Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Artists' Work, War and Museums

Through their work and attitudes, artists ultimately respond to the larger framework of museum culture since it is the platform for those giving them support and credence: patrons, curators and critics. Noted cultural theorist, Viola Kolarov expands upon this and the dependence Freud described between museums and war in her essay “Marlene McCarty: Report to a Museum.” We are now in a time of war. Armed with Kolarov’s insights, I propose a call to artists, patrons, curators, critics and museum leaders to question the moral underpinnings of their work as it relates to the cultural cycle that perpetuates violence, torture, and cruelty.

"Evan" by Anne Sherwood Pundyk, 2010, 24" x 24," Oil and Acrylic on Panel

Kolarov notes that in 1915 -- another time of war -- Freud wrote about a theoretical positioning of the function of the museum and museum culture with respect to war. Freud’s observations on the state of war (which he considered an exception) and its impact on the norm of peacetime suggest the psychic parameters of contemporary artists’ current work. He focuses on the crumbling of the ethical norms that structure the space of the museum at times of war. During peacetime, members of western civilization enjoy the foreign “cultures” hosted within the walls of the museum. In wartime what has allowed this pleasure reveals itself in its pure form: the reduction of the world and its history into a manageable size for consumption. This is possible because the museum’s audience is stuck in an unenlightened, self-focused state of mind.

The premise for Freud’s speculation, Kolarov suggests, is that the museum contains products of war. War opens the doors of culture to looting (a close relative to creative transgressing) and also reignites the hungry aggression that powered the construction of the museum in the first place. In a sense, museums honor the aggressive acts with forms of celebration that mimic mourning by using funeral procession-like arrangements of objects in cases and in rows. Psychologically those aggressors must put a distance between themselves and their violent acts by framing the contents of the museum as being from the past, from faraway, or to be kept and considered for the future (and forever.) The museum maintains a distance between the housed artwork and its audience – preventing the process of mourning and allowing for the denial of the violence and transgressions of war.

How do contemporary artists, creating new art, grapple with this distance required by the museum: the source of their support and credibility? Kolarov formulates two possibilities: one, that artists can choose between denying that the original works they create are connected to or refer to western civilization and its violent practices – in other words – their creations come out of nothing. But in so doing, they eventually have to admit that the work then means and is worth nothing. A second choice is to embrace the museum’s culture of war, even to enhance the attractiveness of violence by connecting it to sex. This option promotes the image of the artist as having a destructive, transgressive character – a distancing devise familiar to those versed in museum culture.

We are now in a time of war. Are there other possible responses besides completely denying our state of war or worse, participating in the insidious hidden-in-plain-sight consequences of war culture? Is it possible for all involved to acknowledge the wrongs and transgressions of our participation in war, to fully mourn the losses of war together as a “civilization,” and to rebuild our collective conscience?

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