December 06, 2012

Proposal for a Museum: Daniel Marcus, A Public Museum

In 2013 SFMOMA will close for an ambitious expansion planned to last nearly three years. Reflecting on the closure, grupa o.k. asked several friends and colleagues to imagine their own proposals for a museum in San Francisco. Today’s proposal is by Daniel Marcus.

As the political class moves lemming-like toward the fiscal cliff, partisans of the public sector would do well to ask what we are defending and why, if only to clarify the stakes of struggle. This goes doubly for those of us who claim the mantle of the revolutionary tradition: are we to rally behind the embattled welfare state, or do we look instead to the counter-public sphere of an Occupied Everything? To preserve or to circumvent, to defend or to defame: these are serious questions, weighing equally on the university student as on the artist and curator. The museum and its politics hang in the balance, as well. As a small contribution to this debate, and in hopes of catching a glimpse of things to come (and, possibly, of intervening), I propose a defense of the museum that is also its defamation, a call for preservation and circumvention in the same breath. Consider this my gesture of love in dark times.

Merlin Carpenter, Tate Café 13, 2011

I begin with the above artwork, Tate Café 13 (2011), a black-and-white painting by artist Merlin Carpenter which shows a relatively common fixture of the neoliberal museum: the comment box. The canvas is larger than you might think, 200 x 300 cm, or 6.5 x 9.8 ft. (a scale traditionally reserved for such large-format genres as history painting and gestural abstraction), providing a truly monumental rendering of the museum’s mechanism of visitor feedback — an aspect of the institution that rarely commands such attention. Part of a cohort of paintings depicting the Tate Modern’s fourth-floor café, Carpenter’s comment box refers back to a previous scene of museological call-and-response, Hans Haacke’s infamous MoMA Poll, which confronted visitors to the institution’s 1970 exhibition Information with the question, Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon’s Indochina policy be a reason for you not to vote for him in November?” In Carpenter’s rendition, however, feedback is reduced to a feeble interrogative, with the box’s transparency belying the futility of response. Your comment goes no further than this, suggests the painting: the true levers of power are elsewhere.

Merlin Carpenter, Tate Café (installation view), 2011

Needless to say, this is a sinister state of affairs. As images of the museum and its public, Carpenter’s paintings of the Tate café imagine a world in which spectators have been wholly abandoned to the marketplace: cut loose from ideological surveillance, free to think and do as they like, but without any claim to institutional representation — that is, without a political stake. Not surprisingly, all roads lead to the cappuccino bar and gift shop. In an interview with John Kelsey and Emily Sundblad on the topic of Tate Café, Carpenter condemns the museum’s Blairite populism as symptomatic of the total eclipse of the public sphere under neoliberalism:

Merlin Carpenter: […] We can look at the interior of the Tate Modern as being a pseudo-democratic space that is of course a sham. It’s free to go into the Tate. In JG Ballard’s Millennium People there is a middle-class revolution in a housing estate in West London, and one of their pointless terroristic activities, because they are so angry about being middle-class, is to bomb the ramp inside the Tate Modern. I was at an Occupy London meeting on the ramp of Tate Modern, with permission from the Tate.

John Kelsey: I saw two people fucking on the ramp when I was coming out of the Michael Clark performance.

Merlin Carpenter: Utter freedom.

Emily Sundblad: You have pictures of them.

MC: It’s almost incredible containment and democracy and freedom, all at the same time. It’s the new soft authoritarian world.

Carpenter’s café amounts to a proposal of a museum, and also a proposal of its public — who they are, what they do, and why. Of course, the term “public” is precisely at issue: Tate Café proposes a world where the distinction between public and private is meaningless, ruling out any chance of a politics assimilable to proper museum behavior. In this proto-Ballardian scenario, spectatorship and discourse give way to museum-ramp fucking, with “utter freedom” permitted so long as it does not encroach on the machinery of commerce: four pounds for a latte, 40 euros for an exhibition catalogue, and so on. This account has its merits, but also its faults; I go along with Carpenter in seeing the public/private divide as a site of deepening crisis, but the conclusions he draws seem less clear-cut to me.

