Ruins on Ruins, Or Postmodernity at 40

Carsten Holler, Installation at the Tate Museum/Slide (2018)

By MIKE MAIZELS, July 2020

“In [the] act of self-recognition there is embedded a challenge to both art and criticism, a challenge which may now be squarely faced.”

--Craig Owens (1980)

This summer will mark one year since the passing of Douglas Crimp, a pioneer of postmodernism and part of a generation that first broke the wave of deconstructive theory into the American university. The present moment also marks another milestone—the 40th anniversary of “On the Museum’s Ruins,” one of Crimp’s most influential essays. It was assigned to me on at least three separate occasions in graduate school.

“Ruins” is a challenging piece, one that the ongoing moment of CoVID disruption casts in a hauntingly strange light. Its vision is one of the deep institutional tradition of the museum—a world of masterpieces, erudition and aristocratic privilege—under coordinated assault from changing vectors of both culture and technology. It was a one-two-three punch. Democratizing impulses were shifting the mission of the museum from discernment to broad cultural preservation. Contemporary artists were working to foreclose the narratives of linear coherence and completion upon which the institutional logic of the museum depended. And finally, the proliferation of photography threatened to render the whole exercise of obsolete. With freely available images, what was the point of an edifice dedicated to the specimens of an institutional construct that was being deformed out of its reason for existence?

With four decades of distance, the essay looks both prescient and alien. Its diagnosis of the imperative to loosen the strictures around “canonical” status prefigures both the contemporary drive for greater diversity and inclusion in museum collections, as well as the market-based need to mint new Masters in real time.

The severity of the break which Crimp credits to the likes of Rauschenberg et. al. may be historically accurate, but the world he describes has become difficult to fathom. The museum has lost (some) of its force of as a master discourse sorting the activity of the world into Hegelian completeness. As such, it can strain credulity to see how the a-developmental paradigm of the postmodern posed a threat to the museum’s “pretensions to anything we could possibly call knowledge.” On this front, the radicality of the argument has perhaps been blunted by its own foresight. 

It is its final concern, with promise of photography to obviate the collecting of objects, that now seems the most uncanny. Decades of digitization projects had, seemingly, done little to shake the proverbial marble columns of the physical museum. And yet (and the last part must on some level be a kind of posthumous irony for a dedicated AIDS activist), an unforeseen virus has vitiated that most normative of institutions. As of May 2020, the museum has been reduced to nothing but the available images of its carefully constructed, now-closed collections. CoVID has perhaps accelerated these changes, but it did not create them. The flattening of the museum into its searchable database is a counterpoise almost too perfect to what was only a few months ago, public enemy number one: the reduction of the august Institution into a factory for Instagram-ready social experiences. Pace Crimp, it is remarkable to see how much more ruined things have become.  

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But before Zooming into the contemporary moment, it is worth laying out Crimp’s argument with bit more detail. At its deepest level, the essay seeks to reveal a contradiction between the complex of the museum and the developments of modernism. On the one hand, the museum’s ambition to complete a catalog of artistic practice represents an paradigmatic manifestation of the modern impulse to survey and order the world (the encyclopedia, the Linnaean specie tree, the list goes on…). But the totalizing coherence of the modern museum could not avoid its fraught relationship with the unfolding progression of modern art.

For Crimp, adapting the line developed by Foucault and Michael Fried, what distinguished such art as modern was its “shamelessly obvious” relationship to its precedents enshrined within the museum. Quoting Foucault, Crimp argues that the works of Manet were the first to bear out a “new and substantial relationship of painting to itself, as a manifestation of the existence of museums and the particular reality and interdependence that paintings acquire in museums.” A universal history of the world, written in real time, and startled to catch a glimpse of itself in the mirror.

Robert Rauschenberg, Crocus (1962), Oil and silkscreen ink on canvas, 60” x 36”

The postmodern then becomes the attempt to turn this double take into a kind of chaotic choreography. The more or less “shameless” paraphrase of Titian by Manet becomes the overt strategy of photographic citation of Rauschenberg’s Crocus. The linear progress implied by both the modern museum (from Mannerism to the Baroque) and the modern artist (from the Quattrocento the Belle Epoque) is symbolically exploded by a scatter of postmodern citations.  

