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Still Life: Ecologies of the Modern Imagination at the Art Museum

Still Life: Ecologies of the Modern Imagination at the Art Museum

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Still Life: Ecologies of the Modern Imagination at the Art Museum

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676 pages
9 heures
Sortie:
Aug 19, 2020
ISBN:
9780226714110
Format:
Livre

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How do you keep the cracks in Starry Night from spreading? How do you prevent artworks made of hugs or candies from disappearing? How do you render a fading photograph eternal—or should you attempt it at all? These are some of the questions that conservators, curators, registrars, and exhibition designers dealing with contemporary art face on a daily basis. In Still Life, Fernando Domínguez Rubio delves into one of the most important museums of the world, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, to explore the day-to-day dilemmas that museum workers face when the immortal artworks that we see in the exhibition room reveal themselves to be slowly unfolding disasters.

Still Life offers a fascinating and detailed ethnographic account of what it takes to prevent these disasters from happening. Going behind the scenes at MoMA, Domínguez Rubio provides a rare view of the vast technological apparatus—from climatic infrastructures and storage facilities, to conservation labs and machine rooms—and teams of workers—from conservators and engineers to guards and couriers—who fight to hold artworks still.

As MoMA reopens after a massive expansion and rearranging of its space and collections, Still Life not only offers a much-needed account of the spaces, actors, and forms of labor traditionally left out of the main narratives of art, but it also offers a timely meditation on how far we, as a society, are willing to go to keep the things we value from disappearing into oblivion.
Sortie:
Aug 19, 2020
ISBN:
9780226714110
Format:
Livre

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Still Life - Fernando Domínguez Rubio

Still Life

Still Life

Ecologies of the Modern Imagination at the Art Museum

Fernando Domínguez Rubio

The University of Chicago Press

Chicago and London

The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637

The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London

© 2020 by The University of Chicago

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations in critical articles and reviews. For more information, contact the University of Chicago Press, 1427 E. 60th St., Chicago, IL 60637.

Published 2020

Printed in the United States of America

29 28 27 26 25 24 23 22 21 20    1 2 3 4 5

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-71392-2 (cloth)

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-71408-0 (paper)

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-71411-0 (e-book)

DOI: https://doi.org/10.7208/chicago/9780226714110.001.0001

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Domínguez Rubio, Fernando, author.

Title: Still life : ecologies of the modern imagination at the art museum / Fernando Domínguez Rubio.

Description: Chicago ; London : The University of Chicago Press, 2020. | Includes bibliographical references and index.

Identifiers: LCCN 2020001533 | ISBN 9780226713922 (cloth) | ISBN 9780226714080 (paperback) | ISBN 9780226714110 (ebook)

Subjects: LCSH: Museum of Modern Art (New York, N.Y.) | Art museums—Collection management—New York (State)—New York. | Art museums—New York (State)—New York—Employees. | Art museums—Exhibitions—New York (State)—New York.

Classification: LCC N620.M9 D66 2020 | DDC 708.147/1—dc23

LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020001533

This paper meets the requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992 (Permanence of Paper).

Time is always there, gnawing at us and corroding all our best intentions and all our most beautiful thoughts.

Robert Smithson

Clean your desk, wash the dishes, clean the floor, wash your clothes, wash your toes, change the baby’s diaper, finish the report, correct the typos, mend the fence, keep the customer happy, throw out the stinking garbage, watch out don’t put things in your nose, what shall I wear, I have no sox, pay your bills, don’t litter, save string, wash your hair, change the sheets, go to the store, I’m out of perfume, say it again—he doesn’t understand, seal it again—it leaks, go to work, this art is dusty, clear the table, call him again, flush the toilet, stay young.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles

CONTENTS

Introduction   Toward an Ecology of Modern Categories

Part 1   Ecologies of Care

Introduction   Caring for the Same

Chapter 1.1   The Modern Object of Care

Chapter 1.2   The Elusive Object of Contemporary Art

Chapter 1.3   The Modern Subject of Care

Part 2   Ecologies of Containment

Introduction   The Aesthetics of Containment

Chapter 2.1   Containing Eternity

Chapter 2.2   Eternity on the Move

Part 3   Ecologies of Imagination

Introduction   Into the White

Chapter 3.1   The Interior Space of Art

Chapter 3.2   Exhibitions as Material Acts of Imagination

Part 4   Ecologies of the Digital

Chapter 4.1   The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Fragility

Conclusion   The Cracks of the Modern Imagination

Acknowledgments

Notes

Bibliography

Index

INTRODUCTION:

TOWARD AN ECOLOGY OF MODERN CATEGORIES

Of Objects, Things, Cracks, and Slowly Unfolding Disasters

This book is an empirical exploration of what it takes to produce and sustain the categories through which we build, describe, and organize the worlds that we dream and inhabit, and the ceaseless labor required to prevent their collapse. It does so by focusing on one of the central categories of the modern imagination, the category of art, exploring the very particular ecology through which this category is made possible and is sustained in practice at one place: the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA). Through this exploration this book ultimately aims to show the massive amount of technology, infrastructure, and labor that is required to make possible that fragile and rather idiosyncratic form of imagining and inhabiting the world that we have come to describe as modern.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Let’s start right in the midst of the modern commonsense. And no better place for that than inside one of the main exhibition rooms at MoMA, in front of an artwork that is by now such an indisputable part of that modern commonsense that it has acquired the status of a cliché: Van Gogh’s The Starry Night.

