PRINT January 1977

Validating Modern Art: The Impact of Museums on Modern Art History

THIS SYMPOSIUM TOOK PLACE IN Los Angeles on June 24, 1975, at the 70th annual meeting of the American Association of Museums (AAM), which has been merged with the U.S. committee for the International Council of Museums (ICOM). Conceived by Maurice Tuchman, Senior Curator of Modern Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, it was supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, matched by funds from the museum’s Modern and Contemporary Art Council and the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Foundation.

The symposium was moderated by Tuchman. The invited panelists were Michael Compton, Keeper of Exhibitions and Education, the Tate Gallery, London; James Demetrion, Director, Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa; E.E. de Wilde, Director, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Werner Hofmann, Director, Kunstmuseum, Hamburg; Pontus Hultén, Director of Visual Arts, Centre Beaubourg, Paris; Thomas M. Messer, Director, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; and Richard Oldenburg, Director, the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The panelists met for two days of discussion in closed meetings. The public sessions took place on July 24th. The following excerpts from the transcripts, edited by Helen M. Franc, represent a synthesis of the discussions and questions from the floor at both sessions, together with a few interpolations taken from the closed meetings.

A more complete version of the symposium will be published next spring by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Tuchman: Let me address directly the central issue that I think has emerged during our private discussions of the past two days. One of our visiting directors hit upon the phrase “cooperation versus collusion,” and I would ask the panelists to describe the problems as they perceive them regarding this loaded subject of the interaction of museums with galleries, with critics, with various power brokers, and with the world of money. I think I’ll ask Tom Messer to start this thorny matter.

Messer: Well, it is thorny indeed, of course. I think we all sit here apprehensively wondering whether we have wittingly or unwittingly colluded in some way, and so I try to imagine what happens, for instance, in a city like New York in regard to this multileveled, simultaneous, and overlapping activity. I don’t want somehow to foreclose the issue by suggesting that collusion is impossible, nor do I want to give the impression that I believe a conspiratorial activity is widespread.

The thing is that the outside world tends to see the art world as a sort of highly organized Mafia with its own godfathers and all that; whereas my daily experience is that the situation is so messy, with everyone running around from one end of the city to another, that there is, so to speak, no secret to be kept. The moment you make an offhand remark at a cocktail party, it’s printed in the New York Times the next day; so there is perhaps an unintentional but nevertheless very effective watchfulness about everything that we do—and I would almost say everything that we think.

Also, I believe that, classically, the conspiratorial notion would have to be based on some delicate arrangement among clearly defined entities, such as museum officials and curators on the one hand, and collectors, critics, dealers, on the other. These could be conceived of as firmly delineated groups who, in the conspiratorial instance, would get together and arrange things for their own benefit, and presumably to the detriment of the public. But the truth is that these borderlines are no longer clearly in evidence. Most people in the art world are more than one thing. It’s common to be a curator/critic, as well as a curator/art historian; it is common to be (careful, now) a curator/collector; there have even been some combinations with the dealing profession, and these of course are more difficult to justify. But the fact is that there is a great deal not only of interpenetration and mutual dependence, which must lead to cooperation, but beyond this, a certain overlapping of functions within the same people. So I would say that all of us carry a collusive potential within our own personalities. This in turn creates such confusion, and such divergence and diversity, that I believe collision is more current than collusion.

Tuchman: Is this lubricating mechanism in evidence at the Museum of Modern Art, Dick?

Oldenburg: Yes, I would agree with what Tom is basically saying. One of the difficulties about selecting anything, in making a decision, whether for an acquisition or for an exhibition, means not selecting someone else; and it’s a built-in fact that you cannot do one thing without disappointing 30 times that number of individuals. We find, in fact, that we have problems at our museum when we try to do a program such as the one we have called our “Projects” series, in which we’re attempting a kind of reportage on work that we think is interesting—not epochal masterpieces, but simply an exploration, so that our public, who may or may not be going to galleries, can have some acquaintance with what is going on that our curators think is of interest. One of the biggest problems we have in doing that is that it is immediately assumed that we have decided the wave of the future. No matter how much we try to get across the idea that this is just a form of reportage, it becomes overemphasized.

The implication is, when we have picked some person, why have we picked him? The answer is often terribly simple; it’s because in the judgment of our curatorial staff, this particular artist is carrying on some very interesting work. Others may be doing as well, and we would hope to show them subsequently. Too often, however, there is an assumption that there’s a special reason, because the artist will have a certain dealer or gallery. In my own experience, these assumptions are not valid. I think that more often the theory primarily is cooperation. The artist is in many ways more important, both as a source of information and as someone carrying things out, than any of the other people grouped around him or who are ostensibly planning his career or our historical development.

Demetrion: Dick, when you say “reportage,” some kind of value judgment has to be exercised, and you have to take quality into account. It’s not just a case of reporting what’s going on.

Oldenburg: No, obviously, it is reportage of what, in our view, has quality. I use the term “reportage” in contrast to the awful assumption that too large a part of our public makes, that anything that is enshrined in the museum, even if just in a brief show of modest proportions, has some kind of direct relationship to the fact that on the second and third floors we have a permanent collection, with acknowledged masterpieces. In fact, however, Alfred Barr said early on in one of his writings: “For God’s sake, please be assured that every work in the museum is not a masterpiece, in fact, most of them are not.” We try to keep this kind of freedom, but the question keeps coming up when we talk about validating art history. We attempt not to do this; I don’t believe anyone here considers that is his function, or his museum’s function. We find too often, however, that in spite of all these protestations, we are assumed to be doing just that.

I think also that there is a built-in problem here between collections and exhibitions. A tidier system would be to have a museum which had only exhibitions and others which just had collections. When you join the two, as our museum traditionally has done, and as most of the museums represented here have done, you get a confusion in people’s minds between the enshrined art and the art you’re trying to present for interest and edification.

Tuchman: I’d like to pick up the idea that at the Museum of Modern Art you don’t wish to validate and ask Edward de Wilde of the Stedelijk if he shares that view. Do you similarly feel a desire not to play this role?

de Wilde: If we are presenting a young artist, then of course it is at the level of the museum’s standards. Another thing is that we often get reproached for being too connected with art dealers, but the artist himself is very often connected with galleries.

