Museum Skepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries

Museum Skepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries

by David Carrier

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In Museum Skepticism, art historian David Carrier traces the birth, evolution, and decline of the public art museum as an institution meant to spark democratic debate and discussion. Carrier contends that since the inception of the public art museum during the French Revolution, its development has depended on growth: on the expansion of collections,


In Museum Skepticism, art historian David Carrier traces the birth, evolution, and decline of the public art museum as an institution meant to spark democratic debate and discussion. Carrier contends that since the inception of the public art museum during the French Revolution, its development has depended on growth: on the expansion of collections, particularly to include works representing non-European cultures, and on the proliferation of art museums around the globe. Arguing that this expansionist project has peaked, he asserts that art museums must now find new ways of making high art relevant to contemporary lives. Ideas and inspiration may be found, he suggests, in mass entertainment such as popular music and movies.

Carrier illuminates the public role of art museums by describing the ways they influence how art is seen: through their architecture, their collections, the narratives they offer museum visitors. He insists that an understanding of the art museum must take into account the roles of collectors, curators, and museum architects. Toward that end, he offers a series of case studies, showing how particular museums and their collections evolved. Among those who figure prominently are Baron Dominique Vivant Denon, the first director of the Louvre; Bernard Berenson, whose connoisseurship helped Isabella Stewart Gardner found her museum in Boston; Ernest Fenollosa, who assembled much of the Asian art collection now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Albert Barnes, the distinguished collector of modernist painting; and Richard Meier, architect of the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles. Carrier’s learned consideration of what the art museum is and has been provides the basis for understanding the radical transformation of its public role now under way.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Museum Skepticism is a fascinating study, original, brilliant, and erudite. I absolutely loved reading this book.”—Ellen Handler Spitz, author of The Brightening Glance: Imagination and Childhood

“David Carrier is one of only a handful of scholars who inhabit with ease the diverse worlds of philosophy, art history, art criticism, and now museology. His philosophical acuity probes the responsibilities, shortcomings, and achievements of art museums, and the responses of their academic critics. Carrier’s provocative reflections on the successive metamorphoses of these irreplaceable yet infuriating institutions are sure to be a stimulus to the democratic conversation about their future that he so warmly advocates. Reading Carrier is like reading Montaigne: no one could be a more thoughtful, witty, or erudite imaginary interlocutor for the fortunate reader of this impassionedly personal yet highly disciplined book.”—Ivan Gaskell, Harvard University

Alise Piebalga
Museum Skepticism certainly delivers, what it promises-a valid and convincing theory that answers the question: "What is it to lead the life of a work of art?" It offers a glimpse into the lives of several iconic public art museums and the personalities that contributed to the development of these institutions and their collections. . . . With its passionate tone and accessible language, it should be part of any art student’s library.”

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A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries


Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3682-2

Chapter One

"Beauty and Art, History and Fame and Power"


Representation in general has indeed a double power-that of rendering anew and imaginarily present, not to say living, the absent and the dead.... if representation reproduces not only de facto but also de jure the conditions that make its reproduction possible, then we understand that it is in the interests of power to appropriate it for itself. Representation and power share the same nature. -LOUIS MARIN

Just as works of art require interpretation, so too do the museums in which they are displayed. But while everyone understands the need to explain visual art by identifying its iconography and social significance, and by placing individual paintings in historical narratives, the idea that museums also require such analysis is less familiar. That may seem surprising, for we certainly interpret them informally. When approaching we judge the architecture. Upon entering we sense if the ingress is inviting and the floor plan easy to follow. Reading wall labels, we reflect upon the provenance of objects in the collection and the roles played by curators in organizing their display. We readily think about thevisual relationships of the works of art on display. And thanks to Nietzsche's genealogy of Christian morality and Foucault's books about madness and the prison, we are very aware that institutions can be interpreted. As Alexander Nehamas writes, "Genealogy is interpretation in the sense that it treats our moral practices not as given but as 'texts,' as signs with a meaning, as manifestations of a will to power that this interpretation tries to reveal." Because Nietzsche and Foucault are interested in political power, their ways of thinking are very suggestive for our present purposes.

The literature of art is devoted to individual paintings. And so the argument of my Principles of Art History Writing was relatively easy to work out, for identifying it merely required examining the practice of art historians. Locating my present analysis was more difficult, because although art museums have been much discussed recently, there is less articulated awareness that we interpret them as total works of art. When a painting or sculpture is given a suggestive analysis, what I call an interpretation by description, then its appearance changes before our eyes. For example, Rudolf Wittkower says that in Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Teresa, Cornaro Chapel, S. Maria della Vittoria, "directed heavenly light ... sanctifies the objects and persons struck by it and singles them out as recipients of divine Grace.... we realize that the moment of divine 'illumination' passes as it comes." When he adds that "here in the ambient air of a chapel [Bernini] did what painters tried to do in their pictures," use real light, his account carries real art historical weight. When Adrian Stokes writes that the figures in Cézanne's The Large Bathers in the National Gallery, London, could "suggest a quorum of naked tramps camped on top of railway carriages as the landscape roars by from left to right," he changes how we see that picture. And Arthur Danto's description of Cy Twombly's Leda and the Swan projects a strong interpretation of that abstract painting, calling it "the zero degree of writing, drawing, painting, composition, somehow achieving-at its greatest achieving-a certain stammering beauty, where the base elements are possibly even transformed into elegant whispers. There is an almost Taoist political metaphor here for those who seek such things." Much art writing-by Vasari in the sixteenth century as well as by Artforum critics today-is interpretation by description.

A strong interpretation changes dramatically, perhaps permanently, how art is seen. The aim of successful interpretations, Leo Steinberg writes, is "that they be probable if not provable; that they make visible what had not previously been apparent; and that, once stated, they so penetrate the visual matter that the picture seems to confess itself and the interpreter disappears." A Marxist commentator characterized this activity in political terms: "Interpretation is not an isolated act, but takes place within a Homeric battlefield, on which a host of interpretative options are either openly or implicitly in conflict." True enough, but in our bourgeois society, debate about conflicting interpretations, including Marxist accounts, is possible. T. J. Clark's justly famous discussion of Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère says: "The girl in the mirror does seem to be part of some ... facile narrative.... But that cannot be said of the 'real' barmaid, who stands at the centre, returning our gaze with such evenness, such seeming lack of emotion or even interest. There is a gentleman in the mirror.... Who is this unfortunate, precisely? Where is he? Where does he stand in relation to her, in relation to us?" Once close concentration was focused on the relationship of the barmaid to the mirror, elaborate attention was soon devoted to Clark's questions. My Poussin's Paintings reinterprets Apollo and Daphne: "The two figures, one seeing and the other blind to his desire, face one another directly. Because our point of view is at right angles to them, we see both the desiring Apollo and the oblivious Daphne.... our presence is needed to link the figures, but their triangular arrangement exists independently from us." Earlier commentators treat Poussin as an impersonal classicist, but perhaps my interpretation will cause reexamination of that cliché.

Museum scholars, too, engage in interpretation by description, changing how the building and collection are seen. When, for example, you learn that the central domes of older museums allude to the temple of the muses or realize that walking up the entrance stairs elevates you out of ordinary reality into the art world, then you will see such domes and stairs differently. Mieke Bal analyzes the impressionist galleries in the Metropolitan Museum, noting that "part of the intended meaning of the space as it has been arranged is to be minimally visible, unintrusive; this is how the expository agent, including its authority, makes itself invisible." Carol Duncan interprets the Morgan Library: "The room today preserves much of its original look, so much so, in fact, that visitors can barely examine its contents." And Albert Levi describes the Frick as "a presentation of works of art in their naked individuality, a temple of pure aesthetic experience, a virtual embodiment of the idea of the art museum as an exclusive assembly of nothing but masterpieces." Once you look, then you will find many such interpretations by description.

The styles of museum interpreters are as diverse as those of art historians. Goethe tells of his visit to the museum in Dresden, "in which splendour and neatness reigned together the deepest stillness.... [it] imparted a feeling of solemnity ... which so much ... resembled the sensation with which one treads a church ... the objects ... seemed here ... set up only for the sacred purposes of art." Stephen Greenblatt interprets the Musée d'Orsay, noting that "by moving the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces into proximity with the work of far less well-known painters.... what has been sacrificed ... is visual wonder centered on the aesthetic masterpiece." Donald Preziosi offers a highly complex analysis of Sir John Soane's Museum, London: "You have ... a series of progressions mapped out throughout the museum's spaces-from death to life to enlightenment; from lower to higher; from dark to light; from multiple colors to their resolution as brilliant white light.... Soane stands at the pivotal point of all of this." Elizabeth Gray Buck argues that Gustave Moreau's museum in Paris "prevented the French government from pressing his paintings into anonymous ideological service for the greater glory of France and the patrimoine." And Ivan Gaskill claims that in the National Gallery, London, "by alternating the Vermeers with church interiors" the curator "pointedly avoids a comparison between Vermeer's domestic interiors and those of his contemporaries."

Victoria Newhouse devotes a lively book to interpretation by description of the art museum. She criticizes the Metropolitan Museum for enlarging the original front steps: "The new stairs made the façade appear to be part of a large horizontal background." And she argues that in the J. Paul Getty Museum "the excesses of the new ... galleries underscore the shortcomings of the collection." Just as comparative studies are important to literary scholars, so what might be called museum intertextuality, comparisons between institutions, provide essential perspectives. Douglas Davis, for example, discusses how Arata Isozaki's Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, "jousts with the meaning of his interior and his factious client by covering his roof with pyramids that inevitably recall Egypt and its stark, dry landscape," showing that the museum is in a cultural desert. He is more sympathetic to P.S. 1, in Long Island City, praising the "rusticity" of the style which "springs almost entirely from its vital 'found' container,'" the public school building restored by the architect Shael Shapiro. Whether or not you agree, once attention is called to such features, you will probably see these museums differently. A full discussion of all the major art institutions is needed, for the two older survey histories now are dated. But much can be learned, I will show, by close scrutiny of just a few museums.