1 Looking at Van Gogh’s Starry Night at the Museum of Modern Art.

Since the eighteenth century, most of the histories, philosophies, sociologies, and anthropologies that have emerged to make sense of the peculiar objects we call artworks have approached them from the perspective of the spectator. This is a perspective in which we start with an artwork that is already out there, a fait accompli, waiting to be experienced and interpreted, and then proceed to explain it by asking questions about its author (her biography, her intentions), about the meaning this object carries (its symbolism and formal composition), the position it occupies in art history (its influences and style), or about its relation to the sociohistorical context in which it was created.

In this book I approach these objects from a different perspective. I want to explore how something can be rendered legible, imaginable, and effective as an art object—and how it can be sustained as such. This turns out to be a difficult task because, contrary to how they appear when we look at them from a distance, art objects are fragile and tentative realities: they are temporary achievements.

2 The physical labor of meaning.

To explain what I mean by this, we need to abandon the distance from which we normally relate to these objects and get much closer to them. So let me invite you to take a few imaginary steps toward this painting and lean closely into it.

As we get closer to the canvas, we can access an order of reality that is usually frequented only by art conservators and the occasional art historian (see fig. 2). This proximity allows us to appreciate something often lost in the distance: the physical labor, the thousands upon thousands of obsessive brushstrokes that went into transforming meaningless chunks of paint into the kinds of forms that make meaning, emotion, and imagination possible. But this proximity reveals something more. What seemed from afar to be a flat surface turns out to be a viscous, lumpy orography. This orography reveals something that is as evident as it is frequently overlooked in most narratives about art, which is that paintings are not just objects of meaning but physical knots made of seeds, minerals, wood, or cotton.

But we are still not close enough. Actually, we are still very far away.

If we keep getting closer, and closer, something remarkable happens. There, right at the edge of the human eye’s vision, we can begin to see the contours of a different kind of order (see fig. 3). We can now see that those perfectly legible forms populating the canvas were just an optical effect, a trompe l’oeil, created by distance. All of a sudden, we find ourselves operating in an order made of blurred, messy, and ambiguous forms, without clear boundaries or identities; an order in which lumps of colors are intertwined, in which there is not a single straight line, no simple division, no clear beginnings or ends, and in which forms are plagued with interruptions, losses, and absences. In this order, the questions that we may pose do not enjoy the same clear-cut answers that were possible when we were looking from a distance, as it is no longer clear what belongs to what. Is, for example, this patch of blurred paint something that has been there all along, or is it something that has happened recently? Did Van Gogh paint it, or is it damage? Perhaps an accident? Is it meaningful or meaningless? Is it art or just dirt?

But this proximity reveals even more. If you look closely, you will also see that the canvas is lacerated by cracks. This may not seem surprising. After all, cracks are ubiquitous, even expected, in almost any object, including art objects. Yet despite their pervasiveness, cracks have rarely featured in narratives about art or, for that matter, in much of modern social thought. The attention has normally been directed to study and interpret the forms and meanings that populate surfaces, not the cracks that interrupt them—and on those rare occasions when cracks have been noted, they have been glossed over as nuisances, or as interruptions that need to be fixed.

If we dwell on these cracks for a moment, if we think from them rather than over them, we will see that they are much more than nuisances or interruptions. Thinking from cracks can help us to remember some important (if banal) truths that are often forgotten under the surfaces from which we have normally been invited to think. For example, they help us to remember that objects are not given once and for all but are fragile and temporal realities. They help us to remember that the physical knot Van Gogh created back in the summer of 1889 is slowly, but relentlessly, coming undone—and that consequently when we look at Starry Night, we are not looking at a completed object made in June 1889 but at a particular moment of a slow event that is still taking place as it unfolds through organic and inorganic processes. In short, what these cracks help us to remember is that we are not simply looking at an art object but at a thing.

3 The ambivalent, messy, and cracked surfaces of meaning.

The idea that Starry Night is not just an object but also a thing may sound odd. After all, object and thing are terms we typically use interchangeably. Here, however, I will argue that things and objects are are not only different but also discrepant realities.¹ Things are lumps of stuff, material processes that unfold over time, while objects are the positions to which those lumps of stuff are assigned to participate in different regimes of practice and value. What this means is that, in order for some-thing to be recognized and count as a particular kind of object—say, an artwork or a chair—its material components have to be able to occupy, and remain within, a given object-position. For example, the lump of seeds, minerals, cotton, and oil that is Starry Night needs to remain within a specific object-position for it to remain legible and functional as an art object, just as a chair is a chair only so as long as the lump of wood it is made of retains the specific object-position that makes it legible and functional as such. Crucially, if the materials that make up Starry Night or the chair veer too far away from their designated object-position, they will eventually cease to be legible and functional as an artwork or a chair and will become something else, like junk, a ruin, or a vestige of a bygone object.

