On the Front Lines, or in the Back Room?

This is a post I’ve held off publishing for a cascade of reasons, but with the recent Joint Statement from Museum Bloggers & Colleagues on Ferguson, written by the Portland Art Museum’s own Mike Murawski, I think now is the right time to contribute to the conversation around what is the role of Museums – “as institutions that claim to conduct their activities for the public benefit — in the face of ongoing struggles for greater social justice both at the local and national level?” The following are some of my reflections on our institutions and communities that came to a head in the wake of the deaths of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice and too many others. You’ll notice that I’ve ruminating for long enough for some of my commentary to be dated.

I take the bus around town, and back in August one of my frequent stops was advertising the Portland Art Museum. The bench informed me that surveyed museum-goers would rather a “collective museum”, than a “museum of collections.” On evenings when I sat there waiting for my bus I wondered about what this advertisement meant. On the one hand I “know” what it means from my study of art history and contemporary art theory. On the other hand, I’m beginning to think I paid for a degree in mythology wrapped prettily as knowledge. The mythology I refer to is regarding the progressiveness of the art world, and of art’s inherently progressive values.

Questionnaire from 'Would You Rather', a hybrid game/research initiative by GUESTWORK
Questionnaire from ‘Would You Rather’, a hybrid game/research initiative by GUESTWORK

There is a notion found wherever the contemporary art world is that art is on the right-side of history. The idea that art pushes history forward, dragging people, economies, and politics with it is not a new idea, or even a bad idea, but it is a dangerous idea. It’s not new because it can be traced back to the notion of the “avant-garde” in 19th century France. It’s not a bad idea because certainly some part of history lends it the gravitas of truth. But for both these reasons it is a dangerous idea in the present day. It is no coincidence that new, unorthodox, and experimental art practices began to be described as ‘avant-garde’ during the bloodiest period in modern French history.

Meaning ‘the foremost division or the front part of an army’ avant-garde, or vanguard, refers to risky practices that often come with great reward. Artists whose work was bestowed with this term took great risks to criticize those in power. By exposing those who maintained the status quo they created vulnerabilities for the next wave to exploit. Therefore, the artistic avant-garde was an explicit tool of the revolutionary fever that marked the development of the modern age. The role of art continued in this function through a good portion of the 21st collective struggle as white-walled enclaves grew up around it.

“”Daumier soon saw the King’s ire aimed at him, when Daumier produced what is likely his most famous drawing, where he depicts Louis Philippe as Gargantua, feeding off the toil of the peasants of France.” – Text from Good Comics

Today these same white-walled enclaves want to cash in on the avant-garde history of modern art. Hence the museum markets its ‘collective’ values; contemporary art spaces “aspire to present forward thinking work,” and “propose new modes of production”; artists create work informed by critical theory, and audiences swarm to consume these new works, new ideas, new modes in the name of acquiring some of art’s progressive cultural capital. Yet where there is an avant-garde there ought to be an army. If bloodshed shows us the battle grounds, I don’t see the fight on these pristine walls.

Why else would PAM claim to be a ‘collective’ space if not to fight against oppression? Why else would YU investigate ‘new modes of production’ except to fight against Capital? Though they use the rhetoric, I don’t see them making much space for revolutionary thought, action, or art. Why aren’t any of the works in their permanent collection by Jacob Lawrence, one of the most renowned artists of mid-20th-century Modernism, on display? Has anyone there considered how the dearth of African-American artists represented on the walls of the art museum affects who in our communities are ‘allowed’ to see and be seen. Despite the local scene there are museums, galleries, artists, and audiences who go out of their way to provide forums where difficult issues can be discussed in the arts community. I found one recently in the Walker Arts Center, which through its Artists Op-eds commissions contemporary artists to respond to contemporary headlines.

Following the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s killing, I came across Illegitimate, an essay by the artist Dread Scott that addresses the United States’ history of slavery, Jim-crow, and police terror. Taking his name from the slave who unsuccessfully sued for freedom in a St. Louis court, Scott salutes the Ferguson protestors, decries those who aim to control through force, and calls for participation in the October Month of Resistance to Mass Incarceration, Police Terror, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation, called for by Carl Dix and Cornel West and the Stop Mass Incarceration Network.

stop sign with text

As part of the ‘Month of Resistance’, museums have an opportunity to show work from their collection that speak to these issues, and to provide platforms for these groups to speak. What a powerful moment to expand the ‘public’ of the public museum, and yet beyond the advertisement at my bus stop at night, little it seems is being done to create a forum within our arts community.  However, if we collectively call upon our collections then the mythology of art-as-avant-garde needn’t be a decaying relic.

While revolutions spurred the development of the artistic vanguard,  many museums began to be housed in historic military armories. Whether they are collections of guns or collections of art, objects perpetuate and perpetrate the ideas that made them. Therefore it is conceivable that our museums and institutions could do more than just use art’s outdated reputation as being on the ‘right-side’ to garner attendance, and instead put their stores of creative wealth behind the collective battles against injustice. Then perhaps museums would not be merely sites for viewing collections, but sights for imagining justice.

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