Some museums displaying old paintings are spaces with a grand history of their own. When visiting we may readily move from seeing art to reflecting upon the events that took place long ago in the galleries where we stand. That is not mere idle, flighty speculation, for history can be relevant to seeing the paintings now hanging, especially when this art played an important role in the museum's history. In his discussion of "understanding a work of art," Richard Wollheim argues, "However far we go with setting down what, as we see it, the work means or is, this can never be complete, just because experience, hence our experience of the work can never be exhausted." Or as Stephen Bann writes, in effectively drawing out the implications of this claim: "The search for meaning-the process that is commonly called 'interpretation'-is a virtually limitless one, which can be terminated only by the atrophy of the individual subject's desire to know.... To interpret the aesthetic object is inevitably to measure its participation in the multiple codes which govern the collective consciousness." We have a natural desire that our interpretations of visual artifacts be as full as possible, and that requires taking account of the larger context in which works of art are displayed. The analogy that Wollheim draws with "working through of phantasy" will guide our discussion of the multiple codes invoked by art museums.

Henry James's memoir A Small Boy and Others gives a finely tuned interpretation of the Louvre: "I had looked at pictures ... but I had also looked at France and looked at Europe, looked even at America as Europe itself might be conceived so to look, looked at history, as a still-felt past and a complacently personal future, at society, manners, types, characters, possibilities and prodigies and mysteries of fifty sorts.... Such were at any rate some of the vague processes ... of picking up an education." What we view, he suggests, are not just the individual paintings and sculptures on display, but the museum as total work of art. The architectural setting can have a richly suggestive history:

It is necessary for an appreciation of this style to remember the atmosphere in which it grew, the struggles first between Protestantism and Catholicism in the sixteenth century, Henri IV's decision to return to the Roman Church ... then the spreading of religious indifference, until it became all-powerful in the policy of Richelieu, the cardinal, and Father Joseph, the Capuchin, who fought Protestants in France but favoured them abroad, in both cases purely for reasons of national expediency.

Knowing that story prepares us to understand the art in the Louvre.

Nineteen Italian pictures acquired by François I, the patron of Leonardo who ruled France from 1515 to 1547, are still in the museum. Louis XIV had a large collection of paintings and many French, Flemish, and Italian drawings. And there was a kind of museum between 1666 and 1671 in the Gallery of Ambassadors, which contained a copy of the Carracci ceiling in the French academy in Rome and some Italian paintings. But this arrangement was ephemeral-and the king did not display his Newly acquired thirteen Poussins. The French royal collection remained at Versailles.

During the Revolution the Louvre became a public art museum. "In the ... Grand Gallery, art was transformed from an old-regime luxury, traditionally associated with conspicuous consumption and social privilege, into national property, a source of patriotic price and an instrument of popular enlightenment," James Sheehan writes. In October 1792, just after the old regime collapsed, the minister of the interior wrote: "This museum must demonstrate the nation's great riches.... France must extend its glory through the ages and to all peoples: the national museum will embrace knowledge in all its manifold beauty and will be the admiration of the universe.... the museum ... will become among the most powerful illustrations of the French Republic." The French enjoyed this storehouse of treasures, which showed their greatness. Foreigners who admired art taken from many nations saw how powerful France was. About 5,000 English tourists visited the Louvre in 1802. Joseph Farington's diary gives a detailed account, comparing Titian's St. Peter Martyr to Domenichino's St. Jerome; offering an elaborate commentary on Raphael's Transfiguration, with remarks by his friend Benjamin West; and looking closely at the Mantegna and Terburgh.

In 1803, Dominique Vivant Denon, director of the Louvre, asked Napoleon Bonaparte to inspect the new hanging: "The first time you walk through this gallery, I hope you will find that this exercise ... already brings a character of order, instruction, and classification. I will continue in the same spirit for all the schools, and in a few months, while visiting the gallery one will be able to have ... a history course in the art of painting." By the mid-nineteenth century this gallery had a rich history. In 1855 the English travel writer Bayle St. John wrote about his first visit to the Louvre soon after the barricades of 1848 were removed.

Instead of being ... the scene whereon the great tragi-comedy of Power is enacted, the focus of intrigues, and maneuvers, and jealousies, and dark suspicions, and darker actions, the home of royal pride or misery, the gay resort of courtiers and maids of honour, the tomb of virtue, the cynosure of the vulgar, the great manufactory where sickly caprice, or grasping ambition, or gloomy fanaticism, plans war against foreign states, or massacres against heretical or insubordinate subjects,-it has become the tranquil but gorgeous refuge of a prodigious crowd of objects, principally of Art.... We see there some fragments, at least, of the wrecks of all civilisations.


Excerpted from MUSEUM SKEPTICISM by DAVID CARRIER Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press . Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

David Carrier is the Champney Family Professor of Art History at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Institute of Art. His books include Sean Scully; Writing about Visual Art; The Aesthetics of Comics; High Art: Charles Baudelaire and the Origins of Modernist Painting; Principles of Art History Writing; and Poussin’s Paintings.

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