We can now better see why objects and things are different: objects exist within positions that allow them to perform functions, realize purposes, and carry meanings and values. Things, on the other hand, are functionless, purposeless, meaningless, and valueless material processes. Objects decay, wear down, break, malfunction, and have to be constantly mended and retrofitted to prevent their collapse. Things simply happen. They take place, blindly, aimlessly, and relentlessly: they are a pure material becoming that unfolds without any intention, plan, or goal.

What follows from this is that, contrary to what is often assumed, the identity of some-thing as an object is not a property that somehow inheres to its materiality and is given once and for all. The identity of some-thing as an object has to be achieved. Or differently put: things are not objects; they have to be made into objects. This is not easy because, as it happens, objects and things are parting ways all the time, thus creating a discrepancy between them.

This discrepancy can occur in two different fashions. The first is when objects part ways with things. This is what the sociologist Terry McDonnell (2016) has called cultural entropy, which is the process by which the meaning of objects changes and disintegrates as they are used and reinterpreted. This type of discrepancy, which has been profusely analyzed by social scientists and historians, usually happens as a result of changing conceptions about a given category of objects and the kinds of things that can be included in it.² When this happens, things that were once considered members of a given category of objects cease to be considered part of it. Think, for example, of those things that were once considered to be gods and are now considered to be simple art objects. Or those things that you bought when they were cool and are now embarrassments in the back of your closet. Or think, as we will do later in this book, of those things that were once considered crucial artworks and now lie forgotten in the storage of museums.

The cracks in Starry Night reveal the second way in which the discrepancy between things and objects can happen. This is the discrepancy that emerges when things part ways from objects, which results from what I call the relentlessness of things. By this, I mean the process whereby things, as ongoing physical and chemical processes, veer away from the object-positions to which we assign them and create, in so doing, a divergence between what they are as things and the kind of objects they are supposed to be.

This type of discrepancy has received much less attention, maybe because of the subtle and quiet ways in which it usually unfolds in our midst. It is the offspring of that blind and nameless movement that, as Pablo Neruda wrote in his Ode to Broken Things, is not made by my hands or yours but

goes on grinding up

glass, wearing out clothes

making fragments

breaking down

forms

This movement is what lies behind the silent revolutions without ideology or cause that conspire every day against our dreams of order, destabilizing all of our categories, meanings, and distinctions, and creating, as a result, that unconquerable discrepancy between desire and reality, between (what we call) order and (what we call) disorder. The effects of these silent revolutions are everywhere. They are evident in that implacable movement that slowly but surely undoes your house, inch by inch, causing that worn-out blind to suddenly fall off its window in an empty room, or that old wooden door to quietly outgrow its frame. They are also painfully evident in that relentless movement that quietly draws the wrinkles on your skin and undoes your body from within, day by day. Or in that irreversible movement that undoes the physical fabric of your memories by devouring once-distinct faces in an old photograph until they become indiscernible. And they are evident in the cracks lacerating Starry Night. Together, they remind us every day that despite our best intentions, we do not live in a world where there is perfect identity between objects and things, but one in which objects—as well as the categories, meanings, relations, functions, boundaries, and forms of imagination that we thread through them—are being constantly undermined, displaced, and undone by the aimless but relentless rebellion of things. They remind us that we live in a world in which the identity between objects and things is always fragile and breaks down over time, and in which the discrepancy between objects and things is an ineliminable fact of life, as integral to it as breathing and as certain as death.

If we step back from the cracks to regain our original distance from the canvas and look around the rest of the artworks in the exhibition room, we can now see what was hidden in plain sight all along: that a museum is not a collection of objects but a collection of slowly unfolding disasters.

Because it is not just Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Every single object in these rooms is slowly inching toward its own disappearance, on its way to becoming something else. We can now see that the supposed stability of these objects is an effect generated by a very specific perspective and scale. If we could place a time-lapse camera in the exhibition room and fast-forward the footage, we would not see objects suspended in a seemingly eternal pause but sculptures and paintings endlessly changing and moving, contracting and expanding, losing some forms and colors while gaining others. We would see an unceasing morphogenetic process where there are no beginnings or ends, and no separation between decay and growth. We would see a process in which the fall of an object is just the beginning of a new one in a relentless transformation that is not guided by any intention, ideology, or purpose but by other less storied figures, like oxidization, microbes, crystalline formations, moss, corrosion, light, or air. And as all this happens, as the order of things relentlessly colonizes the order of objects, we would see all the modern boundaries and categories that have been laboriously built into the surfaces of the world coming slowly but implacably undone. One by one. Until it is no longer possible to tell what belongs to nature and what to culture, what was made by a subject and what was made by an object, what is art and what is dirt, what is meaningful and what is meaningless, what is essence and what is accident, or what is past and what is present.