Tuchman: Michael, in London the Tate seems charged with special significance in respect to contemporary art. I wonder how you’d handle that question about the desire or lack of desire to influence history.

Compton: I’d like to answer the question in a slightly roundabout manner. The fact is, we are a museum of modern art, and this means that we are forced to represent art as it happens. So the question arises: what is art? You immediately run into a tautology, because art is what artists do, and artists are defined as those people who create art. Leaving aside for a second the question of quality, I would begin by saying that I also do not subscribe to the notion of conspiracy. I think seeking for conspiracies is a peculiarly American custom; at any rate, we in England believe it derives from your admirable and, I think, at least 200-year-old tradition of muckraking journalism.

Our notion of quality derives primarily from artists; it comes directly from the artists. If we want to know what is good, what is springing out of the earth, we go and ask the artists. Secondly, we determine what is good art by the fact that other artists imitate it, and moreover we rely on dealers to do the same thing. So occasionally we have a short circuit of information. We think of dealers, not as a group of people with whom we’re in collusion, but as yet another source of information.

Tuchman: In the expectation that not all of you may feel quite so innocent, I’ll call on Werner Hofmann.

Hofmann: You don’t expect me to talk about conspiracy, I think, because like my other European colleagues on this panel, we really feel in this respect on a somewhat different plane. The way I see it is that the museum—call it a secularized church or an ivory tower or an esthetic cemetery—has basically been conceived as a stabilizing institution, something which preserves and advocates values, standards of taste, and so forth. Now I think the problem, as far as modern and contemporary art are concerned, is that this stabilizing function or ideological etiquette of the museum really doesn’t fit into many artistic currents or ideas of today and yesterday, which in fact try to destabilize values, standards of taste, preconceived ideas of art, and so on.

The opening up, the expansion of the term “art” has grown to such a degree that eventually we just have to agree on the art quality or the art characterization of something that is presented to us as that. I think what we have to do (and now I’m talking about a museum such as ours in Hamburg, which doesn’t have large funds or the possibility of putting together comprehensive, panoramic exhibitions of the contemporary scene) is to try a different approach, an exhibition policy oriented toward the attempt to arrive at a more rational way of questioning quality. Eventually, via invalidation one can arrive at validation, which means that our exhibition concept is very didactic. That doesn’t mean indoctrination; it’s trying to offer various options to the public, so one doesn’t take the notion of quality for granted. My leading idea is that we should not do exhibitions on the “take it or leave it” framework, but rather should try to get the public into the game, into the play of asking questions and learning that a work of art is primarily not an answer, but a challenge to ask questions.

Demetrion: I think that possibly one of the sources for the belief in some kind of collusion or conspiracy is perhaps that some curators or some directors may very strongly and sincerely believe that there is only one true path to enlightenment in art, and programmatically they may schedule exhibitions or make acquisitions along that so-called true path. I see absolutely nothing wrong with that, if that’s the way these people feel. I can’t believe that everyone has a very catholic taste, and some institutions, of course, take on a certain kind of what might be called personality, because of a particular viewpoint. Maybe it is a kind of attempt to cram something down one’s throat. On the other hand, if one deeply believes that this is the direction in which to go, one inevitably finds oneself going back to the same dealers who are involved with it. I think that’s where part of this whole conspiracy attitude has developed.

Tuchman: It’s interesting that as I went around the table and asked our directors what they felt was the single, most important influence upon their decisions, each one answered the same: it is the artists.

Messer: I also think it’s important that if validation is to be at all effective, it cannot be a self-conscious or deliberate act. The idea that one gets up in the morning and determines to validate something in terms of putting a seal of approval upon it simply isn’t possible. That isn’t at all the way it works. Validation, if it takes place at all—and we all believe it does—is a by-product of an activity we consider properly our own. If an institution carries out its program, if it does exhibitions of some importance, if it acquires things out of certain beliefs, if it publishes catalogues that will have a meaning for longer than three weeks—then somehow a validating procedure evolves from this to the extent of the seriousness and solidity of the institution’s own posture. So in a sense it is the historic development that validates the activities of the museums, which then thereby gain added prestige. But once more, validation is not, and cannot be, a deliberate activity. I think it is pretentious to say that we wish to write or rewrite history, or that it is our purpose to establish a rigid pattern on general awareness.

Tuchman: Michael wants to comment on this.

Compton: I want to deal with the general public’s notion that there is a conspiracy, because of course a very large proportion of the public, something like 99.9 percent, simply don’t see contemporary art at all, and therefore they see not merely individual conspiracies, but they regard the whole of contemporary art as a conspiracy. One of the reasons for this is that if one is in the kind of position that all of us are in, whenever we meet anybody outside our own world, they are inclined to ask, “What was your criterion for buying this painting, or putting on this exhibition?” And, of course, you have no way of answering that. To some extent, the longer you talk, the more they imagine you’ve enunciated a criterion, but as a matter of fact there is no such criterion.

On the other hand, the fact is that within the group concerned at all with contemporary art—which Tom Wolfe recently counted as being about 10,000 people, but I think it’s probably more like 100,000, though still it’s very small in proportion to the whole world—there is quite an astounding degree of unanimity among them on what is good, bad, and indifferent. If we individually went into a room and were asked to make our selections out of 200 paintings, I bet you that the correlation between our answers would be incredibly close. Probably the same pictures, because we belong to the same club, of course, but it isn’t conspiracy. This is not to say that there is a hundred percent agreement on the ranking of artists or works of art, but still there is an amazing degree of consistency. I think this arises out of the fact that the field of contemporary art is, so to speak, a subculture, and it validates itself rather in the way, I think, that a religious group validates itself. Also, like a religious group, as has already been said, we’re not seeking to validate individual works or artists finally and for all time, but what we’re setting out to do is proselytize something that we personally feel excited about. To the notion of validation, I would prefer the notion of proselytizing, which as a matter of fact is nothing more than showing enthusiasm for what you like.