Photography is critical to this development. Photography enables paintings to circulate in virtual form, where they can be adapted and remixed by subsequent waves of creators. If art became modern through its self-awareness as an object of museological knowledge, it became postmodern as it recognizes and thematizes its status as built out of what Roland Barthes called “a tissue of citations.”

This line of argument was essential to the larger intellectual world of the essay itself. “Ruins” first appeared in print shortly after Crimp joined the editorial board of October, which by the end of the decade had become the leading forum through which the discourse of post-structural theory made its way into the intellectual core of a new art history. In this way, “Ruins” was doubly appropriate; it must at least in part be understood as an attempt to historicize the widely heralded Pictures exhibition curated by Crimp three years prior. Both exhibition and article were attempts to think through the power of photography to hollow, to flatten, and at least implicitly, to queer, the all-important process of cultural memory.

But true to the original spirit of these ideas, they can be read against the grain of their intentions. Photography in/and/of the galleries of the museum has come to mean something else entirely. Or within the last year, two entirely different things. A kaleidoscope of reflexive Kusama reflections has turned into an eerie specter of the empty museum sublating into nothing but its virtualized collections. All that is solid perhaps has melted into air. Or at least airborne droplets.

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Douglas Crimp original banner for “On the Museum’s Ruins” Published in Octiber 13 (Summer, 1980). Detail from Robert Rauschenberg, Crocus (1962)/Image 2

Following the terms laid out by Crimp four decades into the future, it’s clear that Malraux won. Or at least that his ideas have made deep inroads into enemy territory. “Ruins” ends with its own forty year return to André Malraux’s 1947 manifesto in which he called for a worldwide “Museum without Walls,” a set of high resolution photographs of artworks that could circulate instead of objects. The newly imagined museum would reside in what was then the leading edge of decentralized information storage technology: a book distributed in thousands of copies. While this perhaps sounds innocuous enough, the gestures of doing away with the walls of the institution threatened to undermine its fundamental logic. Namely, a museum exists to preserve things, not images. As such, it is saddled with the burden of selecting which things to preserve, and then committing substantial resources to their analysis and preservation. Without walls, this complex threatens to blow away in the wind.

Flashing forward to the present state of play, photography has not (in any narrow sense anyway), caused the many crises that have recently dogged the museum world. However, a trace of the photographic may be the shortest thread running through most of them. At first glance, it may seem strange to connect the rash of art destroyed by selfie taking to the vexed construct of yoga in the modern wing. But these transmutations hang together with an underlying coherence. As the objects of the museum collection can have their function fulfilled by virtualized images, the physical site of the museum itself is free to be reimagined as a zone of multifarious, vaguely aesthetic experience. This experience is, appropriately enough, often fertile soil for a second order photographic substitution—in which the museum experience is itself recapitulated (or perhaps, fully completed) by its choreographed entry into the circulating image landscape of social media.

The clotting between the museological and the photographic reached a new density within the last three years. Perhaps once the museum caught a glimpse of itself in the postmodern mirror of shareable media, it was only a matter of time before it began to duck-pout in front of the reflexive lens. By the spring of 2017, it was clear that Yayoi Kusama’s traveling retrospective—punctuated by a crystalline Infinity Mirror Room installation—had become an historically unprecedented success. Museums (as well as their most important suppliers, blue chip contemporary galleries) began to wholeheartedly embrace the idiom of the Instagram-ready experience machine. Spaces were built, partnerships were launched. Pop Ups were popped up; spaces were filled, de-filled and re-filled overnight.

