Wednesday, 28 October 2015

If a painting was hung in the woods ....

Theodor Adorno has, improbably, swept across my consciousness three times in the past week.

The first was in Sebastian Smee's recent piece for the Boston GlobeHow do we keep museums vital in today’s world?, which came through on my Twitter transom. In the vein of 'not your grandparents' museum', Smee deploys Adorno's essay 'Valéry Proust Museum' (published in the 1955 collection Prisms) in his first two paragraphs, using it as the shaping force for his lengthy thought piece on how museums can keep the flickering connection between an artwork and its viewer alive:
I love museums. I go to them a lot. They are living, breathing institutions, which happen to thrive in New England’s special habitat. We are lucky. 
But from time to time, like anyone, I succumb to impatience and frustration. The German philosopher Theodor Adorno described the feeling exactly: One arrives at the museum, he wrote, and before long, “one does not know why one has come — in search of culture or enjoyment, in fulfillment of an obligation, in obedience to a convention. Fatigue and barbarism converge.”
Smee's essay is quite interesting (I mean, in this day and age, seeing the thinking of the Frankfurt School filling up column inches) but ultimately prevaricates: he concludes that museums must change to remain relevant (that word again) but they must also maintain their sacred, aloof nature - quite how, Smee never says, nor does he approvingly point to a museum who, to his mind, is getting it right.

Adorno popped up again when I was listening to one of my new favourite podcasts, Switched on Pop. As the two presenters dissect what makes a catchy song catchy, Adorno's now unpopular opinions on contemporary music were cited in the discussion on the shock of the new; from Stravinsky to Skrillex, artists keep putting forth work that our collectives eyes and ears take time to catch up with.

And then when I was fooling around with the new link aggregator I tripped over Hal Foster's 'After the White Cube' published earlier this year in the LRB, where Foster, as he asks what art museums are for these days, also pulls 'Valéry Proust Museum' out of its 60-year slumber:
‘Museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association,’ Adorno wrote in 1953 in ‘Valéry Proust Museum’. ‘Museums are like the family sepulchres of works of art. They testify to the neutralisation of culture.’ Adorno ascribes this view to Valéry: it is the view of the artist in the studio, who can only regard the museum as a place of ‘reification’ and ‘chaos’. Adorno assigns the alternative position to Proust, who begins where Valéry stops, with ‘the afterlife of the work’, which Proust sees from the vantage point of the spectator in the museum. For the idealist viewer à la Proust, the museum perfects the studio: it is a spiritual realm where the material messiness of artistic production is distilled away, where, in his words, ‘the rooms, in their sober abstinence from all decorative detail, symbolise the inner spaces into which the artist withdraws to create the work.’ Rather than a site of reification, the museum for Proust is a medium of animation.
So, I finally dug the essay out. I'm a poor reader of theory these days, but it seems to me that in the essay Adorno puts into opposition two unrelated (in that the writers were not intending to take each other on) opinions. Valéry rails against the death of the artwork, sliced away from the messiness of life and the enlivening hand of the artist (Valéry is responding, Adorno writes, to the Louvre of his own time, already a generation past when Adorno is writing); Proust muses prettily in the third volume of À la recherche du temps perdu on the sacred space of the museum, where the noise of the world is muted and contemplation is the aim and reward.

Adorno places Valéry as the irate elitist and Proust as the happy amateur - one is maddened by what is lost, one is pleased just to have a few nice moments. My reading of Adorno is that he actually advocates an interesting third path (it's a little hard to tell because the only copy I can access online might be chopped off before the actual conclusion). He writes:
The museums will not be shut, nor would it even be desirable to shut them. The natural-history collections of the spirit have actually transformed works of art into hieroglyphics of history and brought them new content while the old one shrivelled up. No conception of pure art, borrowed from the past and yet inadequate to it, can be offered to offset this fact. No one knew this better than Valéry, who broke off his reflections because of it. Yet museums certainly emphatically demand something of the observer, just as every work of art does. For the flaneur, in whose shadow Proust walked, is also a thing of the past, and it is no longer possible to stroll through museums letting oneself be delighted here and there. The only relation to art that can be sanctioned in a reality that stands under constant threat of catastrophe is one that treats works of art with the same deadly seriousness that characterises the world today. The evil Valéry diagnoses can be avoided only by one who leaves his naïveté outside along with his cane and his umbrella, who knows exactly what he wants, picks out two or three paintings, and concentrates on them as fixedly as if they really were idols.
It's the activity of the visitor that I appreciate here. (It's the classist and gendered overtones that I'm less keen on.) Earlier in the essay Adorno writes, against Proust's romanticism, 'The work is neither a reflection of the soul nor the embodiment of a Platonic Idea. It is not pure Being but rather a "force field" between subject and object.' If a painting was hung in the woods ....

This would seem to take us closer to Foster's conclusion ('viewers are not so passive that they have to be activated, and artworks are not so dead that they have to be animated, and, if designed and programmed intelligently, museums can allow for both entertainment and contemplation, and promote some understanding along the way.') than Smee's ('Great art is powerful. You can say it is empowering, and indeed it can be. But it can also be destabilizing, alarming, confronting, confusing — just like life. It should be offered for contemplation as an end in itself.'). Maybe more talk about force fields would be a good thing.

No comments: