Hans Belting: Why the Museum?

Cover of the publication »Contemporary Art and the Museum«
October 19, 2007

In March of this year, the Dubai Art Fair, a subsidiary of Dubai’s International Financial Centre (DIFC) organized a three day “Global Art Forum” which was curated by Maria Finders, from Brunswick Arts. Suprisingly, one of the section was introduced as “The next ten years of contemporary art in the middle East”, as if they could be planned in advance. A commentary clarified that the title implied two questions. How will Contemporary Art affect the Middle East in the next ten years? Or how will the Middle East affect Contemporary Art? Contemporary Art, as we may conclude, has become synonymous with Global Art which the forum meant to promote in the Middle East. Culture, we read, “is becoming an economic driver”. Since everything in the desert state is created ex nihilo, also Global Art is on their agenda for inventing a global city. Museums are rarely mentionend in the the papers of the Forum except the so-called Museum of Contemporary Art at Tehran, a contested place in Iran’s cultural politics. Museums anyway often play a minor role in Global Art and remain in the shadow of the market. Thus, their situation markedly differs from museums of so-called “World Art”, understood as World Art Heritage in Metropolitan Museums of the West. While World Art usually does not exist outside museums, Global Art has not even reached them, even if museums occasionally host exhibitions of new art of non-western origin. While Global Art is the reason for new art fairs and biennials, it needs an explanation why museums should be the topic of a conference on contemporary art. The conference title serves as a guide to the intended meaning. It does not ask “What is Contemporary Art?” but instead asks “Where is Contemporary Art?” and thus asks a geographical question which a priori is a museum question too. New Art Museums are created with almost the same speed as the biennials in other parts of the world, but they do not have the same purpose. The question, thus, is whether also Contemporary Art has a geography, much as museums are defined by their geography. We even may ask whether art, after its former universalism and contrary to the global market, also lives from local meanings which counteract the pressure of globalization and favour national or cultural idioms rather than falling victim to global conformism. Museums are site specific (a term from exhibition art) and differ by their geographical location. The strive for modernization may everywhere favour an art scene in the Western sense, but the need of self expression and identity may cause the opposite effect. Museum theory which has become a favorate academic play, does little to answer such questions, as it is mostly in Western hands and usually neglects current museum practice. Contemporary art, in its diversity and cultural geography, neatly contrasts with the global mass media and does not circulate in the way the latter do, if only because of its personal claim and private look on the world. Though also dependent on the market , artists do not want to serve the ideology and conformism of mass media. In some suppressed societies , new art even is expected to be the last cry of freedom and self expression, in that it strives for a personal voice which , on the other hand, may reach the outside world and thus make internal problems visible on an international level.


Let me proceed in the guise of loose comments which touch some basic issues of my subject . My first point is history. Art Museums, even new ones, are displaying history. But in what sense? Western museums habe celebrated history in terms of art history. This even applies to museums with modern art which its experts, from Julius Meier Graefe to Herbert Read, have always propagated as the continuing course of art history, sometimes as its very apogee where everything in past art already had pointed to. The military term of the avant-garde makes the continuity of history abundantly clear . While modern art, sometime in a polemic mood, represented its own history, ethnic art, its other self, was believed to live in a timeless tradition.But this approved concept of art history no longer is valid even in Western art which changed direction after modernism. When I gave 1983 my inaugural lecture on the “End of Art History?” in Munich, I only had Western art in mind, while arts globalization only could become an issue in my recent book “Art history after modernism”(1) . It is more than doubtful that Western type art history is a candidate for globalization, even though there is everywhere a frantic attempt to recover a local art history, including neglected modernisms in excluded nations. On the contrary , we observe a new energy among artists to get rid of this double heritage of modernity. Artists in the West insist on a post-historical liberation from a limiting past, while former ethnic artists , no longer confined to traditional arts and craft, prefer to be identified as post-ethnic in order to act as artists in a global sense. Thus, contemporary art, as against modern art, contradicts art history in the accepted sense. Contemporaneity, or globalism, is fludding history, thus also leading to a dangerous loss or artificial invention of history. History divides the global world, while contemporeneity, as a common experience with different viewing points, seems to become our common destiny. The same is valid for geography. It used to separate art from ethnicity, the West from the rest. Now, new frontiers , still largely clouded, are building up..


