This piece was originally written for the Courtauldian December 2016 issue.
In June, the MA Curating class of 2015-6 I was part of organised a debate within the Courtauld Institute’s Research Forum, ‘Politics over the Public: The Role of Museums’. With director of MIMA Alistair Hudson, Wendy Earle from Birkbeck University and artist Peter Kennard as speakers, chaired by Dr Anna Marazuela Kim, it addressed whether the public museum should remain a neutral space or encourage the inclusion of political art and discussion. The debate raised more questions than answers about where to draw the line about the museum’s role towards the display of art, and within society. Alistair Hudson argued that art is intermingled in everyday life whether or not it labels itself as “political”: the museum is a public space and needs to behave as such. Wendy Earle, in turn, considered that this viewpoint alienated works created for art’s sake rather than as a response to current affairs.
The question of bias loomed heavily over a debate that happened, coincidentally, on the eve of the EU referendum results. Despite museums’ neutrality on the subject, the British and international art world united almost unanimously in the need to foster both British and European unity in the face of rampant nationalism and misinformation. The energy and optimism in the room from people believing in these issues and their vote was running high…and the Brexit outcome the next day was like a hangover following this giddy idealism.
Now, the US election results have sent the art world reeling once more, as people and the institutions they are part of struggle to cope and respond. Many American museums are trying to tread this risky line between neutrality and involvement with varying levels of subtlety. The Brooklyn Museum waived its usual entrance fee on the weekend following Election Day and encouraged visitors to take this opportunity to take a look at their new American Art displays “which embrace an inclusive view of history.“ The Queen’s Museum organised an “open house for unity” with resources for “vulnerable people”. A few days ago, the Whitney Museum respected artist Annette Lemieux ’s wish to have her work “Far Left Far Right”, 1995, made of political placards of photographs of raised fists, turned upside down. For her, doing this to a work about the inherent power of protest in a democracy represents “a world turned upside down”. If the world has turned upside down, maybe it’s time for the supposedly “neutral” museum to face up to the facts and make a complete U-turn as well. Public museums have changed drastically over the course of a few centuries, shifting and adapting to what a society needs the most at any given time.
Pretending museums can still be a bunker-like refuge full of distractions from what is happening outside feels like a privilege today’s society can no longer afford. I don’t want the art museum to coddle and comfort me when lives are at stake, civil rights could take a huge step backwards and people are consciously voting to put homophobic, racist and sexist government officials in charge.
I want the museum to acknowledge what the society it is part of has become, and how its role can evolve within it. However, to do so, it needs to find ways to present insightful art while encouraging discussion amongst a diverse range of people rather than preaching to the choir and then hoping for the best. It needs to educate and discuss rather than point and laugh. Idealistic, left-wing people like me have definitely been trapped in a bubble, ignoring the real scope of populist far-right movements till it’s too late to prevent the consequences. I don’t want this to happen to a space that’s meant to be open to everyone and anyone that walks through its doors with the potential to experience the world in countless new ways and learn something in the process. How? No idea…not yet. Maybe a few. We’ve raised questions, now we need answers. That’s why the debate must go on. And it’s time for young art historians, curators and artists to join the conversation.