But this is not what you see when you enter a museum of art.

What you see is the exact opposite. Instead of life unfolding, you see life stilled. Instead of change and transformation, you see stability and permanence. Instead of the movement of things, you see the infinite pause of objects. You do not see the undifferentiation of boundaries or the collapse of categories. What you see is the difference between culture and nature, between subject and object, between the past and the present. But how is this possible? How is it possible to produce and sustain the differences and boundaries between these categories? How, in short, is it possible to maintain that which we call art amidst the relentlessness of things?

This book addresses these questions.

The basic premise upon which this book rests is that if we are to answer these questions, we cannot study our modern system of categories as if they were mere abstractions that we willfully impose upon the world—simple mirrors of ourselves, as the constructivists and postmodernists would have it. Nor can we study them as if they were mere figures of the world that we just need to recognize or reveal—simple mirrors of nature, as the positivists would have it.

Instead, I argue that categories—like that of the art object—must be understood, and therefore studied, as ecological forms, which have to be built, achieved, and sustained in and through the world, that is, in and through the order of things. What this means is that when we talk about the difference between categories like nature or culture, subject or object, we are not talking about a difference that exists in our minds or in the world but about a difference that has to be built and sustained within the world. Because, as we will see, categories are as much made (and unmade) in and through air, light, minerals, chemical reactions, and climatic conditions as they are in and through ideas, symbols, cognitive schemes, and intentions. Or differently put, producing and sustaining these categories is never just a question of producing and sustaining mental schemas, disciplines, ideologies, or epistemes; it is first and foremost a question of producing and sustaining an ecology. Ecology, as I will use it here, refers to the material, atmospheric, semiotic, and imagined conditions in and through which something—be it a category, a body, a rock, or a god—exists, subsists, and becomes. Let me call this ever-evolving sum of conditions, processes, and relations the ecological nexus, and let me define an ecological approach as the study of this nexus.

If we are to study the ecological nexuses through which categories exist, we need to pay attention to different concerns and questions than those set by the two main traditional approaches to the study of categories, which we can call the genealogical and the logical. The genealogical approach, which can be traced back to Friedrich Nietzsche’s archaeology of morals, Arthur Oncken Lovejoy’s history of ideas, or Karl Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge, has been primarily concerned with what Michel Foucault (2008, 19)—arguably the most astute and accomplished genealogist—once referred to as the mystery of how something that did not exist comes to exist, by which he meant how categories like art, culture, or the subject, came into being (see also Hacking 2004). The logical approach can be traced back to the likes of Émile Durkheim and Ferdinand de Saussure and has been mainly concerned with the study of how categories relate to each other to shape what, depending on the discipline and period, have been variously called mentalities, "Weltanschauung, ideologies, epistemologies, culture, mental structures, cosmologies or, lately, even ontologies."

The ecological approach I develop here differs from the genealogical and logical approaches in two main ways.

The first is that rather than focusing on the study of logics, that is, on how categories are supposed to relate to each other, an ecological inquiry is concerned with exploring what it takes to make those categories possible in the world. In other words, an ecological inquiry is not so much concerned with what, pace Deleuze (1990), we could call the logic of sense as it is with the labor of sense. This builds directly on approaches like the early pragmatist tradition of William James and the intellectual tradition developed over the last decades in cultural sociology by Howard Becker (1982), Harvey Molotch (2003), and Chandra Mukerji (1997), or in science and technology studies by authors like Annemarie Mol (2002), Susan Leigh Star and Geoffrey Bowker (1999), or Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison (2007).

The second difference is that rather than focusing on solving the genealogical mystery of how categories come into being, an ecological inquiry focuses on solving the mystery of how those categories are kept into being. Or differently put: an ecological inquiry shifts the focus from the worlds through which certain categories come into being to the worlds required to keep them alive, help them endure, and make them powerful. Because as the Greek root of the word category reminds us, a katēgoria is an accusation, a charge, which, like any other accusation, is moot unless it can be supported. Those categories that do not have worlds to support them, which as it happens is most of them, are as important and consequential as an unread book—which explains, among other things, the sheer inconsequence of most of the categories developed in academic books like this one.

Thus, the central question around which the ecological inquiry I develop in this book revolves is the one formulated by the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles in her 1969 Manifesto for Maintenance Art: After the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?(in Phillips et al. 2016, 46). Which is a way of asking: After our dreams of order have been accomplished and our categories rule the world, who is going to prevent those categories and the worlds we imagine and inhabit through them from collapsing? Who is going to take care of the cracks that will accumulate in them? Who has the power to decide which categories, and which worlds, are worth caring for? And, crucially, who has the resources to care for them?

