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.
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.
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.
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).
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.