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A Museological Dilemma

NYC 1993, the recent exhibition at the New Museum of works from the year of the notoriously “political” Whitney Biennial, raises a question that has long preoccupied me: Is it possible to stage acts of genuine transgression from within the museum or is transgression inevitably swallowed up by the institution? Alas, this question, which once felt so vital, now seems in danger of becoming entirely irrelevant. For the most part, museums today are viewed as open, interactive fields for socially engaged artistic practices. As milder, more playful forms of subversion have taken center stage, earnest transgressions have faded from view. This has created the illusion that the very targets of transgression—the museum and its authority to determine what qualifies as culture—have also grown more democratic and inclusive.
What does the New Museum’s revisitation of the transgressions of 1993 tell us about how art and its institutions have changed in the intervening 20 years? The Pollyanna-ish view is that museums truly have grown more diverse and transparent, thus rendering contemporary acts of transgression largely unnecessary. Didn’t the inclusion of so many women and people of color in the boisterous and irreverent 1993 Whitney Biennial signal the beginning of a new era? And isn’t there an exhibition of punk’s influence on fashion up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art right now? Trends toward inclusivism and the absorption of popular culture were made possible by changes wrought during the culture wars of the late 1980s and early ’90s, when institutions began programming with the explicit mission of attracting economically and racially diverse new audiences. But populism is a poor substitute for transgression’s ability to give voice to social and psychological repression.

Many forms of transgression were on view in the New Museum’s NYC 1993. Frank sexuality and mortality were among the many veins of rich material artists tapped to challenge social conventions during that most fertile period of transgression. Nan Goldin’s and Hannah Wilke’s photographs confront us with love and death. Janine Antoni, Sue Williams, and Kiki Smith subvert traditions of painting and sculpture to act out women’s protracted struggle with the codes that define and control feminine subjectivity. While their transgressions hinge on breaking rules about what artworks are and are not allowed to represent, the force of this critique is somewhat blunted by the conventions of representation.

One of the most forceful transgressions of the 1993 Biennial proved to be a work that questioned the Whitney Museum’s authority as a space of aesthetic experience. Daniel J. Martinez made conscripted performers out of each and every visitor to the exhibition by inscribing the badges museum entrants are required to wear with the phrase, “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white.” Racially marking visitors’s bodies called attention to the different roles people played at the Whitney, an Upper East Side museum where the security staff was largely of color and the patrons were mostly white. In highlighting the whiteness of the visitors, Martinez also revealed that the very experience of contemplating art was marked by the politics of race.

In making this work, Martinez instinctively seized upon what historians have identified as social hierarchies scripted and reinforced by the museum. Exhuming the imperialist orientation of Kant’s thought, Walter D. Mignolo hunts the problem back to the very origin of art, arguing that aesthetic experience is a concept that would not have been possible without colonialism. Dispelling the myth of the Enlightenment’s disinterested viewer, Pierre Bourdieu argues that museums promote the myth of aesthetic experience with the primary goal of shoring up class inequalities. And Tony Bennett chronicles the early history of “public” museums in 19th century England, during which time it was believed that frequenting museums would teach self-regulation to the lower classes by instilling in them codes of public conduct.

Martinez’s tag piece for the Whitney carried the charge of this conscripted role: visitors were required to participate in order to enter the museum. The confrontation this staged between the authoritative museum and the racialized bodies that occupied it must have been palpable. Such a confrontation would have been impossible to restage in 2013 at the New Museum, where examples of Martinez’s original tags were instead shown as historical material, framed and hung on the wall. The utter impossibility of restaging Martinez’s work confirms that transgressions against the museum tend now to appear either as chapters from a history or as exercises in collectivity. Often, it seems like the museum has indeed inscribed transgression within its very structure. But Martinez’s work—even as it is shown more passively today—reminds us that the immense, all-encompassing shape of the museum’s authority still makes it an inevitable and ideal target for transgression.


Harper Montgomery


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2013

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