Museum of Ice Cream banner image/Slide (2019)

These adaptations from the new discipline of “experiential marketing” were soon to be reciprocated across the border between avant-garde and kitsch. A new species of venture-backed branding play, exemplified by the Museum of Ice Cream, found a way peel off the rhetoric of the museum while effortlessly discarding the rest. My colleague Tim Schneider framed this transmogrification in memorably caustic terms, noting that the switch made all the financial sense in the world. While the MOIC could command a higher ticket price than the Metropolitan Museum of Art, its collections “are worthless…you don’t need to pay to insure them against loss, damage, or destruction, and you certainly don’t need to maintain a conservation department to care for them.” No curatorial, scholarly, or public education departments were needed either. “The ‘hall of giant scoops’” Schneider reminds us, “is not a hall of kings whose past deeds will enrich visitors’ appreciation of art and history.” Again transposing Crimp, if Rauschenberg’s pastiche symbolically detonated the museum’s claim on a knowledge function, the Museum of Ice Cream grows like a weed in the rubble.  

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Diego Velazquez, Rokeby Venus/The Toilet of Venus (c. 1650), Oil on Canvas, 48” x 70”

But of course in March 2020, the gravity of this ecosystem flipped over itself. The crowded density of public “experiences” emptied into visions of darkened galleries, as the Infinity Mirror Room became the black hole of CoVID self-quarantine,. In the first days of global lockdown, interest in digitized versions of museum collections spiked. Within the estrangement of 2020, leisure, no less than work, must be conducted remotely. With #MuseumFromHome trending, an endless profusion of recommenders began to aggregate extant collections portals and access points. Countless recommendations were posted in online fora for the Google Arts and Culture Initiative, which one commentator likened to a “single virtual ‘super museum’” comprised of five hundred of the world’s elite institutions.

Soon after the initial wave, museum consultants and extramural professionals began urging the home institution to lean into its new reality. “Now that physical spaces are no longer the priority,” the digital strategist JiaJia Fei told the Guardian, there was a grand possibility “to adapt events, exhibitions and experiences for an entirely digital-first audience.” Other cultural producers touted a retooled vision of “blockbuster success,” including the AR collaboration between Acute Art and street sensation(alist) KAWS, which was downloaded millions of times. Somewhere Malraux must be smiling.

We will all have a front row seat for the unfolding drama of how all of this alters the long-term institutional mission of the museum. While public searches for digital collections crashed quickly after they peaked, the strategist commentariat that pushed for the rapid adaptation of digital-forward products is now making the case for museums to be among the first brick-and-mortar establishments to reopen. As Andras Szanto noted in Artnet “Museums could offer people who have experienced weeks of isolation a safe place to go, or a reprieve from cramped quarters. Their opening would signal the beginnings of a return to normalcy… serv[ing] as hubs of education, information-sharing, and collective reflection.” Every imaginable reason except objects.

The lasting rupture in all of this is likely to stem from the cost cutting appeal of virtualized services, appeal that will only grow even after the acute threat of the virus recedes. This virtualization offers a new cure for a long raging, but little discussed pandemic called “cost disease.” First identified by the economist 

William Baumol, cost disease describes a trap in which highly specialized labor cannot share in the wider gains of created by technological efficiency. Baumaol’s iconic example is in symphony orchestras: the number of trained labor hours and fixed capital assets (like instruments) that are required to learn, rehearse and perform an orchestral composition has remained virtually unchanged over the centuries. As a result, the costs associated with symphonies (and museum) simply rise forever. 

The Google super museum offers a distant, chilling glimmer of the remedy. Often euphemistically referred to as “cost synergy,” the global museum of everything would enable the elimination of reduplicative assets, for example curators of European painting focused only on the collection of a single physical institution. As the whole enterprise becomes a detached from physical objects—diffused into a Deleuzan rhizome and served by algorithm—fixed assets like local expertise can simply be allowed to wither away. A shimmering digital surface with an even lower cost base than a Hall of Scoops.

Can one raze a ruin? WM

Mike Maizels

Mike Maizels is an art historian and curator whose work brings the visual arts into productive collision with a broad range of disciplinary histories and potential futures.  He is the author of three books, the most recent of which examines the intersecting histories of "minimalism" in the visual arts and music.  He has also published widely on topics ranging from Kanye West to the philosophy of mathematics.  His curatorial have included the first museum retrospective given to a videogame maker and led to the discovery of hidden CIA training camps.  He is currently a visiting researcher at the metaLAB, an idea foundry and knowledge-design lab at Harvard University.

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