What follows is an empirical exploration of what it takes to produce and sustain one particular category, the modern category of the art object. As will become apparent in the following pages, making possible and sustaining the ecological nexus within which that cracking physical knot we call Starry Night can remain legible and imaginable as an artwork turns out to be an exceedingly complex and resource-intensive task involving a vast array of technologies, infrastructures, and labor. I will explore how this is done by focusing on one of the most powerful machines developed to produce and sustain this ecological nexus: the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

MoMA: The Museum of the Modern Imagination

The Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) is a rather idiosyncratic museum. The museum first opened its doors in 1929, in a rented six-room suite in the Heckscher Building on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, thanks to the vision and audacity of three women: Mary Quinn Sullivan, Abby Rockefeller, and Lillie Bliss.

Ever since its founding, the story of MoMA has been one of vertigo. MoMA went from being what Fortune magazine described in 1938 as a provocative spectacle of the thickest pillars of conservative society upholding a distinctly radical artistic cabal (in Robson 1988, 90) to become, in a little over two decades, the most powerful museum of modern art in the world.

MoMA’s vertiginous rise to preeminence was anything but serendipitous. The museum was born at the convergence of capitalism and war, the main historical forces that shaped the twentieth-century monster. The transmogrification of a small boutique experiment into the foremost museum of modern art was propelled by American financial and real estate capitalism—which has driven the unrelenting expansion of MoMA’s collection since its foundation—as well as by the ravages of Nazism and World War II, which brought a massive influx of European artists to the US and created the necessary asymmetry of power and wealth that enabled the young MoMA to extract art from a broken Europe. The combination of these forces explains how MoMA went from having 1 artwork in 1929 (Aristide Maillol’s sculpture Ile-de-France) to having 2,590 in 1940, 12,000 in 1960, and 52,000 in 1980.

Today, only ninety years after its founding, MoMA owns the largest and (arguably) most important collection of modern and contemporary art in the world, comprising more than 200,000 artworks by over 10,000 artists, a library with more than 300,000 books and exhibition catalogues, and over 40,000 files of ephemera about individual artists and groups. MoMA is also one the wealthiest art institutions in the world, with an operating annual budget of more than $200 million and an endowment of more than $1 billion. The museum attracts today more than 3 million souls per year and employs close to 1,000 employees across 28 departments, including 8 curatorial departments. MoMA has become an insatiable juggernaut razing everything in its way in the name of art and modernity. It has expanded six times from the five-story townhome it moved to in 1932 (after relocating from its temporary abode in the Heckscher Building), taking over almost an entire city block. As I write these lines, the museum is well advanced in its seventh expansion, the second in fifteen years.

But MoMA’s importance is not simply to be measured by the cold force of numbers. The idiosyncratic importance of this museum lies in the intangible. It is possible to state, without fear of exaggeration, that MoMA was the museum of the twentieth century. Not only was it the most important and powerful museum of modern art in the twentieth century, but it also offered a perfect museification of the (Western) twentieth century, encapsulating the myopias, utopias, and dystopias that defined what Eric Hobsbawm (1996) has called the age of extremes.

MoMA has been central to defining how modern art has been narrated and imagined over the twentieth century. Under the aegis of its founding director, Alfred Barr Jr.—who was just twenty-seven when he was appointed to the position—MoMA became something else than just another museum showing art; it wanted to be a machine that could make possible a new way of thinking about what art could (and should) be. Barr wanted to revolutionize the museum by moving it from being a memory device concerned with bringing the past into the present to an exploratory device concerned with bringing the future into the present by testing the possible forms of the à venir. As Barr himself put it: The Museum of Modern Art is a laboratory: in its experiments the public is invited to participate (1939, 15). This experimental and exploratory nature of the museum is the essence of Barr’s famous 1933 torpedo diagram, which he presented to the board of trustees to define his vision of the new museum as a machine moving full throttle away from the past into the future.³

The birth of MoMA not only changed the direction of the dominant narrative about what museums were and could be; it also changed the scope of that narrative. One of Barr’s main impetuses was to undo the strict separation between high and low art that had dominated the modern aesthetic regime of art. Building on the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk—the total work of art—that Gropius and Moholy-Nagy had developed in the Bauhaus during the 1920s, Barr sought to create a new form of aesthetic commonsense by designing a museum that could contain a total aesthetic register of the present, including not only the products of the traditional beaux arts like painting and sculpture but also, for the first time, the products of aesthetic practices that had been hitherto considered external to proper art, like film, photography, design, and architecture.