At the risk of talking too much, I’d like to say one word about invalidation, and that is, because we belong to the subculture I’ve been describing, I think we also invalidate whole ranges of art. We invalidate, for example, a whole area of academic art, and certainly some artists regard that as being a conspiracy. We invalidate what we regard as kitsch, but we also accidentally invalidate some artists within our own subculture. If, for example, we mistime an exhibition so that it falls, for some reason or other, in an unfortunate period of the artist’s creativity, we can do that artist a great deal of damage.

There is another, more general way in which I think we invalidate art. That is because art is an ongoing and self-generating culture, so the actual meaning of art at any given moment depends on its relationship to the history of art. Therefore, practically every art museum that I know which has a large collection arranges works chronologically, roughly according to isms. I think there is a strong danger that while validating art historically by this process, those members of the public who notice that we’ve done such a thing (which is actually a rather small proportion)—well, I have a nasty feeling that insofar as we succeed, what we do is to present art in such a way that, as you’ll notice if you watch people going around the museum, they will look at each painting for an average of 1.6 seconds. I think when they see a painting, they can hardly be thinking anything but: ah, that’s an example of Cubism; an example of Pre-Raphaelitism; what a nice Mondrian; and so on. They never actually confront the individual painting.

Hilton Kramer: I wonder if the panel is completely satisfied to leave the impression that this subculture you’ve been discussing is completely innocent of any financial, moral, or ethical conflicts of interest. The idea of collusion suggests the lack of a totally disinterested engagement, and that notion was so swiftly swept aside that I think a great many people in this audience think that perhaps it was brushed aside too quickly.

Oldenburg: I would not like to leave the impression that Mr. Kramer seems to have gotten that we have shoved this aside; actually, we’ve spent quite some time discussing aspects of this. I certainly don’t think that anyone at this table would deny that the potential for conflicts of interest exists. As soon as you begin to talk in terms of money, power, authority, you get people who are very deeply engaged, and it means a great deal to them. Of course it’s in the dealer’s interest, it’s in the artist’s interest, the collector’s interest, that a particular artist emerge. Those are pressures one is certainly aware of; any museum director functions in that world. I think that what Tom Messer was trying to say in his initial comment on this was certainly not that these aren’t realities of the world we’re in, but in effect they’re nowhere near as efficient realities as people think they are. I think to an amazing degree the pressures cancel each other out. We’re certainly conscious of them, and we’ve certainly had instances where there may indeed be some question. Perhaps it’s easier for some of us who represent large or prestigious institutions to say that this doesn’t happen in ours. I think we’re all aware of small communities in which a particular group is clearly controlling the museum, and it may indeed be in someone’s interest.

Newton Harrison: I wonder if the panel addressed the idea of complexity. Validation has been talked about a great deal, but choice and the process of choice, I think, need further exploration. For instance, I gather that it is a common experience among all the directors that a curator will make a choice, a committee will then okay it, or not, or modify it; and that there is a complex selection system within the museum determined first by one person and then by a number.

At the same time, the process of selection is going on outside, and this process of selection again is very complex—partly emerging from art talk in general, then made specific by critics’ talk, then perhaps by writing, and then reinforced in one way or another by collectors, so that finally some rough consensus or agreement is arrived at. I’d like the panel to address the idea of the ponderousness of this operation: whether they think it’s too ponderous, and whether choice and selection can operate outside of this context.

Messer: The museum is in itself, as you pointed out, a highly complex organism. The notion that we always know very clearly what we are going to do, and that the result is a mirror of our intentions, is quite false. The museum is an institution which can really only deal with, shall I say, sensuous values—with surfaces and forms that, under certain circumstances, do illuminate somewhat accidentally a situation of the present or the past.

Let me take a moment to divide somewhat schematically the expected intentions or aspirations of the different people that make up a museum. They vary widely. A trustee (and I’m attributing to this group stock attitudes, which again is not quite true, but in order to make a point, let me simplify)—a typical trustee, if he is not a collector, is usually somebody for whom this entire question of art quality, art value, and so on, is as mysterious as to anyone outside the art world. He has different objectives. What are they? Philanthropic, educational; he does wish to feel that many people should understand the activity going on in the institution, and he also likes the clinking of money at the gate, because the more people are educated, the better for the idea—and also for the budget. So that I would say that education and financial concerns function on this level most typically. On the other side of the spectrum, the curator (and again I admit exceptions) has other aspirations. Normally, the public is somewhat distant to him. He comes out of school and is still in the habit of wishing to please his professors; if not his professors, his colleagues. Gradually he gets into this new world where critics, dealers, and of course artists become his friends, and he or she has to please them. Pleasing means listening, it means being guided.

Then carry this back into the museum, where the director usually has the unfortunate assignment of harmonizing these contrary points of view, and as Michael Compton pointed out, first of all throwing out three-quarters of the recommendations that come from them, then debating it a little further with the trustees, cutting it down a little further, and eventually coming up with something. That is perhaps ponderous, but usually, in reality—at least in my experience—it involves very few people who trust each other and who come to some decision that is based on conviction, passion, personality, and possibility.

Hofmann: We should not be promoting artists or tendencies in the Hegelian spirit, as if they were absolutes: this had to happen, these people were delegates of the Holy Ghost, and we are their agents. I think we should indicate that our options, like those of the artist, are sometimes more or less the result of arbitrary decisions.

Oldenburg: I think that point is very valid, but the problem we all have, or certainly that the Museum of Modern Art has, is that it’s not we who impose the Hegelian view, but our public that actually wants to recognize it as the Hegelian view. Whenever we put on shows in our special “Projects” series, we try as best we can in every press release to make clear that these are simply explorations, and that we are trying to show various ongoing currents. No matter what we say or do, we are told that we have picked this artist as the most important next development and are imposing this on the public, or the public believes that is what we have concluded. When we have these exploratory shows, the public is in fact extremely irritated when we say, no, this isn’t the greatest artist we’ve discovered in our lives. Their reaction is, “Then, why are you showing him? We assume that when we come into your museum, you’re showing us the greatest artists.”

Messer: In other words, the notion of validation is, in general, not one that museums seek. It is imposed upon us and is one with which we are stuck.

Compton: That’s right. It’s not that the function of the museum is to validate art, it’s that the function of art is to validate the museum; and the function of our activities—acquisitions, exhibitions, publications—is actually to validate the careers of the curators and directors.