Xavier Aaronson photographing a “Babe at the Museum” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

To better grasp the dialectic of public and private, we will need to enter the museum galleries — the “hidden abode” of spectatorship, as Marx might have called it. Consider, for example, the above photograph of the Joyce and Robert Menschel Hall for Modern Photography at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, in which the exhibition space doubles as a site of spectacular self-fashioning — the cameraman stooping to take the picture of an amateur model, whose back is turned to us. For me, the punctum here is Cindy Sherman’s self-portrait photograph, Untitled #204 (1989), which hangs improbably at the center of this divided world, suturing together the incompatible traditions of Renaissance individualism and postmodern self-evacuation. This opposition is mirrored in the gallery at large, with the black-clad woman at left, a security guard, embodying the traditional spectator of art, doing her best to ignore the fashion blogger’s intrusion.

The blogger in question is Xavier Aaronson, creator of the website Babes at the Museum, a clearinghouse for images of fashionable young women, either taken by Aaronson and his accomplices or crowd-sourced from the blog’s iPhone-wielding fan base (a banner ad encourages readers to “tag [their] babe’ing Instagram shots @babesatthemuseum for a chance to be featured on the site”). For the most part, Aaronson’s selections tout “camouflaged looks and discreet flair,” i.e., professional/tourist-class aesthetics, though he occasionally samples from the realm of NSFW self-photography (a handful of photos show BATMs in various states of undress).

“Louise” with Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950, Museum of Modern Art, New York; photo: Xavier Aaronson

What would it mean to claim the BATM as the paradigmatic subject of neoliberal culture? Let me say first what it does not mean: I am by no means arguing that the women (and a handful of men) who appear on the BATM blog are identical with the BATM qua subject; this is not a screed against the jeune fille, in other words. Like the subject of the “selfie” — a genre of digital self-portraiture in which the camera is held at arm’s length — the BATM is an object of the gaze. But she is more than that: her photographic capture is also a kind of exchange, in which model and blogger each ratify the other’s taste. It is easy to see what the photographer gets out of this transaction — the image as commodity, i.e., online content — but less so for the model, for whom the opportunity to have her image taken at random is attended by certain risks. What if the blog is seedy? What if the photograph turns out poorly? Who will see the image, and what will the caption lead them to think?

Diana Tran at the Brooklyn Museum

Some readers may condemn the BATM’s acquiescence to the photographer’s proposition, seeing in it the worst of contemporary narcissism, but nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, there is nothing at all pathological about the desire to be recognized as embodied, performative, gesturing, and speaking, etc.; sartorial intelligence is a defining characteristic of the modern subject, for whom clothing and coiffure have always been key sites of self-fashioning and social distinction. The BATM belongs to this order of public visibility, but with a key difference: in the life-world of the present, there is no longer any location or institution to which her gestures and outfits correspond, no code according to which one costume or posture would take precedence over others, save for constantly shifting notions of formality and informality. The real significance of the photographer’s proposition — “Can I take your photo?” — is therefore that it corrects the public/private imbalance, suddenly clarifying where and who the subject is. All at once, the BATM is exposed to public scrutiny — tested by the camera, we might say — and simultaneously congratulated for having already passed.

“lil’ miss wild @evakush peeking through Penetrable installation at @lacma,” via Babes at the Museum

We may be tempted to see the BATM’s moment of publicity as mere false consciousness, but things are more complicated than that: the BATM is a subject of exploitation as well as privilege; capital invests immense resources in her capture and captivation, and the photographer is only part of this expenditure. Visibility is her privilege, but also her condition of impossibility: once absorbed into the realm of the fashion photograph, she is no longer herself, but merely a self, or self-as-commodity — the “I” as a quantum of purchasing power. For the subject of street photography, the test of visibility changes nothing: she is no more seen than before, no more somebody than nobody. She thought the cameraman had recognized her, but she was only being exploited: the judge was nobody, and her “test” was merely an occasion on which accrue self-image-value, or to coin a Marxian neologism, Selbstbildwert, i.e., social capital in the Instagram age.

