65. See Richard L. Anderson, Calliope’s Sisters and Jerrold Levinson, Music Art, and Metaphysics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990). Although I suspect this applies to other theories as well, I don’t have the space to work out the details here. In Levinson’s theory, an artist must intend to create art, but art as it is understood in his/her time (or, presumably, culture). In the future, if and when the concept of art changes profoundly, the artist’s work will still be art because of its historical connections despite the fact that it is quite different from what art currently is and was originally intended to be used in an entirely different fashion than art currently is; i.e., was not intended to be displayed in a museum. These sorts of differences are discussed in a footnote on p. 50; past artworks might be quite different in how they were intended, but as long as they meet the minimal conditions we would call them art. He writes, “we are after a univocal notion of art, applicable in the present, with respect to which all art, present and past, can be seen to be encompassed,” italics his.

[37] Gregory Currie, An Ontology of Art (London: MacMillan, 1989), p. 104.

[38] See the account of Dilthey’s thought in Joseph Rouse, Knowledge and Power (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987).

[39] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd edition (New York: Crossroad, 1991), p. 367.

[40] See Danto, Beyond the Brillo Box (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1992), p. 213, where he discusses the paradox of art museums housing the sort of artworks that “call the museum into question.”

[41] Quoted in Bazin, The Museum Age, p. 191.

[42] Bazin, The Museum Age, p. 216.

[43] Ibid., p. 265.

[44] Quoted in Bazin, The Museum Age, p. 265.

[45] Solomon, “Is the Go-Go Guggenheim Going, Going,” p. 38.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Perhaps something like this idea, that artworks do not leave the world of present action the minute they are created, and are thus still subject to being remade, acted upon, even destroyed, was behind Robert Rauschenberg’s work Erased De Kooning,

[48] Malraux, Museum without Walls, p. 609.

[49] A reviewer pointed out an additional troubling aspect of relativism for aesthetics. Some museums, or for that matter art movements or individual artworks, might be offensive for ethical reasons. A museum that was created by a totalitarian government to promote certain objectionable ideological goals surely is not worthy of our acceptance, in the way that a museum that promotes pluralism and tolerance is. Surely we want grounds for critiquing such a museum and the propaganda it houses. I am not a relativist about ethical questions, so I would argue that such museums can be critiqued from the non-relativistic standpoint of ethics. I would like to thank the reviewer for his very helpful comments. For obviously art is not separated from the discussion of ethical concerns, or for that matter from speculation about matters of fact and metaphysical concerns. To the extent that these domains are not relativistic, art certainly comments on and is involved in non-relativistic matters, and can surely be critiqued for being morally or factually incorrect.

[50] See Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

[51] I take it that Jacques Derrida sees this is one benefit of his deconstructionism. See Christopher Norris, Derrrida (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987).

[52] For William James, there are things that are constituted by our very act of believing in them, such as sports teams or governments, which we must do before we have any proof that they are worth believing in. I see art as being of this nature, and would argue that we have to first believe in our art histories and philosophies in order to bring them into existence. How we make ourselves will to believe when we are skeptical and ironical (as we may be at this point in our history) is another question, and one James does not in my view adequately address.

[53] Anita Silvers, “The Rebirth of Art,” in The End of Art ed. Berel Lang (New York: Haven Publications, 1984), p. 231. In this article, she is arguing against a relativism about art.

[54] Danto, Beyond the Brillo Box, p. 201.

[55] Ibid., p. 211.

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