As a Chinese curator who has lived and worked in the United States for the better part of a decade now, I have watched European and American museums’ recent wave of interest in non-Western art, which has resulted in high profile exhibitions and acquisitions, with fascination — and, perhaps, some ambivalence. I have wondered: Do major research programs considering Asia or Latin America or Africa, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, or at the Tate in London, signal a genuine inquisitiveness about art made in a global context? Or do such initiatives follow instead the old logic of the cabinet of curiosity, gathering up objects and ideas that are “little-known,” and therefore “strange” and “different”? Are Western museums that initiate such programs still just flaunting “exotic” material snatched up during their colonial expeditions?
It is possible that these questions overstate things. There are, of course, fundamental differences between the museum’s origins and the present. The West has become increasingly skeptical, for example, about the old idea of the museum as arguing for a model of “progress” that posits Europe as the model against which other places and peoples are measured. The concept of the public, too, has changed, in ways that echo a question once posed by German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin: Who within “the public” benefits from public collections of art? 1 By posing the matter this way, Benjamin forces us to see that museum initiatives and collections might serve different fragments within the big concept of the public — and that these various groups together constitute the field on which the museum’s gestures have meaning, or not.
But I am perhaps still being too abstract. Let us consider, then, an example: the ongoing project Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives (C-MAP) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Devoted to researching “artistic modernism” in a “global context,” C-MAP is an internal research and exchange initiative. As such its primary public would seem to include practitioners within the art field — art historians, curators — and indeed within MoMA itself. Like a similar program at the Tate, research is carried out in various “insidery” ways: through seminars, symposia, publications, scholarly exchanges, a visiting fellowship program, and partnerships with related institutions. Such initiatives revolve around a group of professionalized individuals, and therefore appear to be more or less hermetic and exclusive.
Even as C-MAP is committed to a global context, it is structured according to pre-existing geographic categories — Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, and Latin America — in which “little-known” histories and individuals continue to be objectified as subject matter for museological study. Furthermore, although such initiatives propose to establish exchanges with agencies outside of Euro-American centers, the benefits of such exchanges are often distributed one-way. That is, individuals and representatives of organizations are invited to New York or London to give presentations on their local conditions, while on the other side of the flight itinerary, curators from these major institutions conduct research trips to unfamiliar regions looking for exciting finds; the latter usually don’t distinguish themselves much from a cultural site-seeing tour.
Such activities therefore, despite their value, propose the risk of misrecognition. As cultural critic Wang Hui has pointed out in a pungent response to Fredric Jameson’s ideas about third-world literature, “the idea of the Third World not only covers over the differences among the national cultures included within the concept […] but it also takes national cultural subjective agency as a fiction concocted by anthropology[.]” 2 The result, Wang suggests, is that the real purpose of such an idea is a self-critique of the West, rather than a substantive engagement with Chinese, Indian, or African culture. 3
This state of self-critique means that such initiatives may well contribute to new practices or subjects within Western institutions, but that they can hardly contribute rigorously to the emergence of new paradigms in the places they survey, or to the rewriting of art history. On the one hand, practices from other cultural contexts are consumed within these institutions’ internal narratives; on the other, in their final public presentations these practices are directed towards representing a generic sort of difference — often attributed to a national or regional belonging that the works or artists may actually be struggling to disavow.
Despite these contradictions, the art museum has never been so committed to thinking about the social and political conditions of art on a global level. In one way this “sociologization” of art is an active response to transformations in art and theory, in which the autonomy of art, the writing of history, and traditional forms of studio production are being challenged worldwide. Amid these changes, museums have found it difficult to continue building collections and narratives based on objects’ material conditions alone, as distinct from their political or historical contexts. They are having an increasingly difficult time, as well, carrying on the task of creating an illusion of universal knowledge.
These are good problems to have. Modern museums have, however, been able to respond to these new realities only in limited ways. One major problem is that they are confronted by a still-rigid division into medium-based departments, which were grounded in a formalist genealogy of art. And such departmentalization is now complicated by a new mode of categorization based on geographic locations. This may look at first glance like a progressive move, in response to a new global horizon of art. But it is of course nothing groundbreaking to think about art and culture based on nation-states and geography. It is common practice, for instance, within so-called encyclopedic museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which divide their collections among “Southeast Asian,” “Egyptian,” and “Chinese” galleries and so on. If one task of modernism (and the modern museum) was to liberate art from such national schools, then perhaps we have run into a serious dilemma; what appears to be progress might actually be a return.