If the typist of the 1940s dreamed of being made a Hollywood star, today every guy and gal is potentially a BATM, a generator/user of Selbstbildwert, and the museum’s administrators know this — hence the proliferation of DJ nights, vernissages, and other such attempts at courting BATMs. Thanks to the encroachment of the self-image economy, an army of architects and designers has been mobilized to sanitize the museum for the iPhone eye. Visitors not fortunate enough to become a bona-fide BATM are free to participate in the lower-grade economy of the #artselfie, a term coined by critic Brian Droitcour in reference to selfies taken in front of artworks. (Droitcour’s meme has already spawned a website of the same title, which aggregates Instagram photographs bearing the #artselfie hashtag.) These practices amount to the cultural logic of privatization: they are what will remain of the public sector when the work of neoliberalism is accomplished. Or rather, the BATM is on track to become the only subject of neoliberalism with any legitimate claim to the public sphere. Her appearance tracks the advent of publicness as a purely aesthetic category, without any corresponding system or substructure of public institutions: a superstructure without a base, in other words.

@jessedarling, posted on #artselfie on December 4, 2012. See and

I realize now that “Art after Privatization” might have been this essay’s subtitle. As curators and directors look increasingly to models of private spectatorship, from the self-aggrandizing follies of Eli Broad and François Pinault to the resurgent intimisme of appointment-only exhibition spaces and salons, the public museum already seems a faded memory. This expansion of art’s private sphere is part and parcel of the withering of the museum-as-commons, resulting in a veritable fatwa on undesirable subjects, unmanageable bodies, and unruly speech. As cultural institutions are further colonized by the global tourism industry, visitors who once depended on museums as sites of everyday leisure and self-education are increasingly shut out. To resist the encroachment of capital in the present climate, therefore, means harnessing the museum’s resources against the logic of productivity, elevating time-insensitive activities above the “proper” (i.e., productive) use of space. At least, that would be one way of remaking the museum: reclaiming the cultural commons, from each according to his ability … you know how the slogan ends.

Bibliothèque Publique d’Information, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

My best guess at what this might look like in practical terms comes from a year of doctoral research spent in Paris, during which I often brought my work to the Centre Pompidou, or Beaubourg, as Parisians call it. Erected in the 1970s at the center of a working-class district near the center of the city, which saw heavy street fighting during the insurrections of 1848 and 1871, Georges Pompidou’s massive museum/media center was intended both to gentrify the neighborhood and to pacify the radicals of May ’68, answering the call to revolution with a multi-functional glass container — a bit like Carpenter’s comment box writ large. The only part of Beaubourg that ever made good on Pompidou’s promise (or that of the radicals) is its library, the Bibliothèque Publique d’Information (BPI), which ranks among the most visible examples of the French state’s capitulation to proletarian needs during the slow grind of class struggle in the 1970s.

At the BPI, visitors will find the iron laws of the bourgeois state turned upside down: the library stacks can be accessed without the intervention of a troglodytic bureaucracy (upon its opening in 1977, it was the first open stacks library in Paris, in stark contrast to the Bibliothèque Nationale); its balcony provides adequate space for socializing and smoking, with a view over the sloping plaza below; the coffee at its otherwise blighted cafeteria is very cheap (80 centimes); free Internet access is available to all, even those without computers of their own. Members of Paris’s homeless and migrant populations often come to the library to read free international newspapers and watch television news from their home countries. On the ground floor, job seekers can profit from training seminars and a laboratory for self-instruction, but there is no imperative to be overly productive. Silence is the rule, but no one respects it, least of all the BPI’s overseers, whose constant reminders via loudspeaker that “pickpockets are operating in the library” cast a criminal pall over the entire enterprise.