Going back to what Werner said, the fact is that when we buy works of art, we naturally say, is it good? Is it worth the money? Is it typical? Is it representative? And so forth. So we are making judgments which in their nature have to do with validation. At the same time, I think that even a museum of modern and contemporary art is essentially an archaeological museum. Even the latest picture we buy is at least a day old, and usually several years old, and so it is in fact a piece of archaeological detritus, archaeological evidence.

The fact is that I think we all, in most museums of modern art, set about collecting examples of this, examples of that, examples of a movement, examples of an artist or of a period of an artist, exactly as if we were collecting beakers or mesolithic axes or something, where one object stands for another. But actually what we are collecting is, of course, individual works of art. No two are alike, yet, in a sense, you’re buying examples to validate a series. I find that a paradoxical and rather horrifying notion, and yet in this business there is absolutely no alternative. That is the nature of a museum of art, in fact, seen as an historical collection. The function of a museum collection is, on the one hand, to provide an assorted number of experiences, individual experiences for individual people, whether for pleasure or hurt, for new perceptions, and so on, and in that sense, of course, you can’t collect examples. But on the other hand, we invariably tend to hang our museums in rooms by isms and container systems of one kind or another, as if they hung together as an archaeological system of values.

Hilton Kramer: The question that Newton Harrison raised really hasn’t been answered, and I’m going to take the liberty of rephrasing it, if I understand it properly. To what extent is it possible for an artist outside of what Mr. Compton accurately describes as a subculture to gain access to the subculture without playing a game that might be repugnant to him?

Compton: May I answer the question briefly? The subculture consists, within itself, primarily of talk as well as of exhibiting things, and leaving aside the question of how the new artist’s work actually becomes visible, the question then remains, how does he actually get included in the subculture? I think this happens by a very simple process of somehow extrapolating the terminology that has become jargon and conventional in dealing with work within the culture, to the work which is outside the culture.

But I think it also raises another question, and that is whether we should actually attempt to include everything in our subculture. It seems to me that there are works of art that can potentially or actually be damaged by being included. There are many artists who wish, for good reasons or bad, to destroy institutions like our own; there are many artists who wish to destroy not only our little institutions, but the whole social system, wholesale. It has often been said that we may actually be destroying that kind of art by somehow or other extending our categories of art to cover it and include it in our collection.

Claire Spark: In the light of this, does any one of the panelists care to reflect upon the career of Hans Haacke and how the coitus interruptus of his shows at the Guggenheim and in Germany might challenge some of the claims made by the panelists concerning the lack of interference, outside of curators or artists, in this decision of who gets shown, and whose exhibitions are completed?

Messer: I don’t know if the audience here is sufficiently informed about this matter, so I’ll restate it. A few years ago, Hans Haacke, a German artist residing in New York, came to my attention through the interest of my curator Edward Fry. We looked at his work, I was intrigued by certain things I had seen, and we decided to give him a show. Haacke’s work at that time consisted of what he called “systems.” There were mineral systems, for instance, the change of water from one state to another; there were botanical systems, groups of plants and their development. After we had agreed upon the exhibition, I found, to my increasing horror, that there were also social systems, which I was unaware of initially.

The social system that Hans Haacke meant to add to the exhibition was an exposé of the slumlord system in New York. He proposed to show through models, photographs, and other things, the juxtaposition of highly desirable residences with slums, and draw attention to the reason why this inequality prevails, and who the people were who were causing it. His insistence was not only to show, as the work of art, the different visual manifestations, but to attach to them the names of the owners with their affiliations, their addresses, and so on. In other words, it was not only a general social attack, but specific and particular. Needless to say, we had strenuous discussions of this subject within and without the museum—with staff, lawyers, everybody; and I came to the difficult conclusion that we should not do this, that we would be unable to control the extra-artistic consequences that this kind of a specific attack against individuals, within a museum not organized for that purpose, might invite. Now, I know there are very different views, and I have been much criticized for this, and also much supported; but that is what happened.

Dora Brooking: It seems to me that the root of the conspiracy and collusion theory might be that the general public feels alienated from the art of our own time, and I would like to hear some comments from the panel about why they feel the public is so alienated.

Compton: Well, Edward de Wilde has said that a survey found that only about 2 percent of the working class had ever been in his museum; in our museum, it’s about 15 percent, but then we define the classes differently. As I have said, art is something that goes on within, and takes its meaning from, a comparatively limited class of people. At the same time, most artists (and I think in this respect they fall rather behind architects, who feel this even more strongly) hope and expect to change the whole of the universe and the face of the world by changing people’s perception of the world. But as a matter of fact—particularly in the 20th century, I think—the emphasis on art history and the kind of museum we’re describing arose out of the notion of dividing art up into historical periods.

Almost every process that we’ve been describing conduces to the notion of evaluating art in terms of originality. We tend to buy a work of art which we see as taking a step in art history, and therefore I think we reinforce what is, of course, essential to the notion of being an artist, namely the notion of originality. I think that all countries of the Western world, at any rate, need artists rather in the same way as they need lunatics and criminals, to define themselves as sane. I think artists to some extent go along with this; that is to say, they wish to do what other people do not regard as reasonable. In the past, this has often been focused as an attack on the bourgeoisie; but of course it means that when the museums, dealers, critics, and everybody else that has been mentioned become involved in it, they are constantly forcing the pace of innovation in art. Every time a museum, by means of an exhibition, or a critic, by means of a long article, defines the state of art at the moment, it’s an open invitation for artists to turn that on its head in order to keep ahead. Artists on the whole, I think, rather despise critics and museums, and therefore one of the main strategies they have is to keep at least two jumps ahead of them. They are simply determined to keep ahead of everybody else, and that is the reason for the gap in public understanding.

As I may have said already, we try to explain art to the public mainly by showing the historical process. I think it’s a fact that all of us who are at least slightly to the left of center worry about trying to bring more and more working-class people into the museum. Yet I think it’s the case that, among all the classes and subcultures within the main structure of society, it’s the working-class people who are the least responsive to the historical notion. I have a personal reason for thinking this.

