Art Fund Curator Talk #3 – “Politics of Display” (16 April 2015)

The third of the eight part seminar series with the title Politics of Display will investigate the charged liminal space between a work of art and audience, and the art institution. Bringing forward Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine’s publication Exhibiting Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Display, the seminar will focus on the relationship of representation and the cultural relics within participation.

The term “politics of display” refers to how we can describe the considerations and decisions that motivate collectors and curators and museums and galleries when they come into contact with artefacts of non-native origin that they wish to present to the public. It addresses issues of cultural assumption, distortion versus representation, ideology versus impartiality and neutrality, how value systems are expressed through curatorial decisions.

In her third seminar for fig-2 curator Fatoş Üstek led a discussion of politics of display starting with a number of conceptions that we find in Karp and Lavine’s 1991 volume of essays Exhibiting Culture, and exploring how these ideas have been developed in the intervening two decades. I’m going to dip between the texts, the seminar, and my own responses.

The introduction begins “Every museum exhibition, whatever its overt subject, inevitably draws on the cultural assumptions and resources of the people who make it. (p1)”; in dealing with artefacts taken from other cultures the challenge to museums is to present those cultures in a manner that doesn’t falsify or degrade them. This has not always been the case. At earlier points in history museums have deliberately set out to create ideologically programmatic narratives in their presentation of cultural artefacts.

Üstek describes museums as “post-Enlightenment examples of rational epistemology”; the way they construct the knowledge they present is guided by the principles of philosophical rationalism, as an expression of underlying truths apprehended via the intellect. This sounds laudable enough, but contains its own danger: it is explicitly ideological. It is a narrative, foregrounding reason, which risks overlooking messy, irrational and contradictory elements.

In Curationism David Balzer describes how in 1793 the Louvre was created as a symbolic part of the body politic, to showcase the values and aims of the emerging French Republic, under Napoleon becoming a propaganda display of spoils of war. After Waterloo the British adopted a similar model with the British Museum. To gallerist Karsen Schubert “The museums presented their political masters as custodians of world culture. In effect, the museum became the handmaiden of imperialism.” The actual qualities of the objects are subsumed by the narrative.

In “Objects of Ethnography” (Ch. 20) Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett makes a fascinating post-structuralist point about how ethnographic objects are not defined by their inherent properties but by their presentation. I’d like to quote it at length: “Ethnographic artifacts are objects of ethnography. They are artifacts created by ethnographers. Objects become ethnographic by virtue of being defined, segmented, detached, and carried away by ethnographers. Such objects are ethnographic not because they were found in a Hungarian peasant household, Kawkiutl village, or Rajasthani market rather than in Buckingham Palace or Michelangelo’s studio, but by virtue of the manner in which they have been detached, for disciplines make their objects and in the process make themselves. (p387)”

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett notes that ethnographic display is “guided by a poetics of detachment, in the sense not only of material fragments but also of a distanced attitude.” This refers not just to the process whereby displays are curated, but how the viewer is (or was) encouraged to read these displays. In the intervening twenty years since she wrote this we have seen much more effort on the part of museums and galleries to involve the viewer in what is presentated. This has been facilitated in part by technology (such as the interactive iPads scattered around the Grant Museum) and partly by a growing shift in emphasis regarding the relationship between the viewer and the viewed, a shift that began in the 1990s whereby artists began to be talked about as creators of situations rather than objects, and the audience not as the viewer or beholder but repositioned as a co-producer or participant.

Steven Lavine proposes that museums have a moral responsibility to promote conversation rather than their own monologue. This is to address the ideological narrativization of display, but also the problem of aestheticization: that by taking an object away from its origin and resituating it in a gallery it becomes, to Svetlana Alpers in “The Museum as a Way of Seeing” (Ch. 1) “an object of visual interest” (p25) – that it becomes an art object. This is a double detachment, not only in terms of taking objects away but also via that distanced attitude: this is the key to what a “poetics of detachment” means.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett goes even further in drawing an implicit comparison between pre- and post-Enlightenment display in the example of showing people as living rarities. In 1501 live Eskimos were exhibited in Bristol (p402), kicking off five centuries of audiences flocking to displays of ethnic groupings from Aztecs to Zulus. The nineteenth century is famed for ethnographic displays staged and billed as theatre, often dramatising an Imperial duality about its ethnic subjects: their Otherness is framed by the twist-in-the-tale that they also demonstrate familiar attributes of humanity. Today we marvel at the ability of chimps to do human things like communicate or mourn, but in these displays the Victorians were marvelling at human beings appearing human. In the twentieth century, emboldened by Victorian hierarchies of savagery and civilisation, eugenics arrived as “the self-direction of human evolution” applying Enlightenment approaches to the ‘improvement’ of the human, with horrifying consequences.

