Museums, Collections and Art

This is the first part of my notes on Museums By Artists, edited by A. A. Bronson & Peggy Gale and published by Art Metropole in 1983. Phrases have been lifted from the text, then grouped with like. See also: Collecting as an Artistic Mode.

Daniel Buren
Museums by Artists (Poster), 1983
Art Metropole Toronto Canada
56.6 x 78.5 x cm.

The museum has history, volume, physical presence, and cultural weight. Its function is aesthetic, economic and mystical.(1) No museum is able merely to exhibit contemporary art.(2)

Both “public” and “private” institutions are political.(3) The museum is a power symbol,(4) and carries social and political connotations.(3) It has become a necessary symbol of the city and the culture of the city. It is a symbol of the culture of the new rich, dignifying the power, status and tastes of the central Government and financiers.(2) These are the employers who set the boundaries for decisions made by museum officials and “some museums do not think they have sufficient independence to exhibit a portrait of their own structure.”(3)

Museums convert the aesthetic construct into an object of contemplation, transforming the primary language of art into the secondary language of culture and disseminating the abstracted meaning(5). Primarily framing devices for the urge to collect,(4) museums select, acquire and protect work, sheltering it from questioning. Museums “act as a refuge, without which no work can exist.”(1)

A museum’s collection is a “whole,” forming a context having various foci. Works are brought together based on associability (period, quality, form, culture), producing a harmonization of some aspects but exhausting others.(6) The result is a simplification of a work’s historical and psychological weight.(1)

In social/group exhibitions, varied / un-alike artists are shown together. This serves to compare the otherwise incomparable, lending impact to the chosen works and resulting in the “warped” discourse that creates opposing schools and movements. In contrast, single-artist exhibitions have a flattening effect, stressing the differences within a single body of work. There is an economic insistence on “miraculous, successful” works versus those that have “failed,” as the former boost the sales value of latter, through association.(1)

“A museum is the collection of an institution and it’s an anthology. A few anthologies are all right, but some hundred in the United States alone is ridiculous. It’s freshmen English forever and never no more no literature.”(2)

The place of showing marks and imprints the work.(1) In this context, art elevates awareness of its specific social situation and function to the status of “theme”.(7) The “history still to be made” is integral to this work; art only exists in, and is destined for, a museum. The museum becomes the single the cultural-visual viewpoint from which a work can be considered. “Everything the museum shows is only considered and produced in view of being set in it.”(1)

A collection is an excuse for the building housing it. More money is spent on architecture in the name of art than on the art itself.(2) “What is a museum without clearly defined rooms? An enormous burden for art.” The ideal presentation is one which allows the eye to perceive the works’ readiness to participate.(6) But surprisingly, no special attention is paid to this place.(1)

The institutional architectural language is characterized by the false neutrality of white walls and false timelessness and immobility of placement.(5) Art is treated as eternal, obviating temporality.(1) Works are preserved from decay(5) and shown for a long time in unchanging environments, causing them to lose their suddenness, their unique element of surprise.(6) Extracted from any original context and function,(5) works appear to have fallen from heaven, detached, as if created by the museum itself.(6) (This is considered natural but is only historical, our present day ideas of preservation having been inherited from 19th century.(1))

This fate rarely corresponds with artist’s production intentions.(7) Living artists do not want to be embedded in the collection; they prefer to rise above them as a “dramatic voice related to their era.”(6)

Works of art are acts of decision, choice and self determination which undergo a material transformation through social interaction. The nature of this transformation belongs to the discourse surrounding them. This discourse takes place within the social institutions and historical circumstance that constitute the conditions of the work’s reception. The concerns artists choose to integrate within the conception of a work originate from anticipation of these conditions, its final distribution and institutional modes of reading.(5)

A “Fluxus Definition of Art” uses three stages of filters: Artificial, Non-Functional and Cultural. The Artificial begins by excluding all that is not human creation; the Non-functional (leisure) then excludes all which is essential to survival or to material progress; and, finally, the Cultural excludes all witch is without pretense to significance, profundity, seriousness, greatness, inspiration, elevation of mind, institutional value, exclusiveness. This leaves us with the Fine arts only: the literary, plastic, musical and kinetic.(8)

“In the work’s attempt to dissolve reification within the very medium and the site where they are produced, in the necessity to mimetically anticipate its subjection to ideology by inscribing itself as precisely as possible into those very systems that determine its historical status, it seem to fail to maintain any claim for autonomy and rupture in favor of a complacent, melancholic and passive contingency upon the conditions of rule that it set out to disrupt.”(5)

“Products which are considered ‘works of art’ have been singled out as culturally significant objects by those who at any given time and social stratum wield the power to confer the predicate ‘work of art’ unto them; they can not elevate themselves from the host of man-made objects simply on the basis of some inherent quality.”(3)

See also: Collecting as an Artistic Mode.


All from Museums by Artists, A. A. Bronson, Peggy Gale Editors, ISBN 0920956130.

  1. Daniel Buren. Function of the Museum / Function of the Studio / Function of Architecture: Notes on Work in Connection With the Places Where It Is Installed
  2. Donald Judd. On Installation
  3. Hans Haacke. All the Art That’s Fit to Show
  4. AA Bronson. The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat: Artist-Run Centers As Museums by Artists
  5. Benjamin Buchloh. The Museum Fictions of Marcel Broodthaers
  6. Jean-Christophe Ammann. A Few Modest Thoughts on the Prerequisites for Museums and Exhibits of Art, in Particular of Contemporary Art, and for Visitors to Such Museums and Exhibits
  7. Walter Grasskamp. Artists and Other Collectors
  8. George Maciunas. Fluxus (Its Historical Development and Relationship to Avant-Garde Movements)

Thank you Kathleen McLean.

Posted February 2012

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