My wife used to teach art history and complementary studies to nurses, aircraft apprentices, and so on, in a technical college. She began by trying to teach them art history, but after a while she found that it was more useful to teach them how to buy a house, how to get an abortion, and that kind of thing, because it was more relevant to their lives. Before doing this, however, she discovered that—in England, at any rate—the working-class or lower-middle-class people with whom she was dealing had in their minds only three historical concepts. They were the modern, roughly the lifetime of the people concerned; there was a period called Victorian, which ended in 1945 and began in approximately 400 A.D.; and there was a period of pre-history, which ended, roughly speaking, with the Romans, but included things like dinosaurs and trilobites and so forth, so that nobody would have been in the least surprised if Julius Caesar had ridden a dinosaur into whatever battles he fought. Therefore, our attempts to elaborate historical notions and try to justify art by showing that at the moment this painting was produced, so-and-so was inventing the steam locomotive, or whatever, simply goes over the heads of people. But I don’t know how to solve this problem, because I do believe the notion of history is absolutely integral to the notion of art as we understand it.

Hultén: I think, of course, that one of the reasons one goes to a museum is that one is educated, but I’m not sure that education necessarily helps to cover the gap in understanding. The reason why working-class people don’t go to museums is one of the most debated issues in the museum world; I think that clearly one of the reasons is that it just isn’t among the habits of the working class to go to museums.

Hofmann: Well, I’ll tell you a short story of something that happened when I did a film for television last year, which dealt with the interpretation of art as it might be comprehended in first, second, or other degrees. We started this film with a confrontation. We took one of Duane Hanson’s trompe l’oeil figures that looks like a living person out of the museum context, out of the museum in Aachen, and took her into a department store in front of the museum. It happened that she was a lady shopping with a basketful of goods, and the television people asked others in the crowd at the department store how they felt about her. They were amused at this strange lady who didn’t respond to them. But when the question was raised, would you expect this phenomenon in the museum (which is a museum entirely devoted to contemporary art, 80 percent of it American), everybody said no; no, this should never be shown in a museum. The assumption is that certain things should not go into the sanctuary of a museum. The concept of a museum, which we are partly responsible for, is still that of a place where eternity unfolds, and we are the guardians of these relics.

On the other hand, in this film we continued with something which has been added to Mme Tussaud’s in Amsterdam; there, you can see a very famous Dutch painter, Karel Appel, in his working battledress. In Mme Tussaud’s cabinet of outstanding human beings and achievements, he is illustrating the historical moment of action painting. Wax figures, wax portraits, and so on have a long art historical tradition going back at least to the Renaissance. But people today would not admit something like the Appel, which was done by an anonymous manufacturer, into a museum; and ’they also would not admit a work by Duane Hanson, because their conception of museum art is a terribly limited and restricted one. As long as we don’t break or dismantle this construct, we’ll always have what you call alienation.

Helen Harrison: I’m very interested in what you’re doing in terms of outreach beyond the normal public who come into the museum. Werner Hofmann talked about putting a Duane Hanson in a department store, and I’m interested in what other kinds of methods or approaches you have to reach the public that doesn’t normally belong to the subculture.

Tuchman: I’m trying to find the angle this question has vis-à-vis validating modern art. Let me put it this way: are outreach programs involved in the validation process, and if so, would anyone care to comment on that?

Compton: Well, actually we’re forbidden by law to do anything outside the Tate Gallery. However, in recent years we have done a series of things that you might think of as exhibitions but which are more in the nature of games, taking to heart the pedagogic notion that by physically involving people in the arts, they come to be involved intellectually, in terms of feeling, and so forth. But as a matter of fact, although these have been a huge success in themselves, I don’t think we have found that they ever connect up with what we think of as the core of art.

Hofmann: I can relate a common experience, one that I share with some other museum colleagues in Germany, or let’s say in Central Europe, and that is whenever you start doing outreach in the conventional way, by transporting works of art for exhibition into areas beyond the sanctuary of a museum into the profane world, then people may perhaps respond to this challenge. Leger once said that exhibiting his works in factories in Paris gave him a very strange and eventually very disappointing experience. At first, when his prints were shown in the canteen, people were sort of flabbergasted, stunned, and laughed about it. Then this reaction cooled down, and two weeks later they had gotten used to it, but to such a degree that they didn’t even care about it anymore; they just continued in their usual way. So I think this really doesn’t work so far. There could be other examples, and somebody could prove me wrong, but by transporting works of art out of the museum space, even if it works in other parts of the community, in parts of the town not gratified with museums, eventually people will get to see this particular exhibition, but you will never get new visitors to your museum. They perhaps respond to this unique effort, but you don’t get a new link between that and the other things that you are doing.

Compton: I think that visitors to the museum validate art in a statistical way, either by attending or by staying away. With an average exhibition, certainly in our case, the attendance begins slowly, goes up when everybody reads the Sunday papers, and then it slowly descends; then there’s a little spurt at the end when everybody realizes that the show is about to close. And there’s another kind of exhibition where attendance grows by word of mouth. Therefore, it’s obvious that in certain instances there is a form of validation of art that has nothing to do with any of the people in the in-groups at all and is virtually democratic. Afterwards, this may greatly affect the museum people. The recent Turner exhibition, for example, is a case that comes immediately to mind. Although we at the Tate had been sitting on all those pictures for quite a while, we’ve changed the manner in which we’re displaying them, the quantity we have on view, etc. I think we certainly wouldn’t be doing our duty if we didn’t listen to the public at all, and I think it’s absurd to imagine that we don’t.

So in the case of professionals concerned with art, the museum people, critics, dealers, artists, it’s not a conspiracy, but it is a mutually supporting thing; whereas the public’s validation is almost totally independent, because they simply can’t understand the language we use when we talk about works of art. Even our lecturers go around the museum talking about tension, composition, and so on, but the average member of the public literally doesn’t even know what you mean by “the composition of a picture,” and the terms we use in attempting to validate a picture simply go over their heads. So there’s quite another criterion for validation. And I think, too, that there are many people that we recognize as great artists who, until they’re validated within our community, we probably wouldn’t dream of showing, because we recognize that there would be no public response.