Hubert Robert, Project for the Arrangement of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre,1796

As an artifact of the now-embattled welfare state, but also of the “imagined community” of the nation, which emerged from the foundry of state-funded education and literacy initiatives, the BPI conjures an earlier scene of public society — one that saw its share of proposals-of-a-museum. I am thinking of the French Revolution, and painter Hubert Robert’s Project for the Arrangement of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre (1796). In the aftermath of the Thermidorian reaction, Robert was given the official task of redesigning the Louvre’s galleries, offering different configurations of paintings, pillars, and other architectural elements (the palace had fallen to the Revolution on August 10, 1792, and was opened to the public on November 8 of the following year). Not content to show the galleries depopulated, Robert projected an image of what he thought the museum’s public might look like, including members of all social classes, from the fashionable aesthetes we see at center to the commoner and her young son behind them, and beyond. We can even locate Robert himself, at far right, depicted at work on a copy of Raphael’s Holy Family, with a small group of spectators gathered round in admiration of his handiwork.

Hubert Robert, Project for the Arrangement of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre, 1796

It is tempting to regard Robert’s museum world as utterly opposed to its neoliberal counterpart, but this is precisely the conclusion I wish to avoid, or at least to complicate. Notice the diversity of activities in Robert’s paintings, which run a wide gamut from polite contemplation to impassioned argument, including a handful of truly strange gestures — see, above, the face-to-face encounter between a reader and the bust of an author (or at least, this is how I read the scene at bottom-right). There were few properly trained subjects of art in Revolutionary France, and for good reason: the entire cultural scene had been overturned during the Terror, and the bourgeoisie’s post-Thermidorian triumph only added to the tumult. By Robert’s time, sartorial extravagance was the order of the day: a postrevolutionary version of the BATM was everywhere in Directorate Paris — a point Robert is keen to emphasize, but also to hedge against. In his paintings of the Louvre, the fashionable folk of Paris fairly explode with gestures of praise and admiration, waving and pointing in a frenzy of vision and criticism. But these expressions stop short of the threshold of violence or lechery, as might not have been the case in reality; the imaginary public has already fragmented into groupuscles and cliques, with few indicators of cross-pollination. My hunch is that Robert understood something of the power of spectacle even at this early date — that by linking self-recognition to self-representation, the artist could provide a measure of social peace, keeping the public spellbound and image-addled during times of social decomposition. Needless to say, occasions of this sort were not long in coming.

This brings me back to the present day, and the question of politics. Throughout much of the 20th century the production and control of spectacle as a surrogate public sphere provided a hedge against the threat of revolution, permitting anything (any image) in the name of social peace — even “utter freedom.” Today, however, the efficacy of this tactic seems to be wearing thin, with elevator music giving way to the percussive boom-clank of tear gas grenades. Now that our fantasies of the future have been downgraded to capitalist realism, the term “the public” is more than ever a walking contradiction. What Robert got right (though repressively), and what Carpenter seems bent on ignoring, is the public’s penchant for misbehavior, its inveterate impiety; but blasphemies alone do not a revolution make, especially when every wayward gesture can easily be recirculated as a meme or GIF. The BATM plays a part of this history, indicating the simultaneous production and recuperation of bad behavior, but she is not the only subject to emerge from the breakdown of spectacle: outside the officially managed sphere of Selbstbildwert exists a veritable “reserve army of publicity,” comprising billions of subjects whose self-images go unseen and un-valorized. What’s true of the “planet of slums” is true of this underworld, as well: there will never be enough spectacle to make Babes of us all.

I promised defense as well as defamation, and now I must make good. For better or worse, the rise of screen-based self-fashioning has enabled public attitudes — and public impropriety — to flourish on an unprecedented scale. The mass aspiration to visibility is a sign of life, even (especially) at its most cringe-worthy. It is also a sign of commodification, self-image becoming human currency. How long this order of the visible/invisible will last is anyone’s guess. Surely the bonds of spectacle cannot hold indefinitely; at some point, the lumpen of the Web will seek their moment in the sun — or seek to destroy it. It remains to be seen whether the museum will have any role in this upheaval, other than as its Winter Palace (to storm or raze). This much is certain, though: the BPIs of the world are artifacts of an earlier age, and while we can and should defend them, by tooth and nail if necessary, we cannot pin any serious hopes on this public sphere as a site of long-term resistance. For us, the Public Museum is only a proposal. It will be whatever the public makes or unmakes.

Daniel Marcus is a PhD candidate in the history of art at the University of California, Berkeley. Find grupa o.k. on Tumblr, and read other proposals here.

