March 08, 2016

A Tale of Conflict: The Contemporary Museum in the Age of Liberalism

Das Minor

The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles recently sponsored a diversity workshop for its staff and board members. This effort was made in response to criticism, mostly from the Los Angeles minority community, that raised questions about the Hammer’s commitment to diversity. The museum responded promptly, believing that such a workshop would improve its ability to serve the general Los Angeles community.

The experience of this workshop was both painful and illuminating. The discussions focused on a fundamental paradox that complicates the mission of the contemporary museum: namely, that museums exist in a global world, but that this world is still evolving from a colonial history, and is therefore bifurcated along the racial and ethnic lines engineered by this history. Despite its global nature, this world remains dominated by a Eurocentric world-view that privileges whites of European descent over people of color.

The effects of this can be seen plainly in the underrepresentation of people of color in exhibitions, and among museum directors and curators.

This global/local paradox is the consequence of certain prevailing liberal ideologies, grounded in modernism, that struggle with an increased demand from minoritarian populations for inclusion — a demand that has intensified as the colonial laws and practices that have historically marginalized these populations have been dismantled. It is further complicated by colonialism’s new forms, namely a system of Western cultural dominance that might be characterized as a partnership between global capitalism and militarism. This new imperialism’s mission is to protect the institutions that preserve Western dominance vis-à-vis markets and ideas, and to ensure that that the free flow of capital predominantly benefits Western interests. This reality results in an unequal distribution of power along racial and ethnic lines, both within the United States and worldwide.

The global development of markets, which on its surface appeared to be a progressive measure, therefore did little to dismantle the power distribution created by colonization. The liberal ideologies that are at the center of Western systems of knowledge, and that form the ideological infrastructure of global capitalism, are instrumentally linked to colonial practices that have been historically dedicated to the preservation of Western institutions. Liberalism’s values were incubated within a structure of social development in which human populations were distributed along an axis of the primitive to the advanced.

Implicit in all this is the idea of progress: a theory of linear development that presupposes a hierarchy of terms and conditions for being human along racial and ethnic lines. For Europe and America, the very idea of human progress was a justification for colonial practices; it gave permission to bring European values to marginal populations. Herein lies the essential paradox that contemporary museums must negotiate: the utopic desire for the betterment of humankind requires the amelioration of racial and ethnic differences, and the elimination of social policies based on difference; but the terms for this betterment were established by European culture, which by default privileges its own cultural values over others. It is as if to say we will achieve full humanity, and the rights and privileges thereof, only under the terms of what we call the European location, which is claimed to be de facto universal. Consequently Western liberalism has proven incapable of responding to and ameliorating the privilege that it accorded to white people of European descent over people of color. This, simply put, is the legacy of the West’s colonial history, and it continues to be responsible for the lack of diversity in its institutions.

The contemporary museum is among the Western institutions that occupy this global and postcolonial terrain. Not only museums, but schools and universities, businesses, churches, even government itself, constitute the brickwork, the material substrate, of what we understand to be the West. And this complex of institutions exists, by default, in paradox. On the one hand, the museum is structurally organized to sustain its Western heritage or identity. On the other, the contemporary museum comes out of a liberal tradition based on emancipatory and revolutionary ideas whose purpose is to improve the lives of people both materially and spiritually. It is furthermore based on the Enlightenment idea of humanity, which locates revolutionary practice within its confines. And as the museum tracks the production of art that it judges to represent the highest or best examples of liberal thought and taste, it finds itself in a highly charged political arena, made so by the increasing presence of populations that globalize and diversify its social space — a population who is demanding full and equal representation within the institution.

Since the end of the Jim Crow laws that were designed to keep political power out of the hands of these minority populations, Eurocentric dominance was maintained with the help of policies and practices that have been characterized as institutional or structural racism. Structural racism is the effect of the conflict in which institutions find themselves; this conflict is between, one, a belief in and a support for liberal values that seek equality for all, and two, a deep desire to sustain Western culture as they understand it — which, as has been explained, operates in a hierarchy that privileges whites.

The belief in humanistic values pushes the museum to be inclusive, to allow representation of all populations no matter their racial status or ethnic origin. But the commitment to sustain Western values is another issue altogether; many of the marginal populations not represented equally in the contemporary museum produce from their own cultural location, because that location informs their subjectivity and speaks to the reality of their lives. Often (though not always) this production highlights the difference between mainstream Eurocentric cultural production and minoritarian cultural production. But no matter what the nature of their production, producers from minority populations (whether artists, directors, or curators) are underrepresented, based not on the marginality of their ideas but instead on the fact of the continued presence of segregated societies.