Modern Art, as we know,enjoyed the privilege of defining art on a universal level. Artists who were unwilling or unable to adopt it,did not fall under the categories of art at all. As a result, non-western artists were for a long time desperately appropriating the latest modern styles in order to be part of the game. For making art, it has been mandatory to be modern in the Western sense. An exhibition shown at the Maison de la Culture de Japon, in Paris, demonstrated this law most clearly. “Cubism in Asia”, as it was named, retraced the history of Cubism, as the principal label of modernism, in different Asian countries where its introduction took place over a period of several decades, sometimes coinciding with national independence(2). Cubism, or modern art at large, was a priviliged model for doing art everywhere. Modern art was modern form in art. This has significantly changed, since even Western art , for some while, lacks any binding model including a common idiom which we have called style or a leading art current. As a result, participation of the art world does not involve western or modern style any longer. Art markets function differently from an art school. Globalization now means providing global occasions for doing art. In the era of modernism, western art schools had been indespensable for outsiders to be accepted even at home. Today, however, art practice has been decentralized in aim and appearance. And art has undergone a structural change which opens a new game. It no longer is its own subject or reason, as it used to be in modernism, but lives on external subject matter. Instead of representing itself, it respresents everything else in its own time, and everything else again has a geography. New media have made art narrative. But any narrative involves a place where it makes sense, and thus a local audience. Global Art is not global in that it is everywhere the same. On the contrary, it feeds the expectation that also art is as multiform as the global universe. There are at least two main reasons why art has become global. The one is the use of new media and art technologies such as film, video and net-art which are available everywhere on the globe. Such media recommend themselves, because they have no Western genealogy in terms of exhibition art in the “White Cube”. For the same reasons, they also create problems for art museums to collect and to exhibit them.

The market

The other reason for art’s globalization is the market which has expanded in an unprecedented scale. Chinese artists no longer go to New York in order to attend American art schools, but live there in order to invade the market. Contemporary art , like never before, has become a recommended investment in the art trade whose markets are spreading over the globe. A German News Paper, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung", in its weekly section on the "Kunstmarkt", recently confirmed that contemporary art continues to boom at the fall auctions of 2007 in London(3). "Chinese avantgarde is firmly established but German art is also very strong", as I was amused to read in this sequence. "Phillips goes its own ways by throwing Russian art on the market". At Sotheby’s, a Chinese work from 1995, representing the Tiananmen massacre, was assessed at two million pounds. At Phillips de Bury, two private collections with Chinese Art that were offered for sale, were expected to win record prizes.. While Sotheby’s estimated a red "Mao" from Warhol’s series of 1973 for 650 000 pounds, this estimation is beaten by the expected prize of a Chinese triptych with Mao portraits, painted by Wang Guangyis in 1988 (Mao from A to O, or Mao behind prison bars) which was assessed for 700 000 pounds. At the same time, Sotheby offered old Chinese Art, mostly pillaged in colonial times, at its Hongkong branch, for Chinese clients. Museums, in general, are no longer bidding on such art sales. They even are not welcome on the market as their acquisitions would stop the free flow of the art trade by entering in permanent collections. Museums, we must add, also differ from personal collections in that they cannot be sold and resold. They only can be closed.

Art collectors and art audiences

Museums lag behind the globalization of the market, and in this they also represent an audience which continues to be local in taste and art experience. We still remember the disillusion of the Russian artists when they conquered a professional audience at New York but lost their devoted audience at home. Museum audiences are mostly unaware of the economic conditions of the exhibitions they admire. A museum which hosts an exhibition, may not even own the works shown, but may depend on a collector’s taste that in turn mirrors the market. The ownership history does not leave any visible trace on the works themselves which keep a false innocence. Which audience, we may ask ourselves, does art actually address? To be understood and appreciated is its principal aim rather than to be sold and resold. But can understanding, reflecting a general audience, ever be global? Is it not an illusion that the notion of art is everywhere the same? It is a market illusion which only is shared by art collectors and guest curators who with their exhibitions serve the market. It only makes sense to speak of global art if we accept its diversity and its inborn conditions and limits. The creation of museums that are supported by art foundations, either in the hands of families or of big companies, is a new phenomenon in the collector’s world. They make a personal taste public and guide the art experience of a local or national audience. Sometimes, they are for a larger public the only occasion to encounter new art, whether national or international. Pertinent examples are three museums in Istanbul which show modern art and occasional new art, not necessarily international art. "Istanbul Modern", beautifully situated at the Bosporus and a neighbour of an elegant mosque, thus representing the dualism in modern Turkey, is in the hands of the Eczacibasi family which, not only with its own collection, strictly controls the exhibition policy of the museum. The "Pera Museum", opened in June 2005 in an old private town house, is owned by the Suna and Inan Kirac Foundation and also houses two private collections. Contemporary art is only seen in temporary exhibitions such as one in a third museum, the "Santral Istanbul" which in fact is an "energy museum" and does not have an art collection of its own. Thus, after 20 years of the existence of the Istanbul Biennial(4), even Turkish contemporary art is not seen in a permanent collection in any of the existing museums. But also the opposite case creates problems when private collectors alone exhibit contemporary art and alone decide on its selection.