The opening of Met Breuer in the former premises of the Whitney Museum further complicates this already puzzling situation. Even as the encyclopedic museum is “becoming modern,” it nevertheless will follow the institution’s deep-rooted rationale of hiring curators based on geography: a curator of South Asian contemporary art, a curator of Latin American contemporary art, and a curator of contemporary Middle Eastern, North African and Turkish art. This is a peculiar turn of the screw. Has the Met somehow become more “contemporary,” that is, more in tune with present “geographical” ways of thinking about art, than MoMA?
Of course, many critics are observing closely the Met’s global mission, and its more or less stated desire to dismantle an art history centered on the West; some of these critics’ commentaries on the opening shows have been more provocative, even aggrieved, than friendly. But realizing such a mission is indeed not easy. Ultimately these various forms of order, and even the seemingly neutral concept of professionalism, reflect a fundamental tendency towards rationalism, which is one core value of Western modernity itself. The museum is perhaps inconceivable without this inheritance. To negate it would be to cancel the museum as such.
What seems clear is that these convoluted scenarios don’t neatly fit the either/or proposition from which I began. But they do leave me wondering about other models, institutions founded on different approaches entirely.
One such model, I would argue, is proposed by the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World Cultures, or HKW) in Berlin. HKW was established in 1989 — a year now seen as pivotal in the development of the new global condition — on the idea of presenting international contemporary art, with a special focus on non-European cultures and societies. Its programs, which include visual arts, music, literature, performing arts, film, academic discussions and digital media, are interdisciplinary and cosmopolitan in nature. Since 2013 they have been presented under an ambitious multi-year thematic umbrella. Entitled 100 Years of Now, the current four-year project addresses global transformations and classification systems that emerged from the First World War. HKW’s stated program is to criticize the existing canon of art history and criticism as “an instrument of institutional power,” but also to construct a different order that creates “forms of literacy and historical consciousness… embedded in wider and contested historical and political contexts.” In essence it proposes to rethink and revise the narratives of Europe’s colonial history.
The value of HKW’s model is its naturally interdisciplinary approach: it rejects the premise of art’s autonomy and gives equal value to visual culture. As a result it is able to connect contemporary art from different parts of the world thematically, and without pigeonholing artists or artworks into national or regional boxes. By not limiting the institution to older encyclopedic or modernist models, new forms of cross-cultural interpretation and presentation are possible.
Is a program like this imaginable in the United States right now? Discussing the Met Breuer’s global mission, the painter Sean Scully suggests that such investments in decolonization “[don’t] play in America, because America was made in an entirely different way… It hasn’t colonized two-thirds of the globe, like the British did.” Although Scully’s rather willfully naïve statement oversimplifies colonialism’s trajectory and the current global political condition, it does return us to my earlier question about the public. The museum’s audience should not be considered only as a group of passive receivers of institutional “gifts,” progressive or not, but as active agents whose understandings (and blind spots) constitute the content and value of these institutional moves.
This raises the question, too, of other publics who might need, or demand, different histories than those set out by MoMA or the Met. Western institutions cannot alone be responsible for reshaping canons and inventing new criteria for understanding art’s new global condition. That task will fall equally to a second model, institutions like Hong Kong’s M+, allegedly Asia’s biggest modern and contemporary art museum. M+ is one of the few state-run institutions in Asia committed long-term to inquiring into art through exhibition and collection. This is in stark contrast to the currently booming Asian, and especially Chinese, private art museums, which often benefit from one individual’s wealth. Serving as showrooms for private collections, the latter frequently lack strategic plans and even curatorial staff.
Meanwhile, and despite many obstacles, including government censorship and slow-moving bureaucracy, M+ offers an important counter-model to these popular private enterprises. The permanent collection, which is grounded in its Asian context, is the basis for the museum’s program, but its activities are hardly limited to art from Asia. Instead it collects works from the US, Europe, Asia, Africa — that is, from the world — from a perspective grounded in the realities of its place. In this way, we might understand M+ to be forging a new canon. Their approach might be equally utopic, but I think of it as offering a different beginning, its own way of writing art history.
Artwork by Dana DeGiulio
- Walter Benjamin, “Eduard Fuchs, Collector and Historian,” Selected Writings: 1935-1938, Volume 3, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2002: 265; via Douglas Crimp, On the Museum’s Ruins, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1993: 201
- Wang Hui, The Politics of Imagining Asia, Harvard University Press, 2011: 300