Hofmann: We never can tell what makes an exhibition a success. The result is always surprising.

Messer: It’s always surprising, and also it works on many levels. There are critical successes, succès d’estime, with minimal public attention; and then there are public successes in which you get critical comments which you don’t wish to contemplate. In other words, you have a public success, but you know, or the people who are most important to you do not agree, that it is important. So the success is qualified. You have various combinations of these; you have critical and public failures together, and once in a while you have a critical and public success, which is kind of nice.

Oldenburg: Sometimes a show isn’t a success at all until it’s remembered wrongly 10 years later. Some great shows at the Museum of Modern Art were not so great at the time.

Compton: Is a show a success or a failure if it changes what artists do? If you do a show picking up a new thing, or even an historical exhibition, and suddenly it leads to artists doing another kind of thing—I don’t know whether you’ve done something good or bad.

Demetrion: Well, you’ve contributed to their knowledge.

Hofmann: I want to stress again the parallel between the artists’ situation and our own. Just as each artist is in a specific situation, so our situation, whether in Los Angeles or Bologna or anywhere else, is unique. That’s another difference between us and scientific or archaeological museums, I think.

I might also mention something which perhaps already belongs a bit to the past, to the late ’60s, and that is that some of us have tried, or at least conceived of the idea, even if it was not completely brought into realization, that one of the activities of the museum might also be to bring works of art into existence. Sometimes we have the feeling that there is an artist whose work is pointing toward some consequence that he couldn’t yet realize, perhaps because he didn’t have the money or the premises or whatever. There we can really prospect actively.

Tuchman: That’s an implicit way of validating, because you’re picking certain people and excluding others.

Hultén: Validating, and at the same time you share in the risk of failure, much more so when you take this chance. The museum’s share in the artist’s result is much bigger, either toward failure or toward the possibility of success.

Compton: Yes, you make your reputation on the exhibitions you make, the way you present them, whether or not you happen to have chosen the right artist at the right time, and in certain circumstances that means finding the new great artist just when he’s emerging. I must say I personally don’t like that, although I suppose it would be nice to look back and turn the pages of history and see that you’ve discovered all these lovely artists.

You can write art history just as much about Andrew Wyeth as about whoever you name, can’t you?

de Wilde: Well, I think that the public, in any case, is not looking for art history in a museum.

Compton: But they’ll recognize it if you put it there at all, that’s what’s so strange.

Messer: I think there’s always something terribly pretentious about the deliberate act of making history, not only in museums, but also in politics, for instance. Most great statesmen, although they may have a historical perspective, don’t get up in the morning and make history. They make such decisions as the situation requires. If they are great, and if these decisions accumulate and reveal a broad awareness, then they might become history afterwards. I think for a museum, even a museum of modern art, to set out to make history is, to put it mildly, pretentious. Now that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t end up having made some history, to the degree of the seriousness and solidity and validity of their judgments. But I don’t think that we deliberately validate at all, although it depends a bit how we use this word. If you go out and buy a painting, you’re not validating, you are responding to something that speaks to you, and you wish to convey this to others; and hopefully this will eventually accumulate into a sequence that will have some meaning.

Compton: As a matter of fact, though, history can’t validate anything. I mean, by writing history, you can’t validate Napoleon; you simply try to put a construct on a series of events. If you try to convert people to modern art, I’ve found it really doesn’t matter much what you tell them, provided you tell them with conviction. You can use historical terms, you can use terms of art appreciation, you can use political terms, and it doesn’t seem to matter all that much.

I think there’s a particular aspect to that problem. I think that nearly everybody who works in museums in contemporary art belongs more or less to the left, some to the extreme left, depending from what point of view you look at it. Certainly in English political terms, I think that about 99 percent of the people who work in art museums, at least labor shall we say, now we are all obsessed—not obsessed, that’s going too far—we all frequently worry about the class structure of the people who come to the museum. I worry about it, and I think that some of the rest of ’us do.

Hofmann: Sometimes we do an exhibition with a didactic concept. But by didactic, I don’t mean just something which gives us an opportunity to display our ideas as art historians—to show this happens because a precedent happened, and so, going back, everything has an inherent logic.

When we did our Fuseli exhibition, I made two didactic documentations, one showing how the essentials of Fuseli’s innovations reemerge a hundred years later in Munch, brought up again on the level of vanguard art, high art, or, if you like, elitist art; and that another trend of his, the Superman, with all the very outspoken attitudes of Batman and so on, survives in the subculture of the comics. We made parallels showing that what looks to us in Fuseli like something highly academic and manneristic, which can only be explained in art historical jargon, has been abandoned in contemporary art but survives in the subculture, where people in the comics are still using the same patterns and also the same idea of the Superman. This is completely outside the art historical framework, but I’m sure it has a certain appeal to the young people, because they respond to these comics; but the bourgeois public did not respond to it at all. What does such an experience teach? That one can split up a coherent personality and show it on different levels, including all those which are very familiar to anybody who knows nothing whatever about art history. The problem is, of course, how do we get these people to see it; and if they understand the parallel between Fuseli and the comics, does this really help them to appreciate Fuseli?

Tuchman: I see that Dr. Jonas Salk has come; I wonder if I can intrude upon him to comment upon any of the different lines we have been developing?

Dr. Salk: I wonder what you perceive the shape of things to be in the future, with the restrictions that are being imposed upon you by limited funds. Will you be guardians of mausoleums, or will the museum have to transform into some other kind of an instrument that has a much more living quality? I believe that some kind of metamorphosis is inevitable in all aspects of life in the period ahead, and I would be curious to hear some observations about what you perceive the future of the museum to be, and what you perceive the relationship of art to people to be, more than or beyond the performance of the museum, including the museum in the life of the people. I say that because of my belief that art is essential for life and is as much a necessity as other things that we regard as more obviously necessary.

Tuchman: I’m going to ask Werner Hofmann to relate the extra-artistic concerns, which I know are very much on his mind, to Dr. Salk’s comments.