Comments (7)

  • Daniel Marcus says:

    True, I’m glad you pointed out the BATM subgenre of the “attentive” spectator. If I’m reading your point correctly, you’re suggesting that the BATM and the “close-looking” spectator might actually coincide more than I’m allowing for, or at least the cameraman wants us to think as much. The Nauman pic you posted to grupa o.k.’s tumblr is a particularly interesting example: on one hand, the photo furnishes us with a classic image of absorptive spectatorship, the girl gazing intently at the artwork from close-up, so much so that she seems not to notice that she is being photographed; on the other hand, though, the object of vision, Nauman’s Double Poke in the Eye II, is hardly a “good object” for close looking: it parodies the scene of optical absorption with a wicked sense of humor. (We might well wonder what the girl hopes to discern from such a close distance that she couldn’t see from far away; the picture is a neon sign, after all.) Moreover, as a generator of colored light, Nauman’s neon turns the tables back on the girl, addressing her in explicitly theatrical terms – a point your tumblr caption wryly emphasizes: “The neon glow hugs oh so nicely around her cheek bones.” I don’t mean to deny the BATM her due as a spectator, but it seems important to insist – in agreement with your comment, I think – that contemplation might very well be mobilized as sign or fetish, particularly at present, when training in close looking is increasingly a sign of status, or at least of good behavior, as distinguished from the figure of the self-photographer.

    As for other forms of public viewership, your description of the Raft of the Medusa scene reminds me of a passage from Tim and Anne’s interview with Jeff Wall. In discussing the varieties of spectatorial subject-positions, Tim proposes Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good Government as exemplary of a painting that requires, or at least supports, a non-monadological (anti-private?) viewer: “If you look at a work like Lorenzetti’s Good and Bad Government, I don’t think it confirms the monadological unity of the viewer. It opens itself for a kind of construction of understanding by persons who, because of the conventions of the picture, are almost forced to pluralize themselves. It is only at a certain point in history that one-point perspective became part of the whole protocol, ideology, regime of individualism, personhood, and representation. And it is the case that art objects, particularly pictures, seem to confirm a unified subject position. They may confirm it by trying to work against it. The alternative I’m positing is one which existed for much of the history of artmaking. This is a relationship in which literally there is a single body, a single person, viewing the artwork. But the singularity is remade and contradicted by the artwork. The work powerfully takes up the individual and confirms and remakes the individual as part of a collectivity.”

    There’s much that could be made of this passage, possibly in a critical mode (critical of my argument, I mean). It doesn’t seem that the figure of the self-photographer offers much in the way of a “non-monadological subject position”; quite the opposite: isn’t the #artselfie evidence of a yearning to be distinguished from the collective? Does this suggest that revisions are needed to our account of individuality and collectivity, or is there really no hope for the kind of public awakening I outline at the end of my essay? Or are the rumblings of Occupy (hand signals, human mic, etc.) the preface to a coming insurrection? I can’t see my way clear of these questions – maybe you, or others, can offer some guidance.

  • Hi Danny, we wonder if your comment’s distinction between private/interior/close looking and the forms of behavior that constitute “public visibility” needs nuance. What we see from looking at Babes at the Museum is that only sometimes are they staged like fashion photography, with art as environment or backdrop.

    But another subgenre of BATM attempts to discover an interiorized, attentive “looking” among their mostly female subjects. This may code in differently complex ways to women’s subjecthood as private, inward-directed, and inaccessible subjects (thinking of Cassatt’s paintings of women reading or certain of Sherman’s Film Stills among other examples… to say nothing of cinema). Certainly this is still a genre of certain sort of male fetish. But “close looking is what I (or “few”) do” is perhaps skirting the aspect of BATM that is now and then at pains to stage the privacy or interiority of its subjects.

    Your post also calls to mind an experience one of us had in the Louvre in 2000, watching several groups of young French schoolchildren before the ‘Raft of the Medusa’—this struck us as a different sort of ‘closeness,’ one related to the public museum as the collective ‘possession’ of the state’s history and patrimony, certainly distinct from the individuated, “private” closeness you account for in the comment. Maybe only a comment on to what use forms of “public viewership” are sometimes put.

