A Modest Proposal for Curators of Surveying Art Exhibits

Occasionally, in large images, old European masters will include a self-portrait, reminding viewers that they produced these artifacts. So in The school of Athens (1509-11), which is in the Vatican, with its prominent portraits of Plato, Aristotle, and Ptolemy on the far right, a younger man looks on. It’s Raphael. And in the background of Caravaggio The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (1599-1600), in a Romanesque church, we see the swarthy face of a man with his back turned and looking directly at the saint. This is a self-portrait of the artist. Thanks to the fame of Michel Foucault the order of things, everyone thinks that Diego Velázquez The Meninas (1656), which is in the Prado, with his self-portrait in the center, shows the very making of the painting we are looking at. Under the old regime, even extremely gifted artists like Velázquez were generally treated as simple craftsmen, because they were men (they were almost all men) who worked with their hands. And in some paintings and drawings from the 1920s and 30s, in a modernist extension of this tradition, we see Henri Matisse at work in his studio. In my favorite drawing, a drawing from 1935, in a miraculous infinite regression, we see at the bottom right an image in which the workshop is represented which contains the image of the workshop with an image. . . .

Where are the limits of the work of art? Much recent art – and many museum exhibits – asks this question. And so often, visitors have to wonder if what they are seeing is part of the structure of the museum (including its employees) or a work of art or performance that is on display. In the 1970s, driving across the country, I stopped for a break at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City and, obviously craving coffee, was momentarily intrigued by the presence of a guard, who was motionless. Actually, it was Duane Hanson’s. Museum guard (1975), a very realistic sculpture. More recently, at one of the Whitney Biennials held when this museum was on Madison Avenue, in the men’s room, there was wallpaper by one of the artists on display. Was this presentation part of the show? A few years ago, a Carnegie International included sites outside the museum, requiring reviewers to move around Pittsburgh. In This progress (2010) at the Manhattan Guggenheim Tino Sehgal emptied the ramp, replacing the works with performers, children, teenagers and, finally, adults, getting older the higher you go, who engaged in conversation with visitors . And in 2013 at MoMA in a project designed with the collaboration of Cornelia Parker, the maybe (1995/2013), which included pillows, sheets and mattresses on certain days, not announced in advance, Tilda Swinton slept in a glass box. In these cases, and many more could be cited, the modernist museum and artistic traditions that make a sharp distinction between the work of art and its context have not been cut. Now street life intrudes into the sacred space of the museum. And of course, many political artists want to extend the reach of their exhibitions outside of the actual museum building.

There’s a lot of excitement in our world of art museums right now. In a number of establishments, strikes or threats of strikes are demanding wage and benefit increases. The fact that these collections of lavish objects managed by well-paid administrators and governed by wealthy trustees are mostly guarded and curated by low-paid workers almost guarantees that these aggressive economic strains are not in danger of disappearing. I thought of these tensions when, after coming to review the recent 58th Carnegie International, I learned that on its opening day there had been action by striking workers. Organizing a protest at the events when the museum’s most successful trustees and supporters come to celebrate was obviously a good time. No doubt the union hoped that liberal guilt (or embarrassment) would cause these art lovers to be more generous to their employees. But it wasn’t until the philosopher in me reflected that I realized the implications of this practical activity for the theory of art. These investigative exhibitions are accompanied by a sumptuous catalogue, a permanent record that critics and donors can take home. And sometimes, because the organization of these exhibitions is obviously difficult, there are works exhibited that are not in the catalog. But since we are so familiar with the need to identify non-traditional artwork, especially political artwork, it is easy to see how to handle this situation. The Pittsburgh union protest, isn’t it a no-brainer?, is yet another off-catalog work of art, as the French say.

Christopher S. Washington