The Art Object: Museum or Mercantile?

 Walking through racks of art hanging on fence-like walls can be quite the experience.  While it didn’t bring me to tears or change my life, it certainly did shift a few strong held values. 

In the museum a work of art is a precious treasure.  It is behind glass containers, bullet proof frames, and laser security beams.  There are guards, sometimes five deep, making sure nothing gets touched or taken.  Parents of young children always restrain them for fear they will run around and knock something over.  There are lines that delineate where one can stand to view a work; most people whisper in the galleries.  When one is experiencing art in the museum they are respecting the objects, like the works are living sages with much wisdom to impart. 

In the warehouse a work of art is an object.  This object needs to be tracked, stacked, recorded, followed, and moved around.  It is a number, one of thousands of others.  There is no spotlight to highlights its qualities.  People touch, turn, wrap, and quickly circulate these objects.  While certain precautions such as temperature controlled rooms are taken, the general attitude towards these works are not ones that warrant careful attention. 

In one space a painting is literally untouchable, in another it is as common as a peanut butter jar in a cluttered kitchen pantry.   When a work of art changes the roof over its head (so to speak), it takes on a whole other persona.  It is as if each work of art is two faced in the larger ebbs and flows of society.  Why?  How can it be that the intern at Christies can touch a Picasso print on his or her second day to measure its dimensions yet the art lover cannot get closer than a three feet to it at an exhibition in a museum?  What does this seemingly arbitrary change in value based on environment say about the art object itself?  Does it value only derive from context?  Or, is its value unchanging, like a gold standard?  Can the value of art ever be fixed?  I argue that it cannot, and that is exactly why the warehouse museum dichotomy exists.  Art is something that will always be produced.  I do not believe that there will ever been a shortage of people yearning to produce things that represent their environments.  The world will always have art but the quantity, quality, and public interest will always change.  And, the all too familiar comments about art from the lay person, “I don’t get it”, “Explain it to me” speaks to the very heart of the flow of art; it is always based on taste, and taste is just about the most fickle thing one could find. 

Art is contextual.  It can be a treasure, or it can be just an object.  It is what we assign to it that it becomes.  In an article about critiquing the museum, author Andrea Fraser argues that it is the act of placing an object in a museum that assigns it to any place in a cannon of art history.  In fact, she argues that the history of art really only exists because institutions in their nature function to create artificial categories.  In the perfect world, art would never be categorized, it would simply be.  My question then becomes, if there are no categories, no way to view art in an organized fashion, what purpose is visual art production serving?  Will it become waste?  If nothing exists to put it “inside” a system or institution, where will it live?  How will it function?  Will it go unnoticed?  While I agree that putting art into categories is a touchy and complicated act, I feel it is inevitable, necessary, and actually positive.  Because, what never changes about art is its power.  A piece of art regardless of how it is presented, touched, or circulated always says something.  It always craves an audience willing to sit with it, appreciate it, and want to understand it.  If “institutionalizing” art brings it to the forums that allow it to be intellectually digested, questioned, and wondered about, then so be it.  And if the intern gets to touch a Picasso, then lucky them.   


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