Hofmann: I think that we, the museum people, are faced with various dilemmas. On the one hand, as de Wilde pointed out in his concise survey, the museum came into existence at the very moment when artistic creativity was somewhat lost in the social framework. Some new justification had to be created, and the result was the museum, which became the shrine, the ivory tower, or whatever; the place which is considered as the symbol for a set of values, of objects admitted for certain standards of taste, and this place is open to all those who respond to that set of values, which is determined by society in conjunction with the so-called experts.

But again I would say that what happened about 200 years ago, this vision of art liberating itself from any social, religious, or other obligations, turned into the contrary. Even those artistic movements which tried to get rid of the esthetic dictatorship of the museum were eventually received by museums, hailed by museum directors, so the artist him self is confronted with the dilemma. Should he go into the open, mundane space and forget about the solid and somewhat protective area of the museum? Can he expose himself outside the museum? Or is the museum the safest place for his experiences, so that even if he feels somewhat amputated, at least he can do a little bit of what he has in mind, and he has some assurance that this will survive in material terms; it will not be destroyed as long as the destructive powers in our society stop in front of the museum doors.

But I think this sort of amputation is really a very regrettable phenomenon, because if we try to oppose the artistic currents of the past, which are governed by esthetic frameworks, and if we try to expand the notion of art to include even antiart and art that is trying to overcome the narrow-minded definition of art, then one must ask, what’s the use of the museum? On the other hand, an opening up of the kind that happened with the Constructivists, the Surrealists, the Dadaists, all this sort of new, fresh outlook on man’s greatest abilities and instincts can only develop on a free ground. This is also the reason why the public does not and cannot realize that there is a separation between the professionals in the consecrated museum area, and the others, with the whole impact of human creativity; and in this respect I think we are not much better off than our society was two or three hundred years ago. I feel this problem very strongly, and the dilemma that the more we try to get vital experiences into our museums, the more we prevent those experiences from developing, from going in directions which eventually would make the museum an obsolete institution.

Michael Blankfort: It doesn’t surprise me to hear Mr. Compton talk about his friends getting together and having a 90 percent agreement as to the quality of a work of art, when most, if not all of you, and most of us in the alleged elite, have all had the same kind of training. We’ve all read the same books, we’ve seen the same pictures, we’ve heard the same ideas; and somehow in our reflections, despite what words we use, we are living within a rigid structure of thinking.

One of the questions Dr. Salk suggested—and to me perhaps the most important question—is: can we break, and do we dare to break, the rigid structure of our past and conceive in ways that I’m certainly not capable of at this moment; do we dare risk an examination of the museum in the social order? I’m not talking about the Soviet social order, but the social order of which the ground swells are already moving us in ways beyond our reckoning. But if we continue to teach, as many of us have taught in the past, in terms of the past, in terms of what has been, in terms of museum responsibility within itself, without considering the needs and demands of a new social order that is coming, then I think we will end up with archaeology. Our museums will be fortified repositories of ancient works which may be lifeless.

Messer: I do want to respond to this. I’m interested in the notion of the structure-breaker, but I question very much that museums are suitable instruments for this. They are so deeply imbedded in the social structure, in the status quo, that they are not likely to do what you would ask them to do. The ideal structure-breaker has always been the artist, not the institution that follows the artist. The artist, of course, has the interesting power to modify the institution which reflects him. If I were to make a guess, I would say, don’t look to us to be the pathfinders of new social structures. Look to the artist, who has done this ever since things have been created, and by doing so has formed constellations and images which, in turn, have affected and modified the institutions.

Hultén: Well, I would agree with that. The fear that museums will become archaeological heaps of dead or uninteresting art is far off; I don’t think it’s real. There is a big difference between the museums of the 19th century and present-day museums. The old conception of the museum was that one takes things that have lost their meaning or their proper surroundings, in the palace or the church or wherever they were first meant for, and where they can no longer be preserved, and so one transfers them to a museum. That’s the old definition. The new modern museum doesn’t function like that at all.

First of all, the artist thinks right away of the museum as being the ideal place for his work. Secondly, I think the museums can become places of creation in different ways. The question of how the new museums will try to look, try to be, seems to me very ambiguous and doubtful. Obviously, to break down the walls around the museum, to diminish the distance between the museum and life, is very important. On the other hand, the museum specifically has a value in the sense that, for example, it’s nice that it’s relatively calm. It has an atmosphere of condensation of strong emotional and sensorial qualities. Radical work can play off very well against these somewhat serene surroundings. I also happen to think personally that museums are very sexy places; they have a very strong concentration of sensorial values.

For the new center we are building, one of the basic ideas is that people will not go for only one thing. If they go to see a film in the Cinémathèque, they might end up in the library instead, because the film hasn’t arrived; or perhaps if they came to listen to a concert and found the hall was full, they would go to the museum. They would pick up a new habit and a new interest that way; and more interesting, obviously, is that this reaction between different sorts of sensibilities creates new and rather subtle, but very basic, reflections and inferences, which are sometimes, I think, and can be, more than the single elements. I think there should be some walls around the museums, but they should be much lowered, and also some very important, basic hindrances should be removed.

Jim Woods: I’d like to make a comment in terms of my feelings about the discussion here today. There’s been a tendency to accept the methods of validation or the tools or instruments of validation, which from what I’ve heard have been the directors of museums, curators, dealers, collectors, and very little public validation. I think that we haven’t really focused on the question of public validation at all. So therefore I would like to ask: are we accepting our methods of validation as the gospel? Is it possible now to begin to look at new methods of validation and try to come up with a new network of validation in which the public plays a vital role?

Oldenburg: Museums are not the best place in which to see things; they’re compromises. I think almost anyone would agree that the really much better way to come to know a work of art is to live with it, whether you own it or whether it’s on loan to you. Whenever you can live with it and get used to it, you see depths in it that you certainly don’t see when you go through a museum and spend two minutes in front of a picture and read the wall label or whatever. Those are simply devices by which it’s possible to collect and preserve the pictures so you can show them potentially to the largest public possible, because if they were in everyone’s living room one would never have a chance to see them. It’s an imperfect device and, as we all know when we visit museums ourselves, your eyes finally get tired, there are too many impressions to study anything very carefully, and there’s a limit to what you can take in.