  • Daniel Marcus says:

    That’s SFMoMA in the Woody Allen clip, no? I love the lurking Jean Helion painting in the corner during the Pollock/pick-up shot.

    To Frank’s question about center/periphery (or art capitals vs. everyone else) – I agree that close looking (I prefer this term to “contemplation,” which suggests passive meditation over the active work of looking, walking, inspecting, etc.) remains a crucial part of museum culture, though I wouldn’t necessarily say that this is more the case at provincial or peripheral museums than at the MoMAs of the world (Art Basel doesn’t rank as a museum in my book, so I’ll leave it to the side for the moment). To the extent that other models of museum behavior, such as those outlined above, have come to predominate, especially in museums devoted to modern and contemporary art, I think this is in some ways a chicken and egg problem. On one hand, close looking requires some degree of regular access to art collections, and usually some kind of an education in art. Museums used to assume that visitors would already be prepared with basic skills and resources, whether through personal study of art or with the aid of guides and guide-books. As museums have sought to be more inclusive – to reckon with “the public,” in other words – the model of close looking has ceded way to the facilitation of museum “experience,” with the ticketed exhibition as the main draw, rather than the collection itself. This shift has both elevated the price of entry and put the burden on curators and programmers to intervene between the art and the audience, standing in for the pedagogues and tour guides of yesteryear.

    On the other hand, art itself has demanded other modes of engagement than “close looking,” particularly since the “phenomenological turn” of Minimalist art, which emphasized the viewer’s embodied experience of the exhibition or installation – preferring wholes over parts, as prescribed by the seminal writings of Robert Morris and Donald Judd. The rise of performance also played a huge role in shaping post-“contemplative” spectatorship, and I’m tempted to say that modernist architecture had a hand in it as well: the built environments of modernism tend to privilege movement and changing perspectives over standing still. Recent explorations of interactivity and “participation” are ideally suited to the museum-as-experience model, as Claire Bishop and others have pointed out.

    In discussing the prospect of the public’s resurgence in terms of the #artselfie and BATM, I’m trying to account for the dark side (dark matter?) of the exhibition/experience model of the museum, focusing on behaviors that have proliferated in exhibition spaces outside of curatorial control, in which I identify a key aspiration to public visibility – the urge to be acknowledged, seen, validated by others. I’ve only just begun to think through these matters, but I’m certain that a return to the contemplative/close-looking model is not a likely horizon, except as a private privilege reserved to the few, not a public right. For better or worse, I count myself among these few. Close looking is what I do, and what I believe museums are best suited for. But I welcome the violations and desecrations of the public in the sphere of museum practice much more than the return of aesthetes and connoisseurs. There will always be a place for private spectatorship, which is exactly what “contemplation” amounts to (after all, the model of the contemplative spectator is essentially the collector – he who owns the art gets to look as much as he likes). I only ask for more and bolder acts of public impropriety, whatever the cost.

  • Quoting Matt Post, from a roundtable published last year in Fillip under the title ‘Secondary Information: On Criticism’:

    “Why is it that when people create their own institutions or platforms for publication, they use these ready-made formats dictated by the standards of the major magazines? Especially in terms of online platforms, word limits are essentially arbitrary—people say they don’t have time to read ten or fifteen pages on the computer, but at the same time, this is actually a context where the constraints of print publications need not apply.”

    We love that Woody Allen clip.

  • A question, part-way through a second read here, or maybe not even a question, but just an appreciation, of the ‘not-short’ blog post as possibly effective “harnessing [of] the museum’s resources against the logic of productivity, elevating time-insensitive activities above the “proper” (i.e. productive) use of space.”

  • Woody Allen on ‘babes at the museum’ (SFMOMA, 1972):

  • I’m so curious about the quick move from museum space to fashion space here. Such can of course happen in art capitals, but rarely so anywhere else. What do you all think here about older values about the museum as a place for contemplation, outside the W Magazine or Art Basel Miami Beach model? Or for performance, where the museum becomes a space about the live, as a platform?

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