Minding the Museum



Fred Wilson Artemis/Bast 1992

I was recently part of a studio critique with a group of artists that I often construct ideas and projects with. Though we have our creative, spiritual, and ideological differences, we are largely congruent in our beliefs about politics, identity and overall creative approaches.

We were reviewing a body of work being readied for a museum exhibition. This work, like productions of the rest of us in the critique, leveled a bit of social critique, called into question the American narrative about value and identity, and in general attempted to correct the historical arcs in which our social contracts have been developed.

We are group of “othered” artists, educated by a traditional western academia, and ultimately disappointed with the limitations and representations offered up to us by that education. Like most every field of practice in America, the histories that root the mainstream artworld do not adequately account for our presence. It in fact denies much of our material worth and our theoretical and conceptual contributions to the field of artmaking.

The question that came up for me was, “Is it effective to produce work within this system?”. The art of institutional critique, at this point, may be old hat. If we take for example the works of  Fred Wilson, an elegant, and masterful artist at drawing out the cognitive dissonance of the museum system, we see that even the most acute of this criticism is consumed by the same system it seeks to expose. The is a hegemonic system and absorbs this criticism. It confuses acknowledgement with adoption. Fred Wilson’s work does not only call for us to be included in the collections and theories of academia, but to adjust the very nature of the system.  This is of course a losing battle. The museum system has no real need to examine itself. Once you consider the metrics of income, donations, numbers of visitors, etc, I imagine “WE” do not really exist to the museums. Hence my question. Is this an effective space for us to work within.

If we are the creative class of our community, then we are engaging in a type of brain drain by constantly submitting to this system. We adhere to, and champion their notions of value, history, composition, theory and every other arbitrary rule of our field. This is not to imply that the hundreds of years of creativity and study by the western artworld is moot, but it is largely incomplete when there is no room for the rest of us.

As a postscript, I’ll add that, in response to this question, as a group, I believe we have discovered and rediscovered again, the vacant lots and street corners as an additional and effective creative space for us. This shift automatically forces us to consider new sets of rules about the creation of work, it’s sense of value, and it’s signs of communication. We’ll let you know how it turns out.