All of us worry terrifically—in fact, I think it’s probably the worry that we all have—trying to figure out how we can best intelligently reach a broader public. Because if you really care very deeply about art, the whole concept of the museum is that you have something to communicate, you have something that you feel more people could come to share if you gave them the opportunity. I think in one of our discussions Michael called it a disease you hope you can communicate. We all see the attempts to do this, and find them terribly unsatisfactory, and we’re trying to find new ways. There is nothing more depressing to a museum director than to see troops of children being marched through the halls, supposedly having a great experience. I really just want to grab the last kid in line and keep him for awhile when they’ve all gone away, and try to say something to him about it. You do try to work through the teachers, and we try to figure out what to do with our audiences. It’s a major concern. The Museum of Modern Art was really founded with exactly the idea that if people were only shown these works, given the opportunity to see them, they would begin to have some feeling for, and some experience of, art. I really believe that this is not as hopeless as it sounds.

I’d like to think that the Museum of Modern Art had a great deal to do simply with the immense improvement you see in the quality of signs in the streets, on buildings, on architecture—all of that. This is the ideal way for work to be coming out of the museum; not simply by holding onto it, but extending it.

Jim, about the question you raised as to who validates art; it’s a very difficult one. Obviously, if you talk about public validation in terms of popularity, you get into very serious problems. If you could, by audience analysis, establish some criterion and then were to apply it, not only to art but to other fields like music, dance, and so on, you would get into the hopeless question of where quality lies and what the standards are. I admit there’s a public component, certainly; I can’t imagine carrying things so far as simply deciding that what Michael calls the subculture of museum people, artists, dealers, critics, collectors, really knows everything, and it doesn’t matter what the public says.

On the other hand, I can’t imagine that you could simply believe that what this subculture thinks and believes, or has tried by training and a good eye and so forth to develop, has precisely no more importance than what people can respond to immediately. We all know that almost invariably, if you are looking at two pictures, the one that is most easily comprehended and that you have the most immediate reaction to will almost always (assuming some level of comparability) prove to be the one that wears less well, that is less interesting, that you can delve into less deeply.

Demetrion: Let me add to the above that the first year I was in Des Moines, I was at a cocktail party with a would-be politician. I was all set to vote for her, when we got into a discussion about this very matter, and it was her recommendation that the membership of the museum vote on every single acquisition. We got into a rather heated debate, and the gist of what I was saying was that, as far as I was concerned, I hoped I had not spent all of my years of training and experience simply to be in effect just a vote counter.

Hultén: I think that it’s a crucial problem, but I think it is fundamental to say that if you regard the modern museum as a place where you inform people about new art, there is simply no way for the public to know what they want to see, just because the art is new. Only the very few people whose specialty it is to deal with that new art can know anything about it; so it’s really like in science or whatever; there are special groups who deal with what’s coming up, and they do this in very close conjunction with the artists. As far as I can see, for new art, that is the only way.

Compton: Of course, in any society or in the world generally, there are many other forms of art, which are likewise validated internally by groups of people involved with them. Some of these forms of art are called sports, for example. There are art forms which involve motor cars, airplanes—almost every activity is, or can be, perceived in an esthetic way, or in a manner which is equivalent to our esthetic manner. So I see no reason why we shouldn’t be primarily concerned with our own subculture, and just try to spread it a little bit.

I’d like to say one other thing. The fact of the matter is that all our museums are fairly close to saturation with visitors already. We could possibly double or triple the number of visitors who come each year, but if we were to multiply it much beyond that, It simply wouldn’t be possible to see anything. What we’re really concerned about, I think, is not so much increasing the sheer statistical number of people who visit the museum, because in any case we could never, of course, bring everybody in the country into museums regularly enough to know what it was all about and respond to it. But it is true that we are bothered by the fact that not only is ours a subculture, but that it’s a subculture which is closely and, in my opinion, too closely, allied to a class system; it corresponds in much too close a way to the highly educated, and therefore somewhat richer, if not much richer than average, members of society. I think we wonder how we can get a much wider range of people into the museums, in the hope that they themselves will spread by contagion the obsession and perceptions concerned with works of art; because in fact you can catch the appreciation of works of art as much from your friends and the people you meet as you do from the works of art themselves.

Peter Plagens: The large question is, how do you perceive yourselves in relation to your public? Are you more progressive than the public you address yourselves to, or do you have some great fears that you might be some kind of reactionary elite, and that the public out there might be a little more progressive, a little more third-worldly, left wing, etc.; and that it’s moving on without you?

I have another question I would address to Mr. Oldenburg. I’d like to hear him say a couple more sentences about something he touched on, which is, how the hell do you act when you know that every move has this crushing weight of history behind it? Every time the Museum of Modern Art moves, it creates the history it’s supposed to be documenting. Just as an example, there is a pre-Museum of Modern Art Brice Marden, and then there is a post-Museum of Modern Art Marden; he suddenly becomes an historical entity, you know, which is much different from the one you began with. Since you touched on that, I just want to hear what it’s like moving with all that weight on your back.

Hilton Kramer: It’s the same weight that you carry writing for Artforum; how do you do it?

Oldenburg: Since the question was addressed to me, I’ll try to answer it. What are you supposed to do? Is the museum supposed to be doing its damnedest to select, to show what its curators believe is the best quality of work being done? Those of you who saw the reviews of the Caro show know that we were slammed by Hilton Kramer for in effect deciding that Mr. Caro is the greatest sculptor of our time; whereas, it actually was a show where, in fact, the curator, who was presenting the show really does believe that Caro is one of the most important figures, but that was suddenly taken as something that was wrong of him to believe—that we were overselling, that we were announcing a new dictum. It was not our intention. Or are you supposed not to do that for fear that you’ll be raising one artist’s reputation above another artist’s reputation? You have no choice. It’s a fallout that happens, whether it’s an article in Artforum, whether it’s a good review of a show, or whether it’s an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. That’s the only way we can function. One of the things that’s rather distasteful is that some of the fallout, when it becomes the social aspect or anything of that sort, can be a problem, but basically, there’s no way to deal with that. You show what you think is the best work. If, as a result of a show, the artist’s reputation is enhanced by it—well, if you were right, it’s properly enhanced by it. What other way can you function?