Today it is simply impossible to imagine the category of art without understanding how MoMA has imagined it and cared for it. Perhaps MoMA’s most revolutionary and enduring contribution to the modern commonsense has been the institutionalization, standardization, and popularization of the white room, which, as I will argue later in this book (see part 3), has become the central aesthetic technology through which art is encountered, experienced, imagined, produced, and narrated. Under Barr’s directorship, MoMA weaponized the white room to produce a very particular style of imagining and narrating art, that of modernism. Much as Auguste Comte had conceived the evolution of society in his The Course of Positive Philosophy or James George Frazer had conceived the evolution of religion in The Golden Bough, Barr’s modernism conceived the history of art as one of necessary, logical, and cumulative stages, moving from less-evolved forms that indefectibly culminated in the more-evolved European and North American art of the present.⁴

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, MoMA was the most powerful church preaching the secular gospel of modernism in the world. It had an almost unrivaled capacity to anoint artistic movements into the canon of the universal history of art and, through sleight-of-hand, pass off its particular modernist version of art history as the history of art itself. A great deal of the thinking about art that has taken place ever since—including, belatedly, MoMA’s own thinking and practice since the mid-1990s—has consisted in dismantling the hegemonic modernist commonsense that MoMA helped to build and revealing the fallacious conflation of the history of modern art with the history of (Euro-American) modernism.

This brief but wildly intense history explains the rather paradoxical position that MoMA occupies in today’s art world. It is an institution that is as much admired for the revolutionary role it once played in popularizing the European avant-garde and bringing it into the fold of the modern commonsense as it is reviled for reducing the history of modern and contemporary art to a history of Euro-American navel-gazing. It is an institution that is as much praised for having shattered the established commonsense of art and making possible a radically novel institutional and aesthetic vocabulary as it is scolded for having abandoned its original revolutionary pulse in favor of a new and paralyzing hegemonic commonsense. It is an institution that is as much celebrated for its peerless capacity to propagate modern and contemporary art among wide audiences as it is criticized for squandering that capacity in a tiring exercise of self-repetition that has reduced art to a trite capitalist spectacle. It is an institution, in sum, that seems to be caught in a trap of its own making, condemned by its own success to being judged against the very parameters that it once helped to define and can no longer meet. MoMA, too, has cracks.

The story I want to tell is not about MoMA’s institutional vicissitudes, or about the shifting narratives the museum has produced over the years, but the story of how the category of art object is done and sustained at MoMA.⁶ In order to tell this particular story, we will need to approach MoMA in a way that differs greatly from how museums have been typically studied.

The Museum as an Aesthetic Machine

Museums are one of the most studied institutions of modernity. Over the last two centuries they have been endlessly commented on and dissected by philosophers, poets, artists, curators, historians, and social scientists of all stripes. The result is a daunting ocean of ink that can take a lifetime (or two) to navigate. Fortunately, it is a navigable ocean, since it is organized around the rhythmic repetition of a couple of dominant currents.

One of these currents is critique. Critique has been, and remains, the dominant form of thinking about the museum. Ever since 1796, when Quatremère de Quincy described the Louvre as a place that killed art in order to make history, museums have been one of the favorite punching bags of modern thought. Marinetti compared them to cemeteries, Valéry to tombs of dead visions, Adorno to mausoleums, Robert Smithson to a collection of voids, while authors in the post-Foucauldian tradition have described them as technologies of power that work as disciplinary mechanisms and ideological reproduction (T. Bennett 1995; Hooper-Greenhill 1992) or as machines of deceit (Dagognet 1993). The second current, which stems from this critical approach, is organized around what has been called the politics of display and focuses on the underlying narratives and ideologies that organize museum exhibitions and how they normalize and naturalize different ways of seeing, forms of knowledge, or systems of classification (Karp 2007; Alpers 1991; Macdonald 2006; Karp and Lavine 1991; Stocking 1985; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998).

These approaches have raised crucial questions about the purported neutrality of museum representations and narratives. They have made it possible to explore the role that museums play in producing what Carol Duncan (1995) has called civilizing rituals, as well as the narrative inclusions and erasures through which many of the central categories of the modern imagination—e.g., nature, nation, art, subject, race, or history—have been woven into the modern commonsense. Moreover, these approaches have enjoyed what is arguably the rarest and most precious distinction that any form of social thought can enjoy: their critiques have been heeded by the object of critique. For example, approaches like the new museology (Vergo 2006) and the new institutionalism (Kolb and Flückiger 2014) have led to more self-reflective museum practices.

But for all of their virtues, these approaches provide a reductive understanding of the museum and the aesthetic labor that takes place in it. This is so for two reasons.

The first is that these approaches suffer from what we could call a proscenic bias, that common maladie afflicting a great deal of modern social thought, which consists in understanding social life through its visible surfaces—its prosceniums—while ignoring what lies behind them. This has meant that the study of museums has been almost entirely confined to the study of what happens in their visible surface: the exhibition rooms. In turn, this has led to an understanding of the museum that synecdochically reduces it to the exhibition room, and to a mode of thinking about the museum that simply reproduces the point of view of the spectator, for whom the exhibition room is both the beginning and the ending point of the experience.