Fatoş Üstek finds that contemporary display practice is, or should be, concerned with the way that audiences produce knowledge rather than how curators do this for them. The previous fig-2 curator seminar discussed this at length, where in the context of ‘meaning making’ there are the didactic and pedagogical approaches, as well as what Roland Barthes calls “mothering” where learning is supported but not imposed: the analogy is learning to ride a bike; someone can steady you but only you can be on the bike.

I don’t know how persuasive this is in the context of ‘politics of display.’ Surely at some point there has to be an authority when an audience is looking at an unfamiliar object? Otherwise how do we learn what it is? The problem is, as Svetlana Alpers says “we know that any order we place on material is ours and not necessarily theirs [the people who made it]” (p7). Best practice would seem to be to address this directly by, as Üstek argues, creating responsive communities rather than passive audiences. It is a question of engagement.

Society is more hybridised than it used to be, and following the postmodern displacement of grand narratives, we are more informed by a multiplicity of responses to the world and ways of being. Museums nonetheless embody certain assumptions of culture – such as that culture exists at all, and furthermore that there are a multitude of cultures that are different from each other. The act of display recontextualizes the nature of what is displayed – it becomes an art object, it becomes part of a narrative, it is taken away from its maker and given to the viewer. Who is the insider and who the outsider here? If an artefact is taken from a specific country or continent and re-presented in England, are you as someone from that country or continent, or with that background, looking at it in England, on the inside or the outside? Both the object and the viewer have been subject to distance, in both relocation and re-presentation, and the representation of the relocated culture is subject to the implicit or explicit narrative imposed by its display.

The question for an artist is how to relate to the production of your work of art within the assumptions of its recontextualisation by curators in a space and how to regard its new identity – is it yours or not? From the point of view of the organiser/exhibitor, how do you respond to this while producing a ‘spectacle’ and accepting the fact it is a re/-presentation. For an audience, the encounter is situated in a context that you know is not real but is given. Old-fashioned folkloric displays are passé, and the Disneyland-esque spectacle of the recent Bjork show at MoMA has been universally panned. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett concludes “The question is not whether or not an object is of visual interest, but rather how interest of any kind is created. All interest is vested. (p434)”


Postscript: On crypto-relics and universalism

Matthew Bown in a recent article ‘Traces of the holy’ in the TLS traces a compelling analogy between the trade in saints’ relics in the past and art in the contemporary world. Despite the dominance of the Duchampian model of conceptualism, that supposedly defies aura and authenticity, aura and authenticity are what is sought by audiences and collectors alike. If an individual work loses its attribution to an artist it’s still the same work, but it isn’t: it’s not just its value that will plummet, but it will lose that special magic that comes via its association with a name.

There is a ‘holiness’ of the objects that are displayed and sought and bought. In ‘Resonance and Wonder’ (Ch 3) Stephen Greenblatt examines two related concepts: resonance, where a work evokes a larger world to the viewer, and wonder, where the object has a sense of uniqueness to evoke an exalted attention.

Wonder seems very like what Matthew Bown describes: “[Simon] Schama’s test for Rembrandt – you stand in front of a painting and just feel its miraculousness” which is no more plausible than the tests employed in the Middle Ages to gauge the ‘miraculousness’ of an artefact.

Resonance on the other hand I would see as something that the curator can manage by good display practices. Toward the end of the seminar one member of the audience gave an example of a work that she saw that was one erased wall. It resonated with her directly as speaking to the occupation in Istanbul, and the reason she mentioned it was because she acknowledged that it would not have such a resonance to anyone without that experience. As we have discussed, this is not unique to such examples from contemporary art practice, but it is a factor in considering the ethnographic object too (that they are defined relationally rather than by inherent qualities).

Fatos Üstek asked whether in order to engage with other ways of seeing, we would need to reclaim the notion of resonance. I would ask if this is not a mechanism by which we universalize the precise experience of otherness. If we look at an object we find strange, we understand it by recognizing aspects of it that correspond to our experience. In western culture there is a universalizing impetus that assesses the aesthetic value of work, but what does it mean to be universal?

As Bown notes, it is the Mona Lisa’s blandness that has made it iconic. Vasari didn’t see any resonance, wonder or miraculousness in la Giaconda. Furthermore “from the point of view of discourse, the more impoverished, inarticulate, or mysterious – the more rubbishy – the art-object, the better.” Saints’ relics are rubbishy – foreskins, fingernails. The most precious ethnographic objects are not those which have been attributed value in their day, that have not been deliberately preserved; instead the more commonplace and quotidian objects tend to perish and vanish from history, and whatever survives achieves value through its scarcity centuries later.

Value is relational and applied from without. The auction house, the blockbuster big name brand museum or art institution, the individual curator, the artist or maker of objects, all pursue their own notions of value, and, in conclusion, it is this relativism that defines the workings of a ‘politics of display.’ What we find more than ever today is that ethnographic display and art curation are being influenced by the revision of western points of view to include a wider world on a more level playing field: art from China, Russia, Africa, are viewed through the contemporary mirror. But what is the contemporary mirror? Art might aspire to the universal, but whose universal?


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