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David and Art - “What is Art—and a Museum—For?”

What stories could art museums be telling, just from a row of paintings on the wall?

In the 1970s, art museums began to wrestle with some tough questions about civic engagement, and curators, patrons, and directors began debating what exactly the role of a museum should be in the modern age. If you remember last week, we talked about Harry Belafonte telling a crowd that it’s “...artists who reveal the society to itself....” Well, museums are the site where that revelation usually takes place.

In his 1999 book Displays of Power: Controversy in the American Museum from the Enola Gay to Sensation, Steven Dubin writes that “museums are important venues in which a society can define itself and present itself publicly. Museums solidify culture, endow it with a tangibility, in a way few other things do.” “If museums stray from ‘making nice,’” as Dubin puts it, “they risk a confrontation with those who have a certain image to shield or an alternative image they would prefer to project.”

One question is therefore to what degree do we want these institutions, which open their doors to the public and in many cases receive some public support if only indirectly, to what degree do we want them to be inclusive or exclusive? Jan Ramirez, who in the ’90s was with the City Museum of New York, said “If you’re going to structure exhibitions so that people of a variety of backgrounds can come and find themselves, you are going to have to jostle people. ...[I]n creating room for one group to come in and find themselves, you’re eclipsing the traditional story that you were telling for another.” For a century, American art museums told a very traditional story that reflected a very particular image.

Perhaps a necessary step for the public to take in thinking about museums would be understanding that sometimes a particular story—a particular narrative of power, as in who has it and who doesn’t—is being put on display even if you don’t realize it. One of the powers of art often lies in its subtlety, but sometimes its so subtle it’s hard to see what’s behind it. Take for example a traditional still life painting from the Golden Age of Dutch art that shows a bountiful table with a big stuffed pheasant and exotic fruit. Does everyone in Amsterdam have a table that looks like that? Well, if not, who does and who doesn’t? Suddenly you’re thinking about who has the power and influence to have a table of abundance and then you realize with a wall of such paintings alone, you’re showing and telling a very selective story.

Every person can respond to art, but every person can’t respond to the same work of art in the same way.