We here encounter a global situation in such countries where new museums, often the first of its kind, are created by private collectors. A museum of whatever kind recommends itself as the only choice to install a public collection which often is justified as a national choice to make contemporary art visible in its own country. Thus, the Poddar collection of contemporary Indian art, to give just one example, "remains essentially a family collection" and owns "over 2000 works that include commissions and folk art. It will become accessible to the public with the opening of the Devi Art Foundation" late in 2007 (www.aaa.org.hk, Asian Art Archive). We do not give enough attention to this worldwide development, if we are still thinking in the traditional Western category of the public museum (whether state or city). In such museums (National or City Museums) a jury, or in the US the trustees, served as a link between private and public taste. The lack of any such control in countries with no professional audience invests a private collector , with a museum of its own, with an unprecedented power. He or she indeed has the power to chanel contemporary art in his or her country by inclusion or exclusion and thus to create an official canon. Chronology of global art. We may now ask ourselves what global art actually is and whether it exists at all? Or whether it is a mere fashion and, worse, a phantom? Global art, to pin it down, does not have a history (how could that be otherwise?), but it has a chronology , as a term and as a concept. If we look at London and Paris, two places with a colonial history, it becomes apparent that there has been a turning point, a global turn , in the same year 1989 when also world history changed. 1987, two years before, the Pakistan born artist Rashed Araeen founded the periodical "Third Text" which, as the editorial has it, is dedicated to "Third World perspectives on contemporary art and culture". In 1988, a London gallery placed an exhibition on "The essential black art", a term then generally used for distinguishing "the other" in art. 1989, the "Chinese View Arts Center" was opened in Manchester, and Jean Hubert Martin curated the legendary exhibition "Les magiciens de la terre" at Paris which was the first event of global art, though the term was not used then. The exhibition was global in that it placed accepted Western artists side by side with Non-Western artists , even with ethnic artists who were one of the reasons to replace the term artist by the innocent and conciliatory term magician, meaning what magicians were in tribal cultures, artists are in a modern culture. Later in 1989, Araeen, the editor of "Third Text", presented the exhibition "The other story. Afro-Asian artists in postwar Britain" in a London gallery. Its purpose was altogether different, because the curator, as he writes in the Catalogue, wanted to disclose " the absence of non-European artists from the history of modern art". The absence was not an absence as such, but an absence in art writing and art exhibition. He thus wanted to fill this lacuna after the fact and to restore a lost presence in retrospect. But the quest for an incomplete art history is not the aim of global art whose message is to leave art history altogether, as it was a Western project. Martin therefore was criticized from two opposite sides, in the one case for abandoning art history and in the other case for not filling up Western art history with neglected names. But the term "global art" still meets with a certain reluctance. The West defends its privileged status, and other parts of the world do not per se gain a national art scene except by participation and competition on the market. It is less controversial to use terms such as recent or young art. "Hybrid" is a label for the mixture of the progressive with the exotic. Postmodern, one generation ago, was a redefinition of the vanishing modern, postcolonial an attempt to overcome colonial thinking and language. The prefix "post" always reveals a tendency to save what it designs, by change and adaptation.Others discover "Mestizo phenomena" in Hong Kong Movies whose global imagery has a wider audience than global art (5). And yet, the globalization of art is the single most important event in the art scene, even eclipsing the appearance of new media in art a generation ago. It has, as we have seen, already taken place on the art market. But global art needs, as we will see, a new type of art museum to provide it with meaning and acceptance.

The proliferation of new art museums in Asia, to take one example, is a symptom for a tendency which still needs a definition. Let me say so much. The question of the local is the basic issue in every discussion on the global, as the neologism "glocal" reveals. The local assumes an increased and different importance in the face of the global, and the place is invested with a new urgency within the overall flow of the space of media and markets, as Marc Auge has defined it in his seminal study on Non-Lieux(6). Now the importance of museums in the future is becoming visible. They are not only local sites for a local audience, whatever they may show . They also represent the double face of the contempory, meaning global traffic and migration, and the familiar, whether you called it identity or tradition. The global always has a local significance. In this respect, museums ,with their permanence, beat the market, with its ubiquity and its instability. Global art certainly needs a global market but it also needs places where it is mediated to a local audience and where a general audience , as against the clients of the market, is formed and shaped with some coherence. This may happen via a permanent museum collection which always will be site-specific, or by an exhibition program which has more consistency than art fairs and short lived biennial events. The problem is to balance the sharing with the owning. The sharing is global, the owning local.

(1) Hans Belting, Das Ende der Kunstgeschichte? (Munich 1983): now in another version: Art History after Modernism (Chicago 2003)
(2) Cubisme: l'autre rive. Resonances en Asie (Catalogue Japan Foundation, Tokyo 2007); Cubism in Asia: Unbounded Dialogues (Tokyo, Singapore, Paris 2005-2007)
(3) Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, October 6,2007
(4) David Elliott,ed, Time present, time past. Highlights from 20 years of the International Istanbul Biennial ( Istanbul , Exhibition Catal. 2007)
(5) Serge Gruzinski, The Mestizo Mind. The intelellectual dynamics of colonization and globalization (London 2002) p.202ff.
(6) Marc Augé, Non-Lieux´. Introduction à une anthropologie de la surmodernité (Paris 1992)

Last update: 26-10-2007 15:42