Because we are living in a time when there is a general suspicion about the paradigm of universal knowledge, often the liberal elite finds itself entangled in the desire to extend liberal values to all and to frame a more inclusive picture of contemporary art and history, but puzzled as to why that liberal elite is nevertheless almost all white.

What the Hammer Museum’s workshop discovered was that the liberalism that is part of the mission of the institution is also structurally committed to a Eurocentric worldview. We see this, for example, when the museum’s commitment to quality — the highest examples of liberal thought and taste — results in the underrepresentation of minoritarian practices and people in its program and among its staff. If we rule out the idea that minority populations are less talented than whites, this commitment to “quality” reinforces de facto structural racism. Even those policies seemingly committed to fairness and justice by treating all populations as equals result in disparity, since the system itself privileges whites.

The good news, however, is that there is recent evidence that a few museums are finding ways to diversify their exhibitions and collections to include people of color. We can list numerous instances of major museum retrospectives that have featured minority artists in the last decade — more shows, really, than in the entire prior history of museum exhibitions. Examples include Glenn Ligon at the Whitney Museum, Mark Bradford at the Hammer Museum, Noah Purifoy at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, Carrie Mae Weems at the Guggenheim Museum, Martin Wong at the Bronx Museum, and Senga Nengudi at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver. (My own exhibitions at the Studio Museum and the Hammer Museum might be included in this list.) We could expand this list further by including major exhibitions in the near future assessing work by Rodney McMillian (three simultaneous exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; Studio Museum in Harlem; and MoMA PS1 in Long Island City) and Kerry James Marshall (a retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago).

The solution to the constraints that structural racism places on diversification can also be seen in some recent group shows (of which my work was part) that, for me, stand as examples of the newest and most exciting curatorial directions to date, which at the same time establish alternatives to the mission to sustain Western Eurocentric values. What these exhibitions suggest is that one possible solution to the liberal agonism around inclusion outlined above might be simply to begin from different premises, to find different starting points.

A first model might be the one proposed by Okwui Enwezor’s design for the 56th Venice Biennale (Venice is not a museum, of course, but is a major institution founded on Eurocentric values). All The World’s Futures, realized in 2015, foregrounded culture in developing its curatorial investigation — in this case, one that traced the many cultural discourses that make up the art from different parts of the world. Rather than employ a construct that would unite the exhibition’s various sites and nations under a single theme or premise (like globalism, for example), Enwezor imagined the world’s art from a cosmopolitan and postcolonial perspective that allowed for the differences among the distinct places and practices it drew together. Relying equally on a Marxist perspective that links politics to aesthetics, All The World’s Futures came together on the basis of the theory of cultural diversity rather than a superannuated and theoretically compromised universalism.

Two more examples will suggest the value of beginning from a paradigm other than a Eurocentric modernism. Bennett Simpson’s 2012 exhibition Blues for Smoke (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles) used the Blues, an American music form, as a lens to conduct a critical exploration of contemporary art. The Blues provided a critical discourse whose origins were located in a distinctly African American social and political history, and offered an example of an art form whose critical and aesthetic properties developed during a crucial time of struggle in this history. Blues for Smoke poetically traced the echoes of the Blues as they resonate in the form and content of the expanded field of contemporary art. The Blues represented a framework for the consideration of art outside the Eurocentric context, and from within critical and aesthetic values that drive culture, not just art.

Organized by Naomi Beckwith and Dieter Roelstraete at MCA Chicago in 2015, The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now employed a uniquely American aesthetic and critical discipline, avant-garde jazz, to assess the meaning of contemporary art practice. The exhibition introduced a group of musicians from Chicago, called the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), dedicated to the advancement of an avant-garde musical form. From this beginning the exhibition explored the role of experimentation and invention more broadly in artworks that span the fifty years since the AACM’s inception. The show highlighted a political dimension of the avant-garde: the aesthetic commitment of experimental music drew from the same social and political conditions that informed, and often enriched, the lives of black Americans, and which allowed them to reinvent themselves to survive the deprivations of Jim Crow segregation.

Conceptualism here is at its core political, framing again a particularly American perspective rooted in black culture and providing the opportunity to feature a diverse selection of artists whose works reflect their community. There was obviously no need in either exhibition to make a special effort to diversify the roster of participating artists, since diversity developed from the start as a logical consequence of the shows’ conceptual frameworks.

These exhibitions stand as useful models for rethinking how exhibitions should work in a cosmopolitan world — particularly in the way they naturalize the relationship between the exhibition thesis and the diversity of the artists whose works are presented. This approach is one way that the contemporary museum can free itself from the paradox I have described; by emancipating the idea of liberalism from Eurocentric ideological constructs, such as the amelioration of difference, the museum is freed up to include multiple populations in its programs.


Artwork by Dana DeGiulio

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