Yet, as we will see in this book, museums are much more than exhibition rooms. At MoMA, for example, exhibition rooms currently make up roughly about 15 percent of the total space.⁸ However, that remaining 85 percent has rarely been a focus of attention—in fact, it is almost as though it did not exist at all. The paradoxical result is that while museums are indeed one of the most studied modern institutions, they remain one of the most underexplored institutions of modernity. Reading the literature, one could easily forget that, in addition to exhibition rooms, museums include massive storage spaces, conservation laboratories, machine rooms, restaurants and cafés, workshops, loading docks and transport infrastructures, educational and research spaces, offices, and more. It is simply not possible to understand the museum without understanding what goes on in those vast and largely uncharted geographies that lie behind the prosceniums that have normally captured our attention.

The second reason that the focus on exhibition rooms and the politics of display is insufficient is that it has led scholars and critics to analyze museums almost exclusively in terms of the exhibitionary practices through which they categorize, represent, and display artworks. As a result, for the last two centuries we have two parallel narratives about art, one created by art historians and critics concerned with how artists produce art, and the other by museologists concerned with how museums display art.⁹ Because of this division of intellectual labor, the museum has for the most part been understood as a physical space where art is displayed, a mere container of art. But as we will see in this book, museums are much more than a space for art.

Museums are machines for art, much as a house, as Le Corbusier ([1923] 1985, 107) wrote, is not just a place for living but a machine for living in. What this means is that museums are not just a means for the display of art; they are aesthetic machines whereby a specific way of imagining, narrating, and practicing art becomes possible—in much the same way that an abacus is not simply a means of representing mathematical operations but is the very technology whereby a specific way of thinking mathematically becomes possible.

Crucially, making art possible in these aesthetic machines requires more than just displaying artworks in the exhibition room. As the sociologist Howard Becker (1982) showed us a while ago, making art possible is a collective activity involving the coordination of many different actors, practices, and knowledges. This much will become evident in the following pages as we explore how conservators, registrars, curators, preparators, couriers, and guards, among others, organize the particular choreography of bodies, things, and spaces through which we come to encounter, experience, and imagine some-things as art. But, as we will also see, making art possible requires much more than networks of cooperation between people. It requires x-ray radiography, infrared reflectography, organic chemistry, and materials science to prevent artworks from collapsing. It also requires taming biological life and controlling organic and inorganic processes, as well as killing bugs and insects. Making art possible requires creating and managing massive storage rooms and a vast atmospheric infrastructure to quarantine artworks so that they can live forever. It requires the work of registrars, preparators, and couriers to coordinate the equally massive physical and legal infrastructure to allow artworks to move in and out of exhibition rooms. It requires creating interior spaces that can support the claims of neutrality, authenticity, authorship, and chronology that have come to define the modern imagination of art. It requires controlling smells, shadows, and sound in those spaces.

In short, making art possible requires an ecology. The aim of this book is to explore how specifically this ecology is produced and sustained in practice at MoMA.

Needless to say, museums are not the only space where art is done. Art is also done, and done differently, by artists in studios, community centers, and collective practices, on streets and in digital spaces. Art is also done by gallerists and collectors. It is done at art fairs, auctions, biennials. It is done in art magazines and academic journals and books. Art is also done beyond the institutional confines of the art world: in postcards, fridge magnets, T-shirts, underwear, posters, souvenirs, coffee mugs, and screensavers, and through pop culture in music, TV shows, films, or documentaries.

The museum is just a piece in the much larger ecology of the art world. Thus, it is important to remember that when I talk about museums in this book, I am only talking about one of the aesthetic machines that populate the art world. And it is also important to remember that how the category of art is done in the museum is not necessarily the same as how it is done in other spaces. Here it is important to remember that a great deal of art-making practices since the 1960s have emerged precisely as attempts to move art beyond the museum, especially beyond canonical museums like MoMA. If we take this into account, trying to study how the category of art is done by focusing on a museum like MoMA may seem a hopelessly reductive and anachronistic endeavor. And yet, just as it is important to remember that the museum is not the only place where art is done, it is also important to remember that the proliferation of all these forms and ways of doing art has not decentered or diminished the position that the museum occupies in the modern aesthetic regime of art, or the central role that it plays in how the category of art is narrated and imagined. Au contraire!

Despite the fact that the death of the art museum, like that of God, has been announced over and over again. Despite the fact that every artistic movement worth its salt has declared the museum obsolete, just as every critic and social theorist worth her salt has mounted a final and devastating critique against the museum. Despite the fact that the museum has been declared a pointless institution in the age of digital and photographic reproduction. Despite all this, the death of the museum, like that of God, is still to come.

The museum is not only alive and kicking but has become one of the most invasive species of modernity, proliferating well beyond its original European-American habitat. In fact, the promiscuous multiplication of images in the age of mass consumption and digital reproduction has done little to dent the importance of the museum. If anything, it has only served to intensify the fetishistic desire for the auratic encounter with the original artwork that the museum promises. (Yes, Benjamin got it exactly backward.)

