Politics of a collection

Art impacts life where it reproduces itself. – Toni Negri

We stand in support of art as a necessity in the service of life, art as a social good, and art as common inheritance of the public. – Occupy Museums 

When Maria Cernuschi Ghiringhelli purchased a table and chairs by Breuer at the Milan Triennale in 1933, she could not have imagined that the initial impulse to buy, to won, also vaguely pathological, would have led her over the span of about thirty years to construction a collection that is now fully institutionalized. 

Much has been said about the multiple urges that make people collect things, and about the often-embroidered episodes that lie behind the most important private art collections. The phenomenon clearly cannot be explained in terms of pure psychic impulse, and is instead something that can be investigated under different aspects, of a psychological, social, economic, sentimental order: a special relationship that is established with objects, spasmodic pursuit of the missing piece, a focus on the intrinsic value of the object, at times a magical obsession. Jean Baudrillard describes the need to identify with the object, its subjectivization, as an impulse as necessary to the psyche as dreaming. According to Walter Benjamin, grappling in 1931 with house moving that forced him to reorganize his library (and to come to terms with it), a reflection on collecting is first of all autobiographical, whose comprehension is generated in the dialectic between present and past. A private collection is, in fact, a diary, a “closed synchronicity” (Baudrillard), an autonomous system and a cutaway of personal experience: the objects, the works are never totally isolated from their “story” and the meaning they take on in relation to other objects and the collector herself. While a private collection is a system of construction of self through art, when an art collection is acquired by a public museum it becomes part of specific policies of acquisition, curatorial choices, it is recognized for its historic weight, its cultural value increases, making it an almost unalienable asset, contributing to construct the meaning of the host institution. The exhibitions – like this one – that call an institutional collection back into play, have the possibility of moving along multiple time frames. A formal and analytical approach cannot be functional, in this case, for a correct interpretation of the myriad facets of the contemporary, even in the case of works belonging to the historical moment in which that approach began (A. Barr in 1936 at MoMA, with the exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art). So a choice has been made to abandon a linear, historicized approach to time, to retrace multiple time frames, treating the works of the collection as opportunities to interpret the present, and to open up hermeneutic glimpses of the future. To desacralize the museum collection, putting it into dialogue with the works of contemporary artists, represents an opening to different interpretations, also to critical re-readings that might threaten its authoritative status; a timely approach to the historical datum that produces a new understanding of the present and a gateway to future possibilities. In 2011 the Occupy Museums movement (born as a branch of Occupy Wall Street) expressed the need for more space for a culture and an art that are not the privilege of the few, but would instead represent the soul of the people (that 99% of the population excluded from global power games and access to wealth). In their manifesto, critics, curators and artists belonging to the movement expressed the need for a struggle to overturn the established (cultural) system: “Museums … help create our historical narratives and common symbols. They wield enormous power within our culture … We are beginning to unmask a cultural system of inequality and exploitation with ancient roots.” Boris Groys in Art Power (postmediabooks, 2012) urges a regimen of aesthetic equality for all works of art, which for him is closely connected to the struggle for equality that reflects an ideal of rights in the political and social field. Such a regimen of equality and parity is opposed to the hierarchy of socially, culturally, politically and economically imposed values, to the aesthetic value judgments advanced by the ruling class, reflecting the structures of power. This principle of aesthetic equality can be achieved and experienced only inside the museum – the historical memory of our society – now deprived of its normative power, but even more necessary to supply observers with the tools for a systematic historical comparison between old and new, differentiated from what is in fashion (historical memory against the dictatorship of taste). Also Benjamin – in the essay Unpacking my Library – believes that a tension aimed at a work of art is condemned to be frustrated if we cannot manage to understand its true historical content. While Groys is optimistic about the possibility of a revolution of values and society, Giorgio Agamben is skeptical about a valid recovery of the past and its reinsertion inside a virtuous cultural circuit. He speaks, in fact, of the accumulation of culture as a “monstrous archive” that “has lost its living meaning and hangs of over man like a threat in which he can in no way recognize himself.” To display the collection – for a museum – is a bit like outing: it means revealing that which in every institution speaks of history and its own inner logic. Exhibitions, in fact, represent the obligatory mediation that reveals a cultural phenomenon to the public, while predetermining its perception at the same time (Nathalie Heinich, L’art contemporain exposé aux rejects, Pluriel, 2010). Heinich points out that contemporary artworks do not call the viewer and his register of values into play only from an aesthetic standpoint (if the object is or is not beautiful), but also a hermeneutic viewpoint (is it or is it not art?). The identification in the exhibition of two thematic threads of research (abstraction and language) both in the historic works and in the latest production also offers the visitor a key of interpretation, a supplementary register from which to proceed for the comprehension of both the new and the “old.”

Here the collection (the past) is placed in a dialectical relationship with other works (the present), creating a meta-collection, a path in which the single elements form a whole, a whole that is not perfectly explicable but in which the possibility of meta-temporal coexistence is legitimized. How many visions and interpretative systems can a collection generate? They will in any case be partial narratives, personal trajectories, paths traced a posteriori, possible readings only at a sufficient historical distance. As Claire Bishop notes, “rather than simply claim that many or all times are present in each historical object, we need to ask why certain temporalities appear in particular works of art at specific historical moments.” To take the collection in hand means demystifying the objects, inserting them in a living, vital circuit of culture. The exhibition The Politics of Collecting – The Collecting of Politics, for example, produced at the Van Abbemuseum of Eindhoven in 2013, questioned the meaning of a collection for a contemporary art museum. In the press release of the exhibition, the role of the museum as public space set aside for the “management” of cultural memory is emphasized, as well as its institutional and revolutionary responsibility to become a source of inspiration, surprise and imagination for visitors, artists and all the persons involved.

Brian Holmes repositions the contemporary museum, no longer seen as the gathering and repository of a collection of historical importance (a modernist idea), but as the site of “proactive laboratories of social evolution,” a place inserted in its time that actively moves in the dominant economic and social systems. Museums thus conceived, then, require an art that does not produce “objects-for-contemplation, [but] recognizes the fundamental conflicts within society,” taking the dialogue back to a political level.

The project Decolonising the Museum, curated by Paul B. Preciado at MACBA in Barcelona in November 2014, represents another example of this new approach. The program – a series of encounters and seminars – aimed at the creation of a platform of critical proposals and possible alternatives, new collaborative networks, for a museum that gets away from the Eurocentric and imperialist model of the 19th and 20th centuries. Preciado is critical of the dynamics that regulate the world’s large museums in which, in his view, “works are no longer considered in terms of their ability to cast doubt on our habitual way of perceiving and knowing, but for their infinite interchangeability.” As indicated above, regarding the Van Abbemuseum, the virtuous and experimental models of deconstruction of the museum as a static repository of its own collection can easily be found in smaller institutions independent of the large capital flows that regulate the functioning of contemporary museum-enterprises.

Small museums (with collections) therefore represent a fertile field of experimentation and reversal of historically established dynamics. Cornelius Castoriadis is skeptical as to whether public museums, places in which “dead memory … is hypertrophying,” can continue to function as stores of culture and the history of a people, unless a real process of political transformation of the society prevents history (and the museum) from being reduced to a cemetery. 

Because, though it might seem obvious, losing the relationship with our past means not be able to live in the present.

Carlotta Pezzolo

Text for the exhibition Chaotic Passion – Museo d’Arte Contemporanea di Villa Croce, Genova, 2015-16