BY Frazer Ward in Frieze | 07 JUN 99
Featured in
Issue 47

Critical Mass

MoMA's 'Museum as Muse' and the fate of institutional critique

BY Frazer Ward in Frieze | 07 JUN 99

Any exhibition at MoMA that includes so many living artists raises the spectre of their historicisation. For months before the opening of 'The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect' there were intermittent rumours that this was the institutional critique show (as though it was somehow a natural occurrence, or Platonic ideal). These rumours, and discussion about who was in and who was out, provoked as much anxiety as the counter-rumours that it was not an institutional critique show (as though institutional critique had somehow missed the boat). The title should have been a dead giveaway: it was not 'the institutional critique show' and neither did it claim to be. It was an exhibition about collections and collecting, and the very thing that institutional critique sets itself against - the fetishisation of objects. (It was telling that Barbara Bloom's cloying study of the psychological aspects of private collecting, The Reign of Narcissism, 1988-9, occupied a pivotal room of its own, while Marcel Broodthaers' fictional public museum got relatively short shrift.) Evidently, museums find it difficult to attract sponsorship for large, recent-historical thematic exhibitions when the themes do not necessarily promote the contemplation of objects. In this context, 'The Museum as Muse' might be seen as a big fat compromise. But given the analyses by institutionally critical artists (including those in this show) of museum practices directed toward the validation of autonomous art objects, you might be inclined to ask of those who are up in arms, 'what did you expect?'.

Curated by Kynaston McShine, the show assembled almost 200 works ostensibly arranged in five somewhat provisional categories: 'The Museum in Use', 'The Personal Museum', 'Natural History and Ethnography', 'The Museum Transformed' and 'Museum Politics'. Louise Lawler's cocktail napkins added 'Cereal for Breakfast', 'Soup for Lunch' and 'Art for Museums', (almost enough said), but the show really only offered two main lines of inquiry. One was a vein of work that might be seen to be derived from Joseph Cornell's romantic arcana, concerned with apparently idiosyncratic, psychological relations to collections of objects. Susan Hiller's From the Freud Museum (1991-96), a large, museological arrangement of objects with private resonances, and Janet Cardiff's slightly creepily eroticised audio tour were perhaps the most striking contemporary representatives of this. On the other hand there ran, of course, a Duchampian vein, signalled by the display of eight - count them - Boîtes-en-valise, fabricated between 1935 and 1968, which gave even them a slightly obsessional air. These were works which, broadly speaking, examined the institutional production of aesthetic value and its relation to other kinds of value, and which have come to be known as institutional critique. Now-classic works were included, by Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, Andrea Fraser (whose version of the pathological docent might productively be compared with Cardiff's), Hans Haacke and Allan McCollum. In addition there was a new work by Michael Asher, Catalog of Deaccessions 1929 through 1998 (exactly what it says), which apparently unsettled MoMA enough that its chief curator, Kirk Varnedoe, felt compelled to insert a defence of the practice in terms of 'swapping' like-for-like, which only seemed to affirm the commodity status of the museum's collection.

Of course, these two kinds of inquiry, dealing with the poetics of collections or institutional critique, are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They came together in Lothar Baumgarten's captioned slide tour of the Pitt Rivers Museum's ethnographic collection (Unsettled Objects, 1968-9), and in Mark Dion's The Great Chain of Being (1998), a meticulous reconstruction of a 19th-century display of natural-historical taxonomy. Most poignantly, perhaps, the two veins of work were intertwined in a gallery containing both Louise Lawler's collectible souvenir crystal Paperweights (1982-95), each encasing a photograph of a work of art in an institutional context, and Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler's Leaf Peeping (1988) and MoMA Whites (1990). Leaf Peeping offered jars of paint matched to the autumn colours of each tree in MoMA's sculpture garden, arranged in a pattern that mapped the plan of the garden; MoMA Whites is a set of eight jars of white paint in the different shades preferred by various MoMA curators. The comical elegance of these works seemed to underscore their engagement with both the contextual and obsessional aspects of the production of aesthetic value.

To the extent that the exhibition did engage with institutional critique, and included artists associated with it, it displayed a certain reticence; indeed, the question might be asked 'what is the work of institutional critique in the age of the museum blockbuster?'. As Carol Duncan puts it in her book Civilizing Rituals (1995): 'What we see and do not see in art museums - and on what terms and by whose authority we do or do not see it - is closely linked to larger questions about who constitutes the community and who defines its identity.' There are all kinds of bones to pick with The Museum as Muse, not just exclusions (Christian Phillip Müller and Group Material, among others) and inclusions (the formulaic pathos of Christian Boltanski, the bombastic and unconvincing martyrdom of Art & Language's paintings), but the broader question is how institutional critique relates itself to larger communities. People in the art world who are invested in institutional critique are not, surely, disappointed because this or that artist was not included. A community that defines itself through its critical relation to the museum as a legitimating institution, in a sense, needs the museum to be just as big and bad as institutional critique sometimes describes it. And it's not as if institutional critique had no institutional support (especially in Europe). On one level, 'The Museum as Muse' seems bound not to please any of its constituencies. People interested in Cornellian, poetic spaces are perhaps unlikely to be much interested in Hans Haacke's detailed account of the provenance of a Seurat study; those interested in analyses of the material and ideological operations of the museum seem liable to be unmoved by Christian Milovanoff's photographs of feet from famous paintings (though who can blame them?). But to insist that, as regards the museum, there must only be materialist and ideological analyses, is to risk fetishising critique (and a particular understanding of what it means to be critical), as much as anyone ever fetishised an object.

Of course artists have a legitimate claim for wanting some say in how their work becomes historicised. Still, even if 'The Museum as Muse' performed the worst kind of decontextualisation and dehistoricisation, would that mark the end of institutional critique? If this is the source of some of the anxiety surrounding the show, it risks positing a neat split between a knowing audience and the rest of the culture cattle, passively doing what they are told (when in fact the museum seems to be one of relatively few places where non-specialist audiences still feel able to question authority - 'why is that art?' - for all its implied philistinism). Such a position also seems to fly in the face of what institutional critique has demonstrated, especially when conducted in and with museums: though it represents class and corporate power, the museum is also a layered space, shot through with competing interests, however asymmetrically powerful. The museum remains a place where someone - an artist, but also a viewer - can float an idea.