Likewise, the endless artistic revolt against the museum, far from decentering or undermining it, has only served to reinscribe its centrality. As the art critic Boris Groys (2013) has noted, every single one of these artistic revolts needs the museum to establish the contours of the art through which they exist. This is not because the museum prescribes what their art should be but because it establishes what their art can no longer be. For that is the basic principle of modern art: art can only be that which is not already. Indeed, a great deal of the history of modern art can be read as the repetition of a circular movement by which artists seek to create a difference beyond or against the museum, which the museum then absorbs, pacifies, and institutionalizes, and which thus becomes the very condition of possibility for the next difference to arise.

But the centrality of the museum does not lie only in this negative relation: if the museum is still central today, it is because it remains internal to the process of how art itself has been imagined and practiced. A great deal of modern and contemporary art exists through a parasitical relation with the museum, since the artificial operations and relations created by the museum are the very conditions that make that art possible and intelligible. Thus, it is possible to say that if the museum remains central today it is because a large part of modern and contemporary art is made either for or against it and therefore cannot be understood without the museum.

The museum is also important because it is the machine that makes possible that most fragile and elusive of forms: permanence. The museum is the machine making it possible that paintings made of seeds and plastics, sculptures made of wax and latex, performances made of hugs, installations made of candies, photographs made of gelatin, or videos made of digital code, do not become undone by the blind relentlessness of things. Of course, the museum cannot stop the movement of things: that would entail stopping the chemical and mechanical processes through which life itself unfolds. But the museum can at least create the conditions of a deferral that allows the image of permanence and, through it, the mirage of a victory over things. The production of this deferral is, I will argue, the most important aesthetic labor that the museum has to perform.

Crucially, the museum cannot produce just any form of deferral, because not all forms of keeping these objects alive are equally valid. The museum needs to generate a very particular kind of deferral, one that can sustain the set of distinctions and categories that organize the modern aesthetic regime of art. This means that the museum has to generate a deferral that allows these objects to exist and persist without undoing the categories of authenticity, originality, authorship, or chronological time, upon which the modern aesthetic regime of art is organized—a task that turns out to be particularly difficult because none of these modern categories exist, let alone persist, in the wild. Modernity has to be artificially built into the world, engineered, and tirelessly maintained, through a very particular ecological nexus. But how do we study this ecological nexus?

Ecology as a Method of Description and Imagination

The study of how the ecological nexus is done at MoMA is going to require us to bring into view perspectives, elements, spaces, actors, and forms of labor that have either been absent or have played a very peripheral role in most of the thinking about art, or, for that matter, in much of social thought. In order to bring all of these variables into view, we will need to develop an ecological inquiry organized around a particular method of description. This will require us to adopt three fundamental methodological displacements.

Bringing things in

The first methodological displacement required to study how the ecological nexus is made at MoMA is to make space for things in our description. Much of modern social thought has tended to consider objects and to forget things. These object-centric approaches have examined how objects are used, classified, and interpreted (e.g., Appadurai 1986; Bourdieu 1984; Foucault 1994) and, more recently, what they do (e.g., Gell 1998). One of the problems with such approaches is that objects normally appear in them as if they were some sort of irreducible fundamental, and as though they were self-evident and given. However, objects are anything but self-evident or given. If they were, there would certainly be no point in having almost a thousand people employed at MoMA, including engineers, scientists, conservators, registrars, and preparators, whose jobs exist precisely because objects are not something that is given but something that has to be achieved. Studying how objects are achieved has been one of the central focuses of the field of science and technology studies (Pickering 1995; Latour 1987; Law 2002). These approaches have been enormously helpful in de-essentializing objects and illuminating the sociotechnical networks through which they are produced. However, they still fall short of the kind of inquiry we need to understand how the ecological nexus is produced and sustained at MoMA. The reason for this is that these approaches have been typically concerned with explaining how objects are produced, and not so much with what happens afterward, when those objects start to deteriorate, malfunction, or fall into disrepair.

What tends to be missing in all of these object-centric approaches is an account of the fact that the objects they describe are fragile and temporal realities that are always being outgrown, betrayed and transformed by the constant unfolding of things. Thus, while these approaches have certainly been useful in understanding the role that objects are supposed to play in producing and reproducing different social relations, narratives, logics, networks, epistemes, ontologies, or cultures, they are not very useful for explaining what happens to those social relations, narratives, logics, networks, epistemes, ontologies, or cultures when the identity they presume between things and objects starts to break apart. Nor can they explain the kind of processes and negotiations that are required to prevent this from happening or the kind of new orders and possibilities that these processes and negotiations open up.

The ecological approach I develop here begins by taking seriously the seemingly banal fact that things are constantly falling out of place. Taking this fact seriously, I argue, opens up an entirely different approach, one that